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Nordic cuisine

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Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden
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The cuisines of all Nordic countries are quite similar, although each country does have its signature dishes.

Countries and regions[edit]

Denmark is a major exporter of dairy products, pork and beer, and its cuisine has a slight Central European flair. Danes have a justified reputation of being more hedonistic than other Nordic people, eating greasy food, smoking, and enjoying more relaxed alcohol laws than further north.

Finland's cuisine has been influenced by Russian cuisine, with dishes such as meat pies (lihapiirakka), dark bread and, of course, vodka. They are the world's leading consumers of coffee and milk per capita.

Iceland is known for fish, lamb, and the more spectacular Þorramatur, a range of cured fish and meat products traditionally eaten during winter. Likely the most exotic of the Nordic cuisines, Iceland has dishes that not everyone may want to try, such as lamb's head and testicles, puffin meat and whale. The Faroe Islands have a cuisine rather similar to that of Iceland, except it is only the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) that is a local delicacy.

Norway also has a heritage of seafood. As with Iceland, Norway has a tradition of lamb dishes. Norwegians are said to eat more pizza per capita than people in any other country. Norway is one of the few countries in the world, where it is possible to eat whale at a restaurant.

Sweden, being the largest country in size and population, has at least one "signature dish" in all categories of food. Some delicacies are freshwater fish, crayfish, game, berries, and the iconic meatballs. Scania is Sweden's breadbasket and gateway to Denmark, famous for rich meat, poultry and bread dishes.

The cuisine of northern Scandinavia and the Sami people is based on the few ingredients available in the Arctic and sub-Arctic; predominantly reindeer, fish, and berries.

Understand[edit]

Before modern times, the majority of Nordic people had a very limited range of ingredients, especially in the far north. Famines occurred as recently as the 19th century. While industrialization came late, dining in the Nordic countries has become very cosmopolitan in the 21st century.

Most traditional dishes are based on what used to be poor man's food, such as herring, dried fish, potatoes, and hard bread, although many have developed a certain refinement and are now considered classy enough for middle or even upper class people to enjoy openly.

Ingredients[edit]

The world's stinkiest fish dish

Adventurous diners might want to try surströmming, which is Norrland's (northern Sweden's) entry in the revolting-foods-of-the-world contest. It's herring which is fermented in a tin can until the can starts to bulge and almost bursts. It all gets so foul-smelling that the fish is only eaten outdoors to keep it from stinking up the house, although it has been known for unsuspecting visitors from other countries to be "treated" to an indoor surströmming experience for more intensity.
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It is considered bad manners not to notify (or invite) the neighbors before having a surströmmingsskiva, a party where the delicacy is consumed. It is claimed that the best way to get over the smell is to take a deep breath of it just when you open the can, to as quickly as possible knock out your smelling sense. Surströmming is traditionally eaten in late August. Some restaurants, for obvious reasons not many, serve surströmming during these days.

With a long coastline, the fertile waters of the North Atlantic, and several lakes, fish and other seafood has a traditional role. The right to access and easily available permits allow leisure fishing to some extent in all Nordic countries, and most restaurant menus feature some kind of seafood.

