Within the Arctic Circle between 74° and 81° north lies Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, one of Europe’s last great wildernesses halfway between the top of Europe and the North Pole. It is 55% covered by glaciers and even after 400 years is home to fewer than 3000 people in an area roughly the size of Ireland. Making it all the more remarkable that a mere 1000 km from the North Pole, there is a wide range of exciting culinary experiences.
Not only nature attracts tourists to Svalbard, so does our wide range of culinary experiences. As this sign from the walking tour of Longyearbyen discusses.
The climate, location and wildlife of Svalbard are unique and provide the basis for gastronomical adventures utilizing locally produced food and beverages and the memorable stories behind them. In the main settlement of Longyearbyen, there are 14 restaurants in addition to cafes, kiosks and bars. There are also eateries in the Russian settlement of Barentsburg and ghost town of Pyramiden, and at the research station at Ny-Ålesund, each with their own specialties. Let’s explore some of the most interesting things to eat and drink in Svalbard.
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The Evolution of Food Culture in Svalbard
First a little background. Ever since its discovery in the 16th century, Svalbard has been a source of natural resources sent to countries around the world. Longyearbyen was established by an American industrialist as a mining town in the early 20th century, with workers primarily from Norway and Sweden. Other similar ventures were established by British, Swedish, Dutch, and Russian settlers, though most were short-lived due to the harsh conditions. And for centuries before that there were trappers and hunters from Norway, Russia, the Netherlands and other countries. The bounty of nature and the archipelago’s international presence have left significant traces in Svalbard food culture.
Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost permanent settlement, has much to offer in nature, culture and food. Photo: Tommy Dahl Markussen
The trapper's lifestyle is particularly revered with Russian Pomor trappers present from at least the 1700's and possibly earlier. The first Norwegian overwintering took place in 1794 and had 15 men, four of them Russians who were hired to teach the Norwegians winter trapping. Most hunting and trapping at the time was for walrus, reindeer, seal, and fur animals such as foxes. Along with the collection of eggs and down. This was the beginning of a food tradition that still survives in some forms as many Longyearbyen residents still hunt their own meat, poultry, and fish. Autumn is the busiest period for hunting and is mostly centred on reindeer and ptarmigan (similar to pheasant).
Tommy Sandal is a hunter-trapper on Svalbard. Together with his family, he took over hunting grounds in the Bellsund region. Photo: Sverre C. Jarild
The sun is completely absent from Svalbard from November to February. During this polar night period, high protein foods with sufficient levels of vitamin D are essential to survival. The permafrost makes growing vegetables outdoors impossible, so local specialties are mainly based on wild meat and fish.
Longyearbyen’s history as a Norwegian mining town meant traditional Norwegian comfort food and high calorie meals for workers have an enduring strong presence. While the mining is largely gone, old-timers look back fondly on the days of communal meals and company-commissary food supplies from back home on the mainland. In addition to fresh local wild meat.
Coffee and lunch break in Mine 5 in the 60's. Photo: Herta Grondal
In Barentsburg and Pyramiden, the food traditions are Russian origin as these mining towns are inhabited almost exclusively by Russians and Ukrainians. The eateries there serve traditional rich foods such as a fish soup known as Ukha and pan-fried cutlet-shaped patties called Kotlety.
Restaurants, cafes and hotels today have continued to protect Svalbard food traditions and serve many local specialties based on wild caught meat and seafood. The old mining days survive among other places in a special Saturday steak buffet at the old company management headquarters which workers used to look fondly forward to. A sizable Thai and Filipino community in recent decades has brought a further international element, with the world’s northernmost Thai store and Asian fusion cuisine at several restaurants. And just to top it off, the world’s northernmost taco truck recently opened, run by a Swedish gourmet chef of course.
So with all that said, what are some of the most interesting local things to eat and drink if you get the chance to visit our arctic home?
1. Svalbard Ptarmigan
Two Svalbard ptarmigan in their white winter feathering. Photo: Perny Iversen
The Svalbard ptarmigan is the only land bird that stays on Svalbard all year round. In Norwegian it is called ‘rype’ (pronounced “ree-puh”) and even non-Norwegian locals typically use the word. The bird is larger than the grouse found on the Norwegian mainland and changes colour from brown to white in the winter. Svalbard residents are allowed to hunt up to 10 ptarmigans per day, so you can imagine it is a popular and frequent dish on the locals’ table. Interestingly, ptarmigan has neither the taste or consistency of poultry, but is very similar to a gamey red meat.
