The flatbrød challenge

Eric Kendall, 23 March, 2019
We can’t pretend that it never rains on holiday. So if you do find yourself confined indoors in Norway, you could follow the example of Inntravel’s Eric Kendall, and take on the flatbrød challenge...

In the yeasty world of French baguettes, Italian ciabatta, and warm sourdough, the very word ‘flatbread’ sounds like an admission of failure – that you’re getting your excuses in before you’ve even started and – literally – not aiming very high. But when in Norway, it’s almost obligatory. So if, not having grown up with the stuff, the thought of flatbread doesn’t get your juices flowing, prepare to be surprised. At the very least, Norwegian flatbrød does a good job of managing expectations: it does exactly what it says on the box and no one can reasonably grumble about its lack of loft.

It’s important to approach flatbrød with due respect. Despite its fragility making it as badly adapted to having butter spread on it as, say, a lettuce leaf, the rewards are far higher, so persevere if you want the full flatbrød experience. A generous coating turns the austere, slightly dusty cracker into something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. But pay attention: attempting to apply butter straight from the fridge results in a cataclysm of shattered flatbread, taking you neatly – though accidentally – on to another recommended serving suggestion which involves smashing up a couple of slices into a bowl, adding milk and fruit, and eating it like breakfast cereal; flatbread is nothing if not versatile.

But back to the butter: room temperature, or even slightly above, is ideal – a few minutes in the lemony sun streaming in through the window at Mefjordvær after a late morning rainstorm sweeps across the bay, is perfect (and waiting time in Norway is never wasted – what a view, across to the ‘sail’ of the mountain of Segla, rising 600 meters straight up from the fjord). What goes beneath your bread is even more important than what’s on top, structurally speaking: most dinner plates are too curved to support the brittle flatbread adequately when spreading, so a bread board, or even a plain wooden table top is much better, and allows you to sweep the off-shoots into a bowl for tomorrow’s breakfast (see above).

It’s worth noting that these constraints make flatbread a challenging picnic option, though in extremis  it is acceptable to take shards of bread directly to a soft pad of butter, no knife involved. Never, obviously, scrape over the surface of the butter squeegee-style as you’ll snap the bread; instead exploit its strength in compression by digging obliquely into the surface. This has a much lower breakage rate and the added advantage of delivering a typically higher ratio of butter to bread (yum!) which is warranted, when out and about, by your increased rate of calorific output – climbing steep hills, running around shops looking for the flatbread aisle etc.

Of course, not all flatbread is equal so we’ve done the hard work and scored three of the main brands for thickness, crunch, taste, and, of course, spreadability. There are ethical considerations too: one of them is made, if my meagre understanding of Norwegian isn’t too far off the mark, by hand, by a poor granny (pictured on the box) who’s clearly well past retirement age. With around 30 slices per box, and stacked floor to ceiling in most supermarkets, I don’t suppose she can have slept in a decade. So we should probably boycott that one on humanitarian grounds, though it’s a bit of a dilemma as it does score highly across all the other categories. Granny clearly knows best.
The results
Test methodology: breads were tested in parallel by two testers > 50 years of age (one male, one female) under controlled conditions of fair to middling ravenous-ness. All measurements taken at 5 meters above sea level, relative humidity 74%. Note that coastal Norway’s humidity has a particular influence on crunch and spreadability ratings so it may not be possible to replicate these findings in other geographical areas and they should be taken for comparison purposes only, though never with a pinch of salt, just butter.
Wasa Ideal
- Thickness: medium, 1mm +/- 10%
- Crunch: a moment’s give, then positive consistent crunch – the gold standard
- Taste: definitive wheat and rye with a slight tang in the aftertaste
- Spreadability: 4.5/5

Notes: widely available and neatly packaged – you won’t go far wrong
- Thickness: thickest on test, 2.5-3mm
- Crunch: predictably solid
- Taste: as for crunch
- Spreadability: 5/5 – ideal starter-bread for novices

Notes: literally a solid performer
Mors (by Grandma)
- Thickness: thinnest on test, < 0.75mm
- Crunch: infinitely satisfying
- Taste: almost tangy, rye, wheat and oat, with a hint of the sea
- Spreadability: 3.5/5 – rewards good spreading technique

Notes: ultra-thin but surprisingly good handling characteristics; tiny regular perforations (Granny’s rolling pin must have miniature studs) allow a pleasing ooze-through of warm butter

Senja - An Arctic Island

Eric was in Mefjordvær to research the routes for our walking holiday on the island of Senja. Often described as the ‘Arctic Caribbean’ due to its superb coastline, this is one of the most dramatic – and little-visited – corners of Europe.
More about our walking holidays in Norway >
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