  • Pickled herring, (Clupea harengus, Danish/Norwegian: sild, Swedish: sill, Finnish: silli), used to be the poor man's dish, but has developed into a traditional appetizer, often in a few varieties (such as with mustard, garlic, tomato sauce or dill). Baltic herring, strömming, is the same species, though smaller, less fatty, and caught in the Baltic Sea. Sour herring in Norway should not be confused with surströmming, Swedish fermented herring. In Norway herring is also dried and smoked. In Denmark and Scania smoked herring (Danish: røget sild, Swedish: rökt sill) is available locally. Smoked herring from the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea are especially popular.
  • Canned sardines in oil is a traditional Norwegian product (particularly in Stavanger that had a booming canning industry), but is actually made from local brisling (also known as skipper or sprat).
  • Salmon (Salmo salar, lax/laks/lohi) is farmed in Norway, and used to be an everyday dish in northern Sweden, especially smoked or cured. Farmed salmon and rainbow trout have become the most common fish eaten in Finnish restaurants and non-fisher households. Smoked salmon, trout and other salmonid fish is served as everyday food in Norway, and can be fished with a rod. Hot and cold smoked are two variants. Cured salmon is known as gravlaks or gravlax. Fermented trout, rakfisk, is a smelly Norwegian specialty particularly produced and consumed in the interior valleys such as Valdres.
  • Cod (Gadus morhua, torsk) is the most important catch in Norwegian waters. The winter-spring (february-april) catch of skrei (the migrating cod) has since prehistoric times been the high season for coastal areas. The fisheries around Lofoten are in particular unusually rich. Fresh skrei served lightly boiled is a standard dish during the season. In Lofoten and Nordland cod is also served with roe, liver and potatoes in dish known as mølje. The cod of the Baltic Sea has been overfished, and is vulnerable today.
  • Wind-dried white fish such as cod tørrfisk (stockfish) is an ancient and important product of Northern Norway, used for lutefisk and other dishes. Salt-dried white fish klippfisk, an important product of western Norway, is used in similar ways.
  • Freshwater and Baltic Sea fish, such as perch (Perca fluviatilis), pike and zander can be found at some restaurants and supermarkets, and is rather easy to fish with a rod.
  • Roe (fish eggs) is a delicacy in Sweden. The roe from the vendace, Coregonus albula (siklöja in Swedish), known as löjrom, is among the most prized. Caviar usually refers to roe from the lumpfish, Cyclopterus lumpus (stenbit or sjurygg in Swedish, rognkjeks in Norwegian). Kaviar in Sweden and Norway refers to rendered fish roe with some additives, eaten as an everyday, relatively cheap, bread spread kept in "tubes".
  • Cod liver oil (tran) is used as dietary supplement particularly during winter for vitamin D. Bottles can be found on many breakfast buffets.
  • The red king crab (Russian crab), Paralithodes camtschaticus, is native to the northern Pacific. Since the Soviets implanted the crab to the Barents Sea in the 1960s, it has become an invasive species spreading to Norwegian waters, becoming a new and popular ingredient.
  • Crayfish (European or noble crayfish, Norwegian: kreps, Swedish: kräfta) is traditionally fished and eaten during August in Norway and Sweden, and among Swedish-speaking Finns. Kräftskiva is a traditional Swedish crayfish party.
  • Norway lobster, sjøkreps ("sea crayfish"), Nephrops norvegicus, is a delicacy of the north Atlantic.
  • European lobster, Homarus gammarus, is a culinary classic, very similar to the American lobster.
  • Shrimp, especially Pandalus borealis, have a prominent role in Norway, Denmark and western Sweden.
  • Clams and mussels are harvested and eaten, especially in Denmark.
  • Whale has a peculiar taste, and can be found in Iceland and Norway. Whaling is a sensitive issue; see animal ethics.
Sautéed reindeer, a dish from northern Scandinavia, here served with mashed potatoes, pickled cucumber and lingonberry jam

While whole meat remains a bit of a luxury, many traditional dishes are based on mince, offal and blood. Still, all countries have lively vegetarian and vegan communities, especially among young city-dwellers. Vegetarians face less understanding in the countryside, where hunting and fishing are popular pastimes.

  • Pork is the most common meat, and one of Denmark's most important export commodities. Pork dishes are especially eaten around Christmas.
  • While cattle are primarily held for milk, beef and veal are delicacies.
  • Lamb is a signature dish of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and rural Norway. Several special dishes are based on lamb, for instance "sheep's head" (Norwegian: smalahove) or "sheep's ribs" (Norwegian: pinnekjøtt, ribbe). Dried, salted and smoked meat products are common.
  • While chicken and other poultry became everyday food only in the late 20th century, goose is traditionally eaten in Denmark and southern Sweden.
  • As hunting is a pastime in the countryside, game such as elk/moose, deer, and boar, is seasonally available, although mostly consumed in the hunters' households. Wild poultry such as grouse is a treasured delicacy.
  • Reindeer are traditionally bred within the Sami culture in the Arctic and sub-Arctic territories. The meat tastes more like game than domestic animal meats. Reindeer meat might be served as whole meat, or as sautéed reindeer, (renskav in Swedish, finnbiff in Norwegian), traditionally eaten with potatoes and lingonberries.

