As mandatory as the matpakke!

norwegian lunch
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The dignified presence that bread has continued to enjoy in its intricately woven existence into the realm of human sustenance is clear in ways beyond merely the food aspect of it. Sure, bread and butter might be your every morning jam (pun intended or otherwise) but it as sure is also your daily survival. Earning your bread and butter is a profound truth of life, that which alludes to the utterly important survival skill of earning a living, again by the ‘bread winner’ of the family. It also might be a phrase seated deep in the realms of the superstition as well as one alluding also to misfortunes or hard luck as in buttered side down. Given how food is so often interpreted in most basic terms as bread even without it necessarily having to be loaves and slices of this really old fare of the culinary, it indeed is certain that bread is an invariable element that comes to fore again and again in the very context of the human identity.

In therefore the lingering effect of its importance- if not taste- in cultural and religious spheres alike, bread indeed is deserving of the many significance it has been made to encompass since ancient times. Even in contemporary existence- read the current unpredictable times- it is bread again that has emerged to be the saviour, courtesy sourdough bread and the like, establishing therefore once again its reputation in every aspect of civilised continuation, through also such expressions as ‘the best thing since sliced bread‘ to laud innovations and stuff that are indeed remarkable and revolutionary. Other associated terms that emphasise further the importance of bread both in and beyond the food realms come across as ‘break bread’ or breadbasket, implying its long standing and still continuing significance throughout its emergence on the culinary horizon catering to human needs.

With such massive ‘legacy’ standing testament to the more than due worth that bread has come to hold in all its value, gastronomic or otherwise, the fact however still remains that it continues to rule our food choices even in the modern world. Or to put in more appropriately, especially in the modern world. Because what would the time starved folks of today be worth if not for their fancy breakfast of bread with a range of toppings and spreads and accompaniments, ranging from of course a dollop of butter sinfully gliding its slippery deliciousness along the face of a sweet milky slice to the world of deliciousness that is Nutella spreading its delectableness all through a bread freshly baked, with a glass of creamy milk or a serving of slurpworthy smoothie alongside, making for not just a Insta perfect summation of #foodgoals but also actually a wholesome, energy laden meal in itself? And what indeed would the world come to if it had but not to obsess over securing some bread to bring to the table and thereby lose out on a major chunk of the striving that defines life itself?

It perhaps is then only an ode to such realisations that bread brings to us that all over the world this element of food has been celebrated and acknowledged, even more humbly than extravagantly, that is befitting of it being at its most basic, the source of sustenance. And attributing bread, or any food for that matter, this particular simplicity is indeed a case in much thought, something we don’t deign as of much importance, too occupied as we would rather be over the sumptuous, or we daresay more superficial explorations of food. It then indeed is to the credit of a certain country of people who unequivocally go about this lauding of bread in an everyday manner, to the extent that while isn’t exaggerated still reveals in enough exemplarity to manifest as somewhat of a phenomenon ingrained in the very cultural dimension of it. The reference is that of the Norwegians, and to a certain universally prominent food choice of theirs that is subject also to a similarly universal dismissal of it. As a population that lays claim to being one of the most gluttonous when it comes to bread, the food explorations in Norway are understandably spersed with this baked goodie. So much so that bread is staple in the country not as much as breakfast as it is as a quick fix lunch for almost every one of its people, ranging from school children to office goers. In fact, as a country that does not quite indulge when it comes to luncheons in the traditional sense of the term, it doesn’t come across as much of a surprise that the most popular choice of food for Norwegian lunches happens to be a rather plain and simple, fuss free and light, and even just right, bread based sandwich.

Known as the matpakke and translating literally as packed lunch is this Norwegian favorite that might not however find favour with avid lunchers of other parts of the world. An open sandwich, quite insipid in hearing, made with three or at most four slices of really dry bread, with essentially only a single component of topping catering to each slice, meticulously set apart by small and square, precisely bread sized sheets of ‘custom made’ paper called mellomleggspapir, matpakkes come across as seriously effortless, to quite surprising extents. Often dubbed the most boring lunch in the world, prevailing over the unassuming appeal of it, matpakkes are perhaps the most minimalist of foods, specifically lunches, to cater to the midday hunger pangs of almost an entire country. Apt enough to feed your hunger in just the right dose of it so that you don’t experience the feeling that which the Italians describe best as abbiocco that is drowsiness after a heavy meal, matpakkes are today acknowledged as a large part of the reason why Norway has been continually managing to make it matter as among the most productive countries of the world.

