As we approach Christmas here at Come Gather Eat we couldn’t believe our good fortune when we spun the wheel of the random country generator last week. We had friends over to make Somalian Sambusas with us and we anticipated that this would be our last bit of international cooking before the flurry of holiday hubbub began. But as we stood around our counter and found out the next country, there was no way I was waiting until after New Years to bring you tales from Svalbard and Jan Mayen.
Svalbard, my friends, is the closest permanent population to the North Pole. I mean, how could I not bring you a recipe from Santaland days before the jolly man himself comes to town? So over the last few days we dove into what life on Svalbard is like. After a few consults with Google, we learned that the United Nations gives Svalbard it’s own designation but to us there are still some blurry lines about whether or not it counts as a part of Norway. As we started looking into it, it became clear that the politics of what makes a country a country are complicated. Anyone really up to date on Norwegian politics? Enlighten me, I’m still a bit confused. Jan Mayen is a volcanic island in the Arctic that is home to some military and a bunch of scientists but the island lacks a permanent settlement.
There isn’t much on the island of Svalbard, but one thing it holds is the Global Seed Vault. Nestled deep in a mountain, where mother nature acts as a permanent freezer, there are 986,000 species of seeds being stored in case a natural or man-made disaster wipes out a variety of crops. The vault has the capacity to store up to 4.5 million varieties at 500 seeds per variety, meaning that the vault can hold 2.5 billion seeds. We toyed with the idea of making whatever food we wanted to from Svalbard, arguing that the country is actually home to almost everything we eat. But we decided to get in touch with these polar people and make something that they actually consume instead of just store for the world. Sounds like they eat a lot of reindeer meat. West Michigan doesn’t supply much of that. We found elk and antelope, but specific Svalbard reindeer was not available. And we are pretty sure that Santa would not be too happy if we grilled up his friends for dinner. So this week we bring you a Christmasy dessert.
We made Lingonberry Mousse. A lingonberry is a berry that is native to the Arctic tundra. Not a whole lot grows up there, but these little berries are hearty and are not afraid of a little snow. We were excited to find Lingonberry jam in the international section of our local grocery store. The recipe is simple, one egg white, lingonberry jam, salt, and vanilla then you whip it for 5-8 minutes until firm peaks form. The mousse tasted how I imagine the snow might taste at the North Pole. Lite and airy with a hint of Christmas. It is incredibly fluffy and the flavor was subtle but present. We’ve decided that it is the perfect pairing for dark chocolate and a bit of homemade whipped cream.
After listening to a podcast about life on Svalbard, I continued to think about one thing the podcaster said. The 2,500 people who live in Svalbard all really want to be there, because if they didn’t, they either wouldn’t survive or would hop back to the mainland as fast as they could. So what they are left with is this beautiful community where everyone is really happy to be just where they are. Wouldn’t that be something if this holiday season whether you are surrounded by family or friends or doing your own solo thing, we could find a way, for a few moments anyway, to be happy just where we are? I know the holidays don’t bring joy for everyone. They can be painful times with memories of lost loved ones, broken relationships, jealousy, anger and frustration for the lives we imagine but don’t always get to live. I’m not trying to minimize any heartache this season, those feelings are real and should be acknowledged. But I would challenge that everyone has something that brings them joy. A pet, a craft project, a baby in a manger, a phone call with a special person, or maybe just a really good cookie. All I’m asking is that we take time to live into the joy this Christmas and try to be happy just where we are.
This year instead of cookies and milk we’ll be leaving Santa a bit of Lingonberry mousse to remind him of home as he travels the world. Merry Christmas!