Bread (Swedish bröd, Danish/Norwegian brød, Finnish leipä) is a daily staple food.

  • Soft bread comes in dozens of varieties, with dark, heavy rye bread of different types common. Especially Finland, with influences from the east, has many types of traditional bread. For more taste, try to find bread from a local bakery, instead of packed bread in supermarkets.
  • Hard bread or crisp bread (Norwegian: knekkebrød, Swedish: knäckebröd, Finnish: näkkileipä) is more known for its traditional value, than its taste. Some types are served with cheese as dessert or snack, some are worth tasting in their own right.
  • Scandinavian pastries are well known.
    • The Danish pastry is called Wienerbrød ("Viennese bread"), since it was introduced by bakers from Vienna.
    • The cinnamon roll presumably originated in Sweden as kanelbulle (Norwegian: skillingsbolle), in Bergen it is believed to be invented there by the Hanseatic merchants.
    • The semla (in Finland: laskiaispulla/fastlagsbulla) is a Swedish pastry eaten during lent.
    • Saffron buns are eaten for Christmas, traditionally on Saint Lucia's day in December; in Sweden they tend to be known as lussebulle.
    • Cream cake (tårta in Swedish, lagkage in Danish) is traditionally made of cream, sponge cake and wild berries.
Sandwich with eggs and kaviar

Milk and dairy products claim a large section of each supermarket, and are important ingredients in Nordic diets. Milk is consumed both as is ("sweet") and fermented ("sour"). Cream (Norwegian/Danish: fløte/fløde, Swedish: grädde) and sour cream (Norwegian: rømme, Swedish: gräddfil) are also widely used ingredients. Rømmegrøt, a porridge made from sour cream, is a Norwegian specialty. Buttermilk (Swedish: filmjölk) and "thick milk" (Norwegian: tjukkmjølk/tettmelk), are sour variants of yoghurt, another variant on the theme is filbunke or fil (Finnish: viili), common in Finland. Whey butter (Swedish: messmör, Norwegian: prim) and whey cheese (Swedish: mesost, Norwegian: brunost) are other typical Nordic products.

  • The dominant type of cheese is hard cheese from cow milk. Goat cheese, particularly the special Norwegian caramelised brown type (brunost, often made from goat milk and called geitost), is an iconic dish of Norway. Various traditional and novel cheeses are produced, increasingly on farms that sell the products themselves or through local groceries. Gammelost ("old cheese") is a pungent and rich Norwegian special cheese made from skimmed, sour milk.
  • Skyr is an Icelandic dairy product, similar to yoghurt. It is traditionally eaten in a bowl with cold milk. Skyr originates from Norway, but the tradition died out in most of Scandinavia 1,100 years ago. Skyr is produced under an Icelandic licence in Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Wild mushrooms are picked and eaten in summer and autumn. This is however a recent tradition in most areas; Karl XIV Johan, a Napoleonic general, who ascended the throne of Sweden and Norway in 1814, is said to have introduced mushroom-eating to his new subjects. Since then, the porcini (Boletus edulis), one of the most popular mushrooms, is known as karljohan in Swedish. Eastern Finland has its own older tradition shared with the neighbouring regions in Russia. At restaurants you will mostly find chanterelles and cultivated button mushrooms. At open air markets in Finland, at least chanterelles and funnel chanterelles are available in season; some twenty more species were approved for sale before the market was deregulated, also other ones are often picked by experts. Commonly picked mushroom include Boletus, Russula and Lactarius species.

Cloudberry harvest. Cloudberries only grow in Northern Europe.

Traditional vegetables are those that thrive in the Nordic climate, such as cabbage, cauliflower, carrot and turnip (swede). Potatoes have been the main staple since the 19th century, most often simply boiled, but also made into mashed potatoes, potato salad and more. The almond potato, puikula/mandelpotatis/mandelpotet, is a variety grown particularly at high altitudes or latitudes, is a delicacy of Lapland, Norrland and Norway's high valleys. Fresh fruit used to be a luxury until modern times; berries such as bilberry, lingonberry, cranberry, cloudberries and juniper berries are traditional condiments. Apples and cherries are widely grown both commercially and in private gardens. In Norway, apples and sweet cherries are grown in the fjord areas, notably Hardanger. Strawberries of fine quality are produced in large quantities during July and well into August in several areas.

