We arrived, late as always, to Julie Balas’s new, recently renovated apartment in Tøyen for a coffee and chat about the pleasures of food and the culture surrounding food here in Oslo. As Julie made us coffee we chatted about her renovations and enjoyed the welcome warmth of the late winter sun shining through onto the dining table. The warm and naturally lit apartment has been a relief for her both for her work and general enjoyment of being at home. All of us have had experiences in dark apartments and agree that it makes for not a very happy life in a country, like Norway, with limited daylight hours for half the year. As we sat appreciating the sun for a moment Julie laughed “I really have to clean my windows.”
Being a lady who makes a living in the kitchen, it was clear that the main room in the home is the kitchen or “Office” as it is referred to. Her blog, Julies Matblogg, continues to grow in popularity and being an amateur chef who struggles to find enough space for anything while cooking it was a little bit embarrassing and enlightening to see how simple, yet well stocked a kitchen can be. Julie uses this space to cook and create, setting up backgrounds in her kitchen to then photograph and laughs that the people in the apartment building across from her always stare at her and have been known to yell across the road at her while she was sitting on the floor, with food and a background half sprawled out on her balcony.
The successful “food blogger” moved to Oslo 10 years ago and got her start in the industry working in a bakery, up early every morning. Her boss there was really into food and she says he taught her pretty much everything, admitting that she wasn't even that interested in food when she moved to Oslo at age 17. However, it did not take long before her interest in food and quality produce flourished under good management right up until her boss quit to open Smallhans and Hitchhiker as part of Lava Oslo. Shortly after, Julie also left her baking job and using her only experience decided to embark on the path of entrepreneurship starting a catering company. As the company grew, which is in some sense the goal, she found herself spending more and more time doing administrative tasks, rather than in the kitchen and realised if she was going to continue having passion for food she needed to get back in the kitchen.
Julie has had her blog for eight years and has been pushing out content all while working for others. She highlights a short stint she had in the media business where she was either writing about food, making food or eating food. Although it sounds good on the surface Julie says it was tiring as she felt like she was using all her creativity for someone else and actually became really confused when entering her own kitchen laughing “I ate so much pizza that year, it was terrible.” In the last two years Julie has been able to make a living of her blog and affiliated jobs. “I kind of look at it as my online CV”, she says and talks about some of the commercial work she has picked up through her blog. Although taking most of the photos herself she collaborates with longtime friend Anne Valeur for print and the more creative pictures of her doing things, which she says "Is more interesting than me taking pictures of food. That can become quite static.” Julie and Anne go back a number of years meeting on Myspace circa age 15, before becoming Pen Pals. They did not meet in person until they both lived in Oslo a few years later. “Our careers started progressing in different areas and we both picked up clients around the same time before realising - Why aren't we collaborating with each other!” Anne travels a lot with Julie when she attends press trips and blog related events which require a photographer. This is the best part of her job where she gets to travel, with a good friend and “Eat some good food.”
We discuss the monopoly that exists in Norway and how Oslo lacks these markets for good produce at a good price. The supermarkets here don't really have a good selection compared to neighbouring countries and you can find yourself visiting multiple stores to get ingredients for simple dishes. She finds its sad and strange for a country to be so wealthy and close to nations with such strong food cultures, but collectively cant manage to have anything decent. It is also strange to her because she believes Norway does have a lot of great produce, but only the restaurants are getting it. The best producers are producing only small crops and then there is the problem with the overpriced and very limited farmers markets.
“My food vision has always been to eat as much ecological food as possible and also local but it is almost impossible to get both. I remember I did an event for the company and they wanted 100% ecological food. I took this as a challenge and spent 10 hours just find and purchase the products to cater for 20 people. I wanted to know if it was actually possible in Norway and I think a lot of people want these types of things but it is not accessible and the chain supermarkets are right there. My dream is that someone would open something like kolonial.no with good produce, but its very hard.”
Living in Norway there is not that much great produce during the winter and you can get tired of potatoes, “But I don’t” she laughs. “At some point you just have to put some of that idealistic thinking in the back of your mind and just buy the food that is at the store.” Julie says that this is also one of the reasons that she gave up catering because it was so difficult and time consuming to get good produce. It is sad that Norway is a country that spends so much money on cars, electronics and consumer goods but when it comes to eating food, Norwegians generally don't care about eating good food and won’t spend the money on it. That being said she feels there is a movement happening right now in what is another thing is “5 - 10 years behind Denmark” in the food and drink scene. A shift to a more natural way of eating that isn't so complex. “I like what Brutus is doing right now, where they have one or two main ingredients and that is the focus, they don't try to camouflage stuff. It is really basic stuff but it is so delicious.” Well travelled in the food world Julie thinks Oslo is defining their food culture right now and it is starting with places like Brutus who are actively trying to change the burger and kebab culture which has run rampant in the city. There is a lot of places that have a good wine selection and a lot going on in the music scene and Julie (now) thinks Oslo is a place she can live permanently, but she hasn't always felt like that, “I am still drawn to Copenhagen. It is my favourite city and I actually really want to go and be there for a month or two.”
We asked about her inspiration when cooking and where she gets her ideas and she laughs as she says, “I go to Denmark, I just love Denmark. I am there a couple of times every year just to eat my way through the country. I always want to come home and try to make the same things, but it is not even possible because we don't have the same things. I get a lot of inspiration from there and travelling in general.” She also reads food blogs and magazine claiming to have a “photographic memory”, in a way, making things from images she remembers rather than a list of ingredients, which is how most of her recipes evolve. “I am not the person who makes food by following strict lists and rules. It is very difficult to write down recipes because you don't really know until you have made something a few times. My recipes always say you have to taste it yourself and I will never give a salt measurement, you have to taste the food!” She also finds inspirations locally in Oslo mentioning Pjoltergeist as one of her favourite places.
Julie does not have any plans to opening her own place saying, “No never, I wanted to open a cafe at one point but I am so glad I did not go through with that!” Her plan has been to have a pop up flower shop because she loves flowers. “I am pairing up with a florist and we are doing a project together with some flower arranging.” She laughingly describes how this came about after she had a dream, woke up and called her friend right away exclaiming “WE NEED TO DO THIS”. She has also thought about making another book and hints that something in Italy may be on the cards... Stay tuned for Julie’s Italian!
All photography by Ronja Penzo