Enjoy the taste of Svalbard “rype” in the nordic taste menu at Huset. Photo: Elgseter
The Svalbard ptarmigan is a delicacy in itself, but the heart is said to be the prime part. The heart and liver are often pan-fried in rich butter and served on a slice of good sourdough toast. But watch out for shotgun pellets in the meat! The birds are small, so it’s not uncommon to find them at the table.
Many restaurants in Longyearbyen have seasonal menus. The hunting season for ptarmigan peaks in September-October, so this is the best time to find local ptarmigan at the restaurants, sometimes caught by the chefs themselves.
Tor Kristian had a great hunting season and landed 5 ptarmigans in 2020. Photo: Tor Kristian Tønnesen
There are many hunters in Longyearbyen, like Tor Kristian Tønnesen. He got his hunting licence immediately after moving to Svalbard in 2019 so he could join several friends who were active hunters. He is a strong believer in the responsibility hunters bear and says “I have always had great respect for nature and will keep up the duties of responsible stewardship hunters have.”
Another local hunter is Tommy Sandal who does it for a living. He runs ‘Svalbard Fangst’, a business that does traditional down harvesting, trapping, and meat hunting while selling products such as down pillows to locals. He says that they “aim to deliver local food and products to the settlements in Svalbard, and to carry out the trapping as environmentally friendly and sustainable“. If you want to learn more about Svalbard hunting culture, you can buy Tommy’s book “A hunter in the wilds of Svalbard”
2. Coal Mine Beer: ‘Gruve 3 Stiger’
‘Gruve 3 Stiger’ is a unique beer only sold in Longyearbyen. Photo: David Engmo
For nearly 100 years the main settlements of Svalbard were based around mining the archipelago’s 300 million year old coal deposits. Mine entrances dotted mountainsides and for a while claims to mineral rights overlapped so much that the total claims were greater than the total land area of the islands. The coal era is mostly gone now as the world has come to understand the dangers of global warming.
However, Mine 3 which was shuttered 25 years ago has now become home to a new treasure: Gruve 3 Stiger beer.
This ‘Mine 3’ beer is produced by Svalbard Bryggeri (Svalbard Brewery) - the world’s northernmost brewery. Gruve 3 Stiger is their rarest edition, only produced 4000 litres at a time, sold in Longyearbyen, and matured in different types of barrels each time. The craft brew embodies everything the brewery stands for: old craft traditions, history, storytelling, and creative new taste experiences.
Ageing of beer inside the shuttered coal mine number 3. Photo: Svalbard Bryggeri
‘Gruve 3 Stiger’ can be directly translated to “Mine 3 Rises” in Norwegian, but the word “stiger” is actually a mining term for a foreman. The foreman was the highest-ranking employee who led the day-to-day operations of the mine. This coal mine aged beer can only be bought at Nordpolet, the state liquor store in Longyearbyen. Svalbard Brewery’s other main varieties can be found in many Coop and Meny grocery stores in mainland Norway and soon Germany as well.
Reindeer filet from Gruvelageret Restaurant. Photo: Jane S.
The Svalbard reindeer hunting season lasts for only about a month in August and September. Only locals are allowed to hunt reindeer, they are only allowed one per year, and they must apply for the right to hunt in a specific location in an annual lottery. But you can find reindeer steak, burgers or soups in many of Svalbard’s restaurants. Professional hunters such as the aforementioned Tommy Sandal have larger quotas (possible because of the healthy reindeer population) and supply many of the restaurants. Reindeer meat is known for having a mild gamey taste that comes from the animals’ grazing across vast swathes of wild arctic nature filled with many types of lichen, herbs and heather.
Reindeer are found anywhere in Svalbard that isn't covered by glaciers. Photo: Steve Coulson/UNIS
Wild reindeer are mainly found in the Arctic, with seven different sub-species across the polar regions. The Svalbard reindeer sub-species can only be found here. It is smaller than other reindeer and has short legs and a relatively short and round head. Their antlers can be huge in comparison to the rest of its body. They also tend to be very slow moving as the limited food resources of Svalbard’s arctic desert environment mean they have evolved to conserve energy. It is actually not unusual to see them slowly walking through town and grazing in Longyearbyen by houses and shops.
Bee is an experienced reindeer hunter with a deep interest in hunting traditions, wildlife and rifles. Photo: Bee Nord
We talked to experienced reindeer hunter Bee Nord, who works in Sportscenteret, a local outdoor shop in Longyearbyen. When asked about her interest in hunting Svalbard reindeer, she says she does it to feed herself and her dog. To her it is part of living independently and self-sufficient in the Arctic. She believes it is an essential life skill to know how to hunt from nature instead of relying on a supermarket.