Traditional spices are black pepper, juniper, dill and thyme, in low concentration. Salt has been widely used for conservation and features in many traditional meat and fish products. It was however rare in the northern regions, where food was traditionally dried, smoked or fermented instead. Naturally occurring herbs such as "forest garlic" (ramsløk) have been "rediscovered" and introduced in various products (such as cheese) and dishes.

Dishes[edit]

See also: Street food#Nordic countries
Norwegian road sign indicating traditional food and farm tourism
Fish balls; meatballs made of fish

Famous pan-Scandinavian dishes include:

  • Smörgåsbord (Danish: det store kolde bord, Norwegian: koldtbord, Finnish seisova pöytä or lounaspöytä), an extensive buffet with bread, herring, smoked fish, cold cuts, warm meats and desserts. Buffets are also popular for breakfast, lunch and dinner on Baltic Sea ferries, especially those between Finland, Sweden and Estonia.
  • Husmanskost is a term for traditional, saturating but inexpensive food. While it is often used as everyday food in Nordic households, it is also commonly served at restaurants, some of which simply label their cuisine as "husmanskost". The last decades has seen a rise of a more modernized, gourmet style of husmanskost. In the simplest and most general terms, it consists of fried meat, boiled potatoes, and brown sauce.
  • Meatballs (Sw. köttbullar, No. kjøttkaker, Fi. lihapullia), served with potatoes, berries and creamy sauce (a certain furniture store largely popularized these outside of the Nordic countries)
  • The falukorv is a sausage from Falun in Sweden. One of the most common ways of cooking it is sliced, fried and then served with ketchup and mashed potatoes.
  • Medisterpølse is a sausage from Denmark. Traditionally served with boiled potatoes, dark gravy and mustard to the side. It also exists in Southern Sweden as medister, but the recipe is different with other spices.
  • Pea soup (Sw. ärtsoppa, Fi. hernekeitto, No. ertesuppe, Da. gule ærter), especially associated with Sweden and Finland where it's traditionally eaten on Thursdays and with pancakes and jam as dessert. It is also encountered in the other Nordic countries. There are many just-so-stories about the association to Thursdays; one of them tells that the servants had half the day off, as it is an easy meal to prepare.
  • Lutefisk/lutfisk (Finnish: lipeäkala) is lye-processed dried white fish (stockfish or klippfisk), carefully warmed and served with potatoes, pea stew, bacon, gravy. Drinks with lutefisk are typically beer and akvavit. Lutefisk is in many areas part of the christmas tradition. Heated lutefisk emits an unpleasant odor, taste is mild however.
  • Open-face sandwiches are popular, especially the Danish and Norwegian smørrebrød/smørbrød. They can be small appetizers, or rich enough to make up a whole meal.

Lately there has been a focus on revitalizing the "Nordic kitchen" by focusing on local produce and generally raising the quality of gastronomy in the region, often coined as Modern Scandinavian or New Nordic Cuisine. This is influencing both everyday cooking as well as fine dining. As a result, especially Copenhagen and Stockholm have seen the development of excellent high end restaurants, including NOMA, which has been awarded the best in the world 3 years in a row. Maaemo, Norway's equivalent to Noma, has been awarded 2 stars by Michelin and has also been listed among the world's top 100 restaurants. Dill in Reykjavik became the first Icelandic restaurant to gain a Michelin star in 2017.

Foreign cuisines[edit]

As in most of Europe, internationalized and ethnic cuisines from around the world are popular in major Scandinavian cities. Especially Denmark and Sweden have many Middle Eastern, Thai, Chinese and Indian and Pakistani restaurants, usually with genuine ethnic staff. Norway has a large number of Asian cafés and restaurants.

Nordic people also have a fascination for sushi, as well as Italian and Tex-Mex cuisine; though many restaurants are far from authentic.

There are some unique combinations of ethnic food, such as kebab pizza, in Sweden. Especially in Norrland, they can be more outlandish, such as Calskrove (a hamburger with french fries inside a Calzone).

