Out of Norway: Trials of love for the demon drink

OSLO - There's a saying in Norway that when spring arrives you drink Mack beer and eat boiled seagulls' eggs. Finding the green and black eggs of the kittiwake or the common gull is no problem, the difficulty is finding a decent drink to keep the chill off the bones in a country where the laws, myths and shibboleths about alcohol are rivalled only by those of the Islamic world.

The temperance movement took hold in Norway more than 150 years ago when trade unionists and churchmen banded together to save the working classes from the clutches of the demon drink, abuse of which was causing impoverishment and hardship on a vast scale.

The crusade against drinking still has not ended, even if the figures show that Norwegians are drinking less than they used to. The statistics also reveal that Norwegians consume more sugar and yeast per head than virtually anyone else. So much dried yeast is sold that every man, woman and child would have to eat five loaves of bread every day to account for it. More about that later.

Quite a few careers have been made in the crackdown on drinking in Scandinavia and even today the Oslo government has to listen to the wishes of the parliamentary temperance lobby, which, with 25 MPs is as big as any political party in the Storting and about as powerful.

But the temperance movement, which has had the whip hand for more than a century, is on a collision course with Oslo's plans to join the alcohol-permissive European Community. Many Norwegians are eagerly awaiting the chance to import up to 90 litres of wine, 100 litres of beer and 10 bottles of hard liquor on every foreign trip, but the prospect has the temperance lobby seething.

The only beer that can be found in Norwegian supermarkets is class three beer, so weak and light that no self-respecting drinker would touch it. Class two beer is a bit stronger and is sold in bars, but class one beer, like Guinness, is available only in the state monopoly shops, Vinmonopolet. It is a case of the government saving Norwegians from themselves and making huge monopolistic profits while doing so.

A trip to Vinmonopolet is a uniquely Norwegian experience, designed to dampen the ardour of any drinker. There is no question of the customer being allowed to fill a basket with bottles while wandering around the shop. Everything is kept safely under lock and key. The customer must line up with a ticket and inform the shop assistant what he or she wants. To make matters more inconvenient, there are only 120 of these shops across the length and breadth of the country. For those in need of a snort, this can be a real problem, given that Norway is one of the largest countries in Europe.

Such is the taste for the hard stuff in this part of the world, however, that many ingenious ways have been found to get around the law. As a visit to the humblest grocery store will prove, Norwegians are the world's greatest home distillers. Drums of sugar and bags of dried yeast dominate the scene, and in a prominent place there are display cases with row upon row of perfume-sized bottles of essence on offer.

A bottle of 'Strand's English Dry Gin' looks like a miniature Gordon's. The 'Scotch Whisky' essence comes in an equally enticing bottle as does the 'Bourbon' and 'Ouzo'.

The results, I can attest, are impressive, but for ordinary Norwegian there is nothing like the original article, and the lengths they go to get it are the stuff of legend. Not long ago a Norwegian whaler came upon a Russian submarine in the North Atlantic and both hove to. The Norwegians handed over their supplies of pornography, the Russians their vodka and both went merrily on their way.