A day in the field. Photo: Bee Nord
Bee says that reindeer is a good food source for dogs as well as humans as she says it’s important “that nature-to-bowl also transfers to our dogs.“ With 2500 dogs living on Svalbard and shipping rates to the Arctic Circle extremely high, leftover reindeer meat is a great and affordable raw feeding alternative for many dog owners. Using all parts of the animal is an important part of hunting culture, with an emphasis on the environmental aspect. As Bee says, “I also hunt to reduce my carbon footprint”.
4. Arctic Cod
Enjoy the life of Svalbard fishermen for a day. Maybe you can catch a cod for dinner after a day-long tour? Photo: Hurtigruten
Cold waters, strong currents and powerful winds create a challenging environment for humans, but the Barents Sea is home to the world's largest cod population. The north European Barents Sea is home to the Arctic cod (sometimes called polar cod), a circumpolar fish that lives in coastal habitats. The waters off of Longyearbyen abound with cod, particularly in late summer and early autumn. The Arctic cod is slimmer than Atlantic cod (which is also abundant near Longyearbyen), and actually grows more slowly in Svalbard than in the eastern Barents Sea, making specimens found in Svalbard smaller than other regions.
Arctic cod has a very mild, milky flavor with a nice flaky but firm texture. It is less sweet than the Atlantic cod, with more fat storage, as they rely on eating a lot during summer to get them through the winter. It is rich in proteins and vitamin D, which is important for the locals in Svalbard during the dark season. Cod provided the very first Norwegians with the nutrition they needed to survive the cold, dark winters.
Nowadays there is mostly just private small-scale fishing of Arctic cod, and usually only Atlantic cod will be caught anyways in the vicinity of the main settlements. But whichever type one has, Svalbard offers wonderful fishing adventures surrounded by raw nature and a close-up view of the coastal mountains plunging into the sea. You can try yourself by booking a fishing trip via the Visit Svalbard booking portal.
5. Svalbarði Polar Iceberg Water
The Svalbarði water bottle and the M/S Origo arctic expedition vessel which gathered the iceberg pieces that fill the bottle.
Have you ever been curious what an iceberg tastes like? Wonder no more. In Svalbard you will find a small family owned company bottling iceberg pieces gathered from the fjords surrounding the archipelago. Each year an arctic expedition vessel is chartered and ice is hand selected for the highest quality before being brought onboard with a net and crane.
The icebergs have naturally calved into the ocean as glaciers reach the sea and are floating freely in the ocean, about to melt away forever. The water from these icebergs is as fresh as the day it fell as snow 4,000 years ago. An ancient and refreshing taste of Svalbard that can not be copied anywhere else.
The M/S Origo arctic expedition vessel gathering ice in the northern fjords of Svalbard.
With a vision and purpose to fight climate change and save the Arctic, Svalbarði goes beyond its carbon neutral certification to carbon negative such that each bottle sold helps save 100 kg of the arctic ice cap from melting.
You can enjoy Svalbarði in many of the local restaurants in Longyearyben, like Huset and Gruvelageret, so be sure to ask for it. You can also order Svalbarði online to enjoy the taste of snow in air from anywhere in the world.
6. Microgreens from Polar Permaculture
Microgreens by Polar Permaculture garnishing fine dining dishes in Longyearbyen. Photo: Polar Permaculture
Fresh greens grow year-round a mere 1000km from the North Pole, surrounded by rocky mountains, snow and aurora borealis. Would you believe it unless you saw it? A team led by American chef Benjamin Vidmar developed their own micro greenhouse system in Svalbard by utilizing new and innovative technology. Today the team at Polar Permaculture grows microgreens which come from the sprouts of radishes, clovers, cucumbers, cress, celery, and peas in an iconic outdoor dome during the summer and indoor facilities in the winter and year-round.
The iconic greenhouse dome under the northern lights. Photo: Jan Koch Photography
They are constantly seeking to add new greens to their portfolio and are planning to grow lettuce in 2021. At one point, they produced quail eggs but local agriculture rules meant they could not continue.
The whole team at Polar Permaculture is determined to make Longyearbyen more sustainable by growing as much local food as possible and composting most of the organic waste. They deliver trays of microgreens to hotels/restaurants in town and collect them back afterwards to compost with worms. Ben has a vision to expand and eventually provide at least 50% of the greens in Longyearbyen. “When I set out to make my vision a reality, I wanted to produce the freshest food possible, and now I want to make Longyearbyen a zero-waste town” he says.
The founder, Benjamin, has a strong passion for sustainable agriculture and has a strong vision for the future of Longyearbyen. Photo: Visit Svalbard
Polar Permaculture’s microgreens are available for everyone in the local grocery store and add a premium addition to the menu at many of Longyearbyen’s restaurants. Tourists can also book tours to their iconic dome or join a flavour-rich dining workshop with an arctic farmer. You can book a Polar Permaculture tour via Visit Svalbard or contact them directly via e-mail to set up a customized group tour.