Beverages[edit]

Nordic people are among the heaviest coffee drinkers in the world. Guests are typically invited for a cup of coffee and during a private visit in somebody's home guests will typically be offered coffee. In the Nordic countries, especially in Finland and Norway, coffee is generally more lightly roasted than in Central and Southern Europe. Drip brew (filter coffee) is the standard low price coffee, although cafes and coffee bars also offer a wide range of international styles. Boiled coffee is still used, particularly in the wilderness where electricity is not available. Tea and hot chocolate are usually available as alternatives to coffee.

Sweet, carbonated soft drinks (Norwegian: brus) are common and available everywhere. Tap water is generally of high quality (except some islands and mountain resorts), but many brands of bottled water (with or without gas) are available in shops and cafes. Some special types of mineral water have a higher content of salts and minerals.

  • Julmust is a stout-like Christmas soft drink that every year annoys The Coca-Cola Company in Sweden by lowering Coke's sales figures by 50%. Available during Easter as well, by then known as Påskmust.
  • Juleøl (Christmas beer), also known as nisseøl, is a type of white beer that was brewed in Denmark before the Pilsner type of beer was introduced in the second half of the 19. century. Juleøl has less than 2.25 % alcohol volume and is sweet and dark brewed on caramel and chocolate malt. Juleøl is served with risengrød or risalamande, traditional rice pudding dishes, the latter served at Christmas. It can also be served with smørrebrød.
  • Svagdricka (weak drink) is a sweet low-alcohol beverage from Sweden that resembles the Danish juleøl. It is traditionally consumed around Christmas and Easter with traditional Swedish food. The few breweries left that produce svagdricka uses saccharin as an ingredient – an artificial sweetener.

Juices and sweetened soft drinks based on local berries, saft, is popular.

Alcohol[edit]

Distilled alcohol is seasoned with herbs such as almonds, hazelnut, dill, and licorice.

Traditional Nordic drinking culture is double-natured; even one glass is taboo before work or driving, but binge drinking is accepted on weekends and holidays. In recent years, habits have become more continental, with more drinking during weekday nights. Drinking alcohol is still a sensitive issue for many people. Guests, particularly strangers, are customarily offered coffee rather than alcoholic drinks. Even some formal parties such as weddings are without alcohol for instance among people affiliated with the Christian temperance movement.

Alcohol laws used to be harsh in the early 20th century, with total prohibition in Norway, Finland and Iceland. Restrictions have been softened in later years; especially in restaurants, as most venues can today serve beer and wine.

Denmark stands out from the traditional Nordic drinking culture with a more casual attitude. In Denmark it is not uncommon to see people of any adult age sitting outside in public, when weather allows, and sip a beer from the bottle. This is largely unheard of and even illegal in the rest of the Nordics, where alcohol is consumed in a private environment. As a guest you might also be offered a beer. It is okay though if you prefer something else or decline. Generally, it is no longer accepted to consume any form of alcohol at the workplace, except when the management has approved of or provided an invitation to a social activity where alcohol is served. Pilsner beer from a keg is the norm, perhaps some wine for those that does not like beer – never hard liquor. It is expected that no one gets drunk and everybody act in a responsible way, otherwise their career is in jeopardy.

With the exception of Denmark, the Nordic countries regulate and tax alcohol harder than any other European country. Elsewhere, strong alcohol (wine, spirits and strong beer) is not available in grocery shops, only government outlets Vinmonopolet in Norway, Alko in Finland, Systembolaget in Sweden, Vínbúð on Iceland and Rúsdrekkasøla Landsins on the Faroe Islands. Therefore many Nordic people take advantage of the "cheap" booze when abroad (bordershopping), with places close to the border or easily reachable by ferry, for example in Germany, or Estonia, being frequent destinations for border tourism.

The main tipples are beer and vodka-like distilled spirits called brännvin/brennevin, including herb-flavored akvavit (Norwegian: akevitt). Akvavit is traditionally produced from potatoes. The "line akvavit" is a variant that has been stored in oak barrels and crossed the equator line twice. Spirits are typically drunk as snaps or ice-cold from shot glasses.

While Nordic wine production is more or less experimental, stores and restaurants provide wines from around the world. As the government stores are bulk buyers, a bottle of high-end wine can surprisingly cost less in Sweden or Finland, than in the country of origin. A bottle of regular wine costs 8-10€ (more in Norway); low-quality wines don't make it to the shelf.

