I Can’t Believe It IS Butter

Norway’s Yuletide Crisis


“You can say it’s as good as butter.”

“But in that case,” objected Mr. Bredon, “what does one find to say in favour of butter? I mean, if the other stuff’s as good and doesn’t cost so much, what’s the argument for buying butter?”

“You don’t need an argument for buying butter. It’s a natural, human instinct.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise

Missing Butter

When I started seriously learning Norwegian, my favorite word was togkaos – literally, “train chaos,” a foul-up on the train lines that leaves commuters stranded, seeking alternate routes, and not getting home until far later than planned.

That I learned the word early testified to the state of the train system, particularly around Oslo (verified by the November 25 Views and News from Norway story “Trains Running on Time!” – far and away my favorite headline ever).

But this November-December has brought a new favorite: smørkrise (butter crisis). Or what may become known in Oslo as the Great Butter Crisis of 2011.

In mid-November, many Norwegians found their supermarkets emptied of this essential – and, given the arrival of Christmas baking, predictably desirable – ingredient. The dairy cooperative Tine attributed the shortage to lower-than-usual milk production over a rainy summer that reduced the quality of animal feed, and a fad diet that encourages low carbohydrates and higher fat intake.

So, why not just import more butter? Well, Norway places a tariff – a 25% tax – on imported butter, to protect its domestic industry by keeping home prices higher. It took several weeks before the government considered that angry Norwegian bakers (and, presumably, dieters getting fatter in the ingredient’s absence) weren’t worth the extra money and eased the import tariffs – in that area, at least.

(Here, the word tariffs will send certain Americans into a state of happy criticism, so I must pause to remind us of our own corn subsidy and sugarcane tariffs, and our subsidizing junk food generally – not to go into the complexities of Pennsylvania’s Milk Marketing Board. We may wish to reconsider aspects of a system where we pay out money in higher health-care costs because of conditions worsened by industries we have already paid taxes to support – and which have lobbied our Congress heavily and lavishly for that support.)

TV2ButterCrisisOf course, it takes time for a market to recover fully, even when a government lets up on its tariffs. And so, for the past few weeks, Norwegians have witnessed and, in some cases, participated in a wide range of unusual and global events in the Pursuit of Smør. The accounts range from “simply capitalist” to near urban legend status.

  • A specialty producer offered butter at the Oslo Christmas market for NOK 240/kilo (roughly US $20/pound) – a little steep even for well-paid Norwegians, according to Views and News from Norway.
  • The newspaper Firdaposten offered a half-kilo pack of butter for each subscriber who bought a 10-month gift subscription.
  • A local Green Party politician in Lillehammer posted an ad for “almost unused” butter on finn.no, the Norwegian equivalent of Craigslist, and received an offer of NOK 3,000 (about US $500).
  • A Russian man was taken at customs for trying to smuggle 90 kilos (about 200 pounds) of butter into the country. (A word to ambitious American: don’t try this. You can’t afford any fines Norway has to levy.)
  • Laughing their heads off, the TV show Go ‘Morgen Denmark rounded up 4,000 packages of butter in relief aid to send to Norwegians in Kristiansand.

I do not have Spotify, but I note in a random search that a playlist titled Smørkrise has even popped up there.

While some media circles emphasized Norwegians sacking Swedish supermarkets for butter (which, apparently, the marketers along the border were delighted to accommodate), I do not find this particularly extraordinary. Norwegians regularly sack Swedish border supermarkets, given the high price of food at home. TV2’s comment that “Yes, it has gotten this bad,” strikes me as a bit of willful ignorance about the shopping habits of the country.

Similarly, some Norwegians have boarded ferries to neighboring Denmark to purchase butter for their Christmas cooking. While this is more usual practice for alcohol and tobacco products, again, it is not out of the national character.

And to Denmark they must go: for, Go ‘Morgen Denmark‘s campaign aside, the Danish dairy industry has not shown great willingness to accommodate Norwegians at home, being fed up with the tariff history. (Some have suggested an “oil for butter” exchange.)

Holding a near-monopoly on butter, Tine for its part posted an apology on its Web site, asserting that the return of butter to the market was the “number 1 priority” for the company. The company has faced heavy criticism for not lobbying for an easing of tariffs and production quotas earlier, as well as for finding scapegoats in the diet craze and the bad weather.

Butter and margarine

A rose of butter stashed between the thorns of margarine.

By now, a good question is: why not use margarine? That suggestion has, in fact, been put forward by certain Norwegian writers, who point out (as did Dorothy L. Sayers’ copywriter character) that it produces just as good results.

But as Mr. Bredon learned, adherence to butter is a natural instinct. Indeed, it remains so among cooks and bakers here in the United States, despite years of emphasis on the lower cholesterol of margarine (and debate and lobbying on the issue). So, too, many Norwegian cooks firmly assert that margarine just isn’t the same.

And that, as they say, is that.

As the anxiety for butter escalates among those who must have it, one reporter’s investigation has given me an idea to address the problem. TV2’s Johnny Nesvåg uncovered some 30 kilos of 67-year-old butter along the shore near Sokndal in Rogaland county. Though it seems the World War II-era product wasn’t fit for human consumption, I note that it has endured temperature fluctuations well above freezing.

Unlike any stash in, say, Antarctica. Such as Robert Scott’s storage near McMurdo Station.

As Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is currently among the Norwegian dignitaries in Antarctica, celebrating Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s successful win of the race to the South Pole in 1912, perhaps he could check out the frozen butter situation down there.

If Scott ends up bailing out Amundsen for Christmas, it will be the ultimate irony.

Addendum: As I asked for photos of smørkrisen in Norway – including (I suggested without much hope) any butter riots that might be taking place – I received one wondering response as to why I would be blogging on this. Not all Norwegians are caught up by the absence of butter on the markets.

Chiefly, it is because, with Rosario Dawson – who co-hosted the Nobel Prize concert in Oslo on December 11 – I find it a relief. While I am not asked about my lipstick as often as Ms. Dawson is, as a fellow American I have to endure what our press deems noteworthy. Lately, it has been a noxious crop of politicians churning our airwaves. 

A pat of butter goes a long way in this media environment.