7. Ny-Ålesund Cognac
The Adventure XO Cognac ‘Ny-Ålesund 79° north’- sixth edition
This ‘Adventure’ XO-Cognac’ is from Ny-Ålesund, the super isolated scientific research settlement 110 kilometres northwest of Longyearbyen at 79° north. So what’s so special about this cognac? It’s made with iceberg water from the local fjord (Kongsfjorden) and is not available anywhere else in the world! Coincidentally, two editions of Svalbarði iceberg water have also been gathered from the same fjord.
You will have to physically travel to Ny-Ålesund yourself to get your hands on a bottle of this cognac. To get there, jump on a propeller plane from Longyearbyen at the price of €350 for a round trip ticket. Each edition has its own design from Ny-Ålesund, so many Svalbard residents enjoy collecting all the different editions.
Second edition design. Photo: Erlend Mære
The cognac is actually bottled by Tiffon in France, but the brand is Norwegian-owned thanks to a century old marriage into the French family from the Braastad family. The history of the Tiffon cognac estate dates back to 1875 and the XO mark ensures that the cognac has been aged for at least six years. In other words, a high quality cognac like nowhere else.
The science research settlement in Ny-Ålesund. Photo: Tor Ivan Karlsen / Norwegian Polar Institute
Ny-Ålesund has a year-round population averaging around 30 people, with the summer population peaking at 120. The town was founded in 1917 by Kings Bay Coal Company, but with mining long gone the people there now mainly work in scientific research including rocketry to study the aurora borealis. It’s a small and very closed community where all expenses are covered while working there and one is only allowed to work for a maximum of 3 years in the same job.
8. White Chocolate Polar Bears
Iconic polar bear chocolates sold by Fruene in Longyearbyen. Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
If you ever travel to Longyearbyen, definitely get your hands on sweets from the local Fruene chocolatier. Like many other things Svalbard, the chocolatier is the northernmost in the world and their iconic white polar bear shaped chocolates are worth tasting and taking home as a souvenir or gift.
They have also made chocolates with the famous polar bear sign. Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
The chocolates are sold at the local Fruene café in the Lompen shopping centre in the middle of town. You can buy a single piece or bring home larger gift packs. The café also sells other confectionery and sweets made in Longyearbyen which can be enjoyed with a big cup of cappuccino while admiring small town life through the window.
9. World's Northernmost Taco Truck
Tacos in the snow. Tio Moncho's foodtruck getting ready to open on a sunny late-winter day in Svalbard. Photo: Tio Moncho's
Professional Swedish chef Andreas Styrsell moved to Svalbard in 2012 and was previously the chef at Stationen retaurant in Longyearbyen. In 2019 he showed off some typical Svalbard entrepreneurship and decided to open up the world's northernmost foodtruck, Tio Moncho's. Not just any food, but a high end Mexican taco truck with all the extra flourishes one would expect from a trained chef.
Like many locals, Andreas wears multiple hats so he runs the taco truck on the side of his day job, typically open just on the weekends from late afternoon until whenever the food runs out. And with his excellent cooking, it always does run out.
Chef Andreas Styrsell cooking during the dark season in the world's northernmost foodtruck.
For the few Mexicans (and Americans who grew up with Mexican as part of their everyday cuisine) in Svalbard, Andreas has earned two thumbs up for both traditional authenticity and innovative new taste experiments. Local caught meats and vegetables pickled in unique ways, contrasted with such simple comforts as homemade churros and taste-of-home Jarritos sodas. Andreas also tends to thrown in a few Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, reflecting their place within Mexican cuisine and adding to the surprisingly diverse array of cuisines available in the world's northernmost town.
Stuck at the North Pole craving authentic Mexican chips and homemade salsa? Andreas and Tio Moncho's have you covered. Photo: Tio Moncho's
If you find yourself in Longyearbyen on a weekend, the Tio Moncho's truck is typically near the Coop grocery store in the center of town. With a varying menu ranging from carnitas to quesadillas prepared with both fancy flourishes and generous portions for the price, you can get your Mexican fix even at the North Pole.
Even if Svalbard is an arctic wilderness with fewer than 3000 residents, it offers a wide variety of taste experiences in addition to a rich cultural heritage and history. For some of the delicacies, you don't have to physically travel to Svalbard. You can have the taste of Svalbard delivered to your door, with Svalbarði Polar Iceberg Water available online with free worldwide shipping on a carbon negative basis. That said, we hope to see you in one of the local restaurants in Longyearbyen.