Sightseeing in Norway in the winter calls for a warm coat and regular stops for something even warmer to drink. As I approach Halvorsens Conditori one afternoon, I am struck by the elegant and imposing building, located directly across the street from the Stortinget, Norway's Parliament. I feel like I'm walking up to a grand old hotel. Curious as I am about such places, I head up the front steps, where I notice a long menu listing sweets of all kinds along with coffee and tea and a few light sandwiches. I turn to my right, and set into the wall of the entryway is a display case with a dazzling array of cakes. The prettiest, most colorful cakes I have seen in a long time. A marzipan layer cake over a foot tall! A cake can never be too big. This is not another grand European hotel, but it might be a grand European bakery. I decide to stop in.
Once inside, I realize this is more than just a bakery. It brings to mind an elegant tearoom. Halvorsens is the closest thing I have seen in Oslo to a Viennese café. It's three in the afternoon. Tea time. A lot of ladies are having tea. Many of the ladies appear to be with their daughters or granddaughters. The occasional grandson. They are doing tea the way tea was meant to be. They are beautifully dressed and speaking softly. And eating wonderful-looking cakes along with their coffee and tea. I'm wearing blue jeans, but thank goodness I have a nice coat and scarf to make me look acceptable.
As I take a quick look around the room, I notice that the tables which are taken are all located at one of the many windows. There is a row of long windows, each letting in ample light and affording a nice view of the comings and goings in the busy city center. The baby-blue trikk, as the streetcars are known, clangs by outside. Inside, I study the long dessert case and am enchanted. Creamy, rich-looking cakes in all shapes and sizes. Cheesecakes, cream cakes, multi-layered chocolate cakes. Small marzipan delights shaped like apples and oranges and pears. Petite tarts topped with a colorful assortment of glazed fruit. Tradition is the order of the day in this old-fashioned bakery. Not a brownie or oatcake in sight. I can't make up my mind. Since all the window tables are taken anyway, I decide to walk around the corner for a newspaper and hope that someone will leave in the interim.
I feel awfully smart as I walk back into Halvorsens. No sooner have I come through the door than two elderly ladies get up and put on their coats. Of course, they are leaving a window table. I drop my things off at the table and go back to the dessert case. I spot a chocolate ball which I don't recognize, so I ask the gal behind the counter about it. "It's a sacher torte," she says in heavily-accented English. I understand her anyway. I don't think I've ever seen a sacher torte, only read about them in cookbooks, where they always sounded fancy. I settle on a piece of strawberry cream cake and a pot of coffee. The cake is perfect, just the right blend of sweetness and light. Somehow, this comes as no surprise in this dessert-lover's emporium.
The physical setting at Halvorsens is as endearing as the desserts. The long, L-shaped room has rows of small, dark wood tables inlaid with rose-colored marble. Tall, narrow windows line the outer wall. Small reading lamps are placed at the window tables. Clearly the window tables are the seat of choice. The inner walls are accented with a nicely-textured pink wallpaper, and ornate, cut-glass globes hang down from the high ceiling. Next to the golden candelabra on the front counter is a bowl of fresh pink tulips. It's only February, but tulips are already in season, a comforting sign of the spring to come.
I ask one of the gals behind the counter about the decor. They are all wearing traditional uniforms, long blue jumpers over crisp white blouses topped with ruffled aprons. I think I should call them ladies. One of the ladies, a young lady, tells me that Halvorsens was restored in 1987 to its original appearance.
"So does it really look like it used to?" I ask.
"It looks like it did when I was six and I came in here with my mother, and she came in with her mother before that. It's always looked beautiful." The young lady, Elisabeth, is now 26 and working, and probably eating, at Halvorsens. I commend her on her excellent English and she tells me that "in a country of only four million people, we must have it. All the books at university are written in English, and we start learning it in the fourth grade."
"It's a global language," I tell her.
"Except in France!" she cleverly replies.
Thanks to Elisabeth, I learn a lot about the sweets at Halvorsens. The foot-high cake at the front entrance is a kransekake, a special Norwegian cake made of almonds and sugar. Finely-chopped almonds and sugar are warmed together, then shaped into long, narrow rolls and baked. Once out of the oven, the long rolls are shaped into rings, and a cake is created by placing the rings one on top of the other in the shape of a tower, bound together by icing. Sometimes a kransekake is shaped like a horn and stuffed with petits fours or chocolate. I'm sure it's tasty either way. Elisabeth also tells me the secret of the perfectly-shaped and colored miniature marzipan fruit. The bakers use a spray gun to apply the colors.
"That's why the colors blend in so smoothly, see?" she tells me. I see.
I also learn that a conditori is a place that makes cakes. No bread, just cakes. I hadn't even noticed the absence of bread. This last bit of information makes a lot of sense as I survey the various awards and proclamations on the walls, all given to one Hugo Tobiasson. Conditors, or master cake-makers, from Norway to Denmark have bestowed honors on Mr. Tobiasson. He was the owner of Halvorsens for many years. Looks like they've taken their cakes seriously here for a long time.
As I get ready to leave, a little boy walks in with his mother and older sister. He walks to his table with a huge vanilla creampuff and a banana marzipan treat. It makes perfect sense. Halvorsens is the kind of place where I would go back for seconds and feel sensible.
© 1996 Elaine Sosa