Travel is about discovery – new tastes, new sounds, new sights and new experiences. But when have sardines ever been considered the heroes of any travel story? It's 9.15 on a cloudy morning and I'm packed – a bit like a sardine – into a small room on the first floor of the Stavanger Maritime Museum. A tasting platter appears with a choice of Dijon mustard covered sardines, Mediterranean-style sardines, sardines in a zesty tomato sauce or wild caught sardines in extra virgin olive oil.
I'm with a group of Americans, fellow guests from the Viking Star cruise ship, sailing in search of Norway's northern lights and Stavanger, Norway's fourth-largest city with a population of just over 120,000, is our first stop since leaving London's Tilbury docks two days ago.
The city centre is built around the harbour so arriving by cruise ship gets you a prime parking spot within walking distance of the old town with its protected patch of 18th and 19th century wooden homes that overlook the cruise ship terminal.
Stavanger owes its growth to this very small, very oily fish that I am about to devour. The Stavanger Preserving Company opened its first canning factory here in 1873 which was the beginning of the city's amazing sardine story. At one time, more than a quarter of Norway's 60 sardine canneries were in Stavanger. Chances are that if you ate smoked sardines anywhere in the world in the 20th century, they came from Stavanger.
Sadly the last cannery closed shop in 1983 and while the fish are still caught in Norway's fiords, they are now frozen and shipped to Poland for canning before being sent back to Norway for eating. We live in strange times. As well as the Maritime Museum, Stavanger is home to Norway's Canning Museum which is another stop on the three-hour Taste of Stavanger walking tour.
The downtown area of Stavanger, in south-western Norway, is dominated by the 12th century Cathedral – which is currently being restored in preparation for its 900th birthday celebrations in 2025. It's Norway's oldest cathedral and also the only Medieval church in the country to have retained its original style.
Our next stop, just behind the Cathedral, is Ostehuset Domkirkeplassen which serves food and drink over three levels. Beer is brewed downstairs, an urban and funky deli/cafe is at ground level and a high-end restaurant that serves food inspired by local produce is on the top floor. But it's cheese we have come to taste and the star attraction is cheese made by Lise Brunborg at her nearby Ysteri production facility, which coincidentally is in an old canning factory.
Brunborg is a master cheesemaker whose thesis was written on the use of goat's milk in cheese production. Young, blonde and tattooed, Brunborg already has a slew of gold medals to her name and if her blue cheese, called Fonix, is anything to go by, many more prizes will follow.
Her approach seems to sum up the way Stavangen food producers think in their relentless hunt to find, and serve, the best of local products. Local is good, better, best.
That's certainly something chocolatier Asle Ostbo practises at Chili Chocolate which sits in a wooden building halfway down one of Stavanger's slippery-when-wet cobbled streets.
Ostbo tells us that he spent his holidays picking wild blueberries that he has covered in his favourite chocolate, the lush French Valrhona. His best-selling item, he tells lus, is his aunt's recipe for chocolate, sea salt and caramel. Every item in the store has either chilli or chocolate as one of its ingredients. He combines the two for possibly the best chilli hot chocolate I have ever tasted.
Stavanger boasts two Michelin-starred eateries, Re-Naa and exclusive sushi restaurant Sabi Omakase. Although the city centre is small it still manages to be vibrant with a hipster feel. The most disappointing aspect is that McDonald's and Burger King have been able to secure prime spots in the town which does nothing to enhance its appeal to tourists.
Stavanger is a great short stop on a cruise ship because it is so easy to get around on foot, but you could easily spend