Beer is a staple drink in restaurants and bars. Pils or pilsner, the light, pale lager beer, is the most widespread type of beer, often brewed to 4.5% (or the highest allowed alcohol content to be allowed in regular shops). Stronger beer is available in the above-mentioned monopoly stores or on licensed premises. Increasingly a wider selection of beer types, including local microbrews and exotic imports, are available in shops and bars.

Mead (mjöd) is an ancient fermented beverage made from honey, associated with the Viking Age. While not an everyday drink, and hard to find outside history-themed venues, it is an icon of Nordic culture. In Finland, mead (sima) is mostly associated with Walpurgis and May Day and it usually contains little or no alcohol.

Punsch (known as punssi in Finnish) (not to be confused with punch) is a traditional sweet liqueur made from a combination of water, lemon, sugar, spirits and arrack, unique for Sweden and Finland. It can be served both warm and cold, usually has 25% alcohol by volume (ABV) and 30% sugar, and is by tradition often served on Thursdays together with pea & pork soup and pancakes. It grew very popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, generating a strong punsch-culture with numerous special punsch drinking songs, and maintains a strong presence in student culture.

Meals[edit]

Smørrebrød (open sandwich) typical in Denmark and Norway

Breakfast is an important meal and typically includes bread, spread, eggs, milk or juice, and coffee. Most hotels, and many hostels, serve a substantial breakfast buffet that can keep travellers going for much of the day.

Lunch style varies. While Norwegians typically eat a light lunch at work/school with a few slices of bread (niste) and perhaps salad, Swedes and Finns usually have a hot meal.

Dinner is usually the heaviest meal of the day. Typically eaten or served from 17:00 or later. In the countryside some still practice the tradition of eating dinner at noon, the word for dinner in Norwegian and Swedish is accordingly middag (literally mid day).

Light meals usually consist of coffee with a sandwich or a pastry. In Sweden, they are referred to as fika. Offices usually have a daily coffee break around 2 or 3 PM.

Restaurants[edit]

Nordic countries are rather expensive for eating and drinking out, due to high wages and taxes. Unlike, say, the Mediterranean countries, dining out is something locals don't do every week. Self-catering and home cooking are the norm. On workdays, however, it is common to eat lunch at a restaurant, and such lunches can be had for a reasonable price. For instance, the all-you-can-eat "lunch table" buffet, which many cafés and restaurants in Finland offer, typically consists of a couple of salads and bread, 2–3 warm dishes, some type of dessert, plus water, milk or kotikalja (what Russians know as kvass) and coffee or tea — for around €10. Also, fast food restaurants and ethnic restaurants offer more affordable deals. Norwegians usually eat a light packed lunch instead, and lunch offers in ordinary cafés and restaurants are limited. On the other hand Norwegian business hotels often offer hearty lunch buffets.

Tipping is welcome, particularly in full-service restaurants, but generally not expected. The exception is Iceland where, similar to some East Asian countries, tipping is never done.

Pubs and bars are about as common as further south in Europe, but do prepare to shell out more for your pint, especially in Norway and Iceland. In contrast to the rest of Europe, not all restaurants serve alcohol.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a hot dog kiosk which has been a Reykjavik institution since the 1930s

Street food is less common than for instance in East Asia. In the Nordic countries street food is found mostly in terms of sausage stands, Denmark has many traditional pølsebod whereas in Norway there are few left. At Christmas markets, Saturday "farmers' market" or festivals there may be a wider selection of street food.

The international furniture chain IKEA promotes its Swedish roots by serving Nordic meals far below market price. Foreign IKEA stores also sell Swedish retail food.

Foraging, fishing and hunting[edit]

See also: Right to access, Hiking in the Nordic countries#Fees, Hiking in the Nordic countries#Eat, Finland#Outdoor life

Picking berries, picking mushrooms, fishing and hunting are quite common pastimes in the Nordic countries, and the first three are easily available also to foreigners. There is suitable land for picking berries and mushrooms nearly everywhere and such foraging is allowed by the right to access (with a few restrictions). Also some fishing is available for free, while a permit for other lure fishing is mostly easy to buy. Hunting is more restricted.

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