A standard matpakke that you are likely to encounter just about anywhere in Norway will have each of its component bread slices slightly buttered, each topped with a single slice of cheese or meat, or perhaps a thin layer of jam, liver paste, or tubed caviar but never any two (or more) of its elements all at once, ceremoniously that is. Dry in texture, whether you discover from a taste of it or gauge it by its mere appearance, matpakkes need to be done up with textured, processed bread that gets as hard as it can, to endure the toppings of what are to follow.

Typically filled or rather topped with a slice of a certain brown, sweaty cheese made from cream and goat’s milk, known as brunost, on one of its slices, matpakkes also can encompass other types of toppings, mot commonly cheese from a tube, caviar from a tube, and mackerel with tomato (from a tube or a can) along with jam or leverpostei or liver paste. The key is to choose such topping(s) that is not just not extravagant but also not sufficiently heavy enough to either leave your sandwich soggy or your poor self drowsy. Despite however the modest grounds, err ‘tops’, that make up a classic matpakke in Norway, the country is surprisingly laden with a lot many options when it comes to choosing from what to pair your bread with. In fact, there is a distinct Norwegian term that encompasses just about anything and everything that you can put on a slice of bread, presenting thereby as perhaps somewhat of an irony for a country doing away the most of its existence within the realm of a few popular picks, every single day.

Spelled as pålegg that means in addition to, this is a whole world of wonder that can come to characterise the wide range of options available to top up your bread with for a hearty meal of indulgence. In fact so intricately associated is this assortment of toppings with the Norwegian breading experience that in supermarkets throughout the country, there would be a namesake section devoted exclusively to all things that can pass of as pålegg. Breakfast pålegg might include things like Norwegian salmon, jams, preserves, various liver pâtes, soft cheeses, meats, cucumber, tomatoes and sometimes eggs. The variety of lunch pålegg though is much less pronounced, catering as it does to the restricted, square, packed, compact confines of the matpakke.

So how did a country luxuriant enough to have an entire world of delicious, assorted toppings meant exclusively to top bread with come to rest in the all important matter of lunch with something as frugal and callous as the dry and almost depressing looking and tasting matpakke? For something that is a tradition for close to a century now, the matpakke is understandably quite prominent a source of cultural pride for all Norwegians, notwithstanding the mass ridicule that might stem from anyone not acquainted with the history of it, or of its significance in modern day continuance thereof. Introduced by the Norwegian government as the 1930s Oslo breakfast to provide all school children with a nutritious and convenient daily free meal, that included most commonly bread, cheese, half an orange and half an apple, the tradition continued and thrived well beyond the times of the somewhat poorer Norway of then to come today to characterise a nation rich enough in boasting one of the world’s highest rates of GDP per capita.

An established quick and easy fix lunch for virtually every Norwegian that while might not be anything to particularly look forward to each day, the matpakke though has come to be lauded for the array of benefits it renders, venturing though from the admittedly not so nutritious aspect of it in its present day interpretation. For one, the matpakke is one of the most convenient options to pack for lunch and unpack it too, making it a swift exercise in efficiency. With offices and establishments across Norway offering its employees the luxury of just 30 minutes as lunch break, the matpakke seems to be the most apt way to satiate your hunger, done and dusted in not more than five to ten minutes, leaving Norwegians therefore with some bonus time when they can relax or catch up with colleagues, which can be a rather surprising boost to productivity. As also the country with an average 38.5 hours work week, among the shortest, dictated in part by its short sunlight hours, it becomes also all the more necessary that employees do not feel like the slug after a session of elaborate lunching. To such effect, the matpakke indeed is no less than a power meal itself, despite the contrary notions associated with it. This easy to roll with lunch also offers equally didactic a lesson when it comes to the world of today that hardly manages to eke out time for squeezing in a quick lunch in the midst of all the work. Quite surprisingly, even in its strict 30 minutes only and no more dictum of lunch time, Norway can boast also the distinction of having most of its population not used to skipping the midday meal, owing to the convenience of the matpakke tradition. With Norwegians religiously indulging in the matpakke even within the restrictive realms of it, at around the same time every single day, this particular way of their life also translates once again into the phenomenal productive reputation they enjoy. Finding representation is the productivity in also another aspect of life that Norwegians have come to ace by virtue of their submission even to the mundane meanderings of the matpakke. In ensuring Norwegians a choice of their every lunch, even when it is exactly the same every time around, the matpakke helps them also in avoiding decision fatigue, thereby saving their mental reserves from the stress of such matters that, while are important, but are by no means the need of some pressing concerns. Drawing an inference to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who famously wears the same grey T-shirt with jeans to work everyday can help in according the matpakke the place of pride it is actually deserving of. In encompassing the basic nature of food as simply sustaining the living being, the matpakke is perhaps as classic as the basic bread- butter analogies that dominate the world, in food of course but extending as well and as effectively to the myriad of other life pursuits.

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