Cruising into farm diversity – why Brits love this Norwegian farm

Janice Hopper heads across the North Sea to check out a farm diversity project which has brewed its own success…

Sailing up the scenic fjords of west Norway, our Fred Olsen cruise ship docked in the staggeringly picturesque harbour of Eidfjord. A quality cruise will offer quality onshore excursions, so a group of British tourists are transported to the farm of Nils Lekve for the ‘Taste of Hardangerfjord’ experience. En route the tour guide explained that Hardangerfjord is the fruit region of Norway, thanks to its mild climate and lack of snow, due to the Gulf Stream.

At a stunning hilltop farm the tourists disembark, primed for a morning’s drinking, sampling, dining and tasting. Nils’ family has been farming on this six hectare site for around 150 years. Six hectares is considered quite a normal size farm here, situated on steep land rising up from the water. One hundred tons of apples are grown per year, incorporating Aroma, Discovery, Gravenstein and Summerred apples. From this fruit the Lekves produce apple juice, cider, apple brandy, apple liqueur and Akevitt. When Nils started his drinks factory fifteen years ago, he initially produced 2,500 litres of apple juice and 10,000 litres of cider. This year it’s risen to 100,000 litres of both apple juice and cider, employing up to 8-9 people in the busy autumn harvest. Like many farmers, Nils’ primary focus is his produce, but the tourism market is a welcome additional income stream. cider production in Norway - the farm diversity site with orchard in foreground

As the guests gather in a smart, purpose-built restaurant Nils introduces a mix of tastes and flavours. The Lekve apple juice is simply pasteurised, with no added sugar – a refreshing cloudy juice to quench the thirst in the heat of day. Next come glasses of Nils’ Kvasshovden and Sprudlande cider, both allowed to naturally ferment in the traditional method. The Kvasshovden cider has a light, delicate flavour, and the Sprudlande version has a beautiful fizz akin to a sparkling wine. 

The sweet liqueur is created by melting freshly frozen apples, and blending their sweet juice with brandy. The fifth tasting is the apple brandy itself, matured for three years in red wine oak barrels from France. Finally the Akevitt is a true taste Norway. This beverage is drunk at Christmas time to accompany food. Nils’ version incorporates five herbs – cinnamon, coriander, anise, fennel and caraway. Stored in Spanish sherry oak barrels for a year, it’s a fiery beast at 41,9%!

Serving alcohol to cruise passengers almost looks easy, but successfully branching out into tourism, particularly the sought after cruise market, is a difficult game. Nils’ experience started by chance when, in 2006, a nearby hotel asked if some of their guests could visit his apple farm. After spotting the potential in events, tastings and weddings, Nils built the restaurant in 2009, securing his first cruise visit in 2010. (It’s worth noting that tour operators simply won’t visit farms if the visitor infrastructure isn’t there, regardless of how delicious the produce may be.) This year Nils has welcomed approximately ninety groups from cruises, and it’s due to increase in 2020. 

The tour companies working with the cruise liners can bring large groups to a venue, but the sticking point for the farmer is often the price. Whilst the tour company may charge over £100 per customer, to cover the bus, the tour guide and insurance etc. the farmer has to negotiate the value of the experience he or she is offering. Naturally, the tour companies have a lot of respect, bringing a bus load of tourists to a rural business in one morning; guests who would never otherwise leave a busy port to independently seek out a small farm in the middle of nowhere. These financial negotiations can be a delicate balancing act for small farmers. 

Personality is also a factor. Nils leads the tastings and the tours himself. He is welcoming, informative and approachable, but authoritative when it comes to time management – this is no job for a shrinking violet.

In Norway, Nils Lekve also has to navigate his nation’s particular laws. His fruit is sold to a cooperative who, in turn, supply the supermarkets and shops. The alcohol laws are stringent and taxes are high – Nils says he pays over £30 tax for one litre of alcohol over 40%. He can sell his cider and juice on site at the farm, but the stronger liquor must be sold via the Government’s official monopoly drink shops called Vinmonopolet. The nearest branches are located in Norheimsund, Odda or Voss, which are virtually inaccessible to car-free cruise guests. A tour that falls on a Sunday is a completely dry shopping affair, as it’s prohibited to sell alcohol on the Sabbath. Guests can taste and enjoy the drinks, but ultimately can’t buy very much. In many ways this makes it even more important that the visitors’ ticket prices work for the farmers, as they can’t necessarily generate income through onsite shopping. 

As the guests sample the drinks before them, a tasting platter of local cheeses and meats is presented — rustic bread, goats cheese, cured lamb, new potatoes, figs, salmon and sour cream. As a sweetener, traditional Lefsa flatbreads are dished up with lashings of cinnamon and sugar. Dietary requirements are also accommodated — a vegan platter includes asparagus, new potatoes, avocado and succulent tomatoes. Catering for diverse diets is another consideration for any farmer wishing to attract modern tour companies.

Guests are then given a tour of the factory and warehouses. From the vast, modern stainless steel vats, to photogenic barrels stacked high for maturation, visitors are talked through the creative process. A final moment to take in the epic views, and the British cruise guests board the bus to be whisked back to harbour, allowing Nils to return to his apples.

See Nils Lekve’s farm and factory website at Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ Balmoral will be setting sail on a ‘Springtime Fjords in Five Nights’ cruise, departing from Newcastle on 1st May 2020. From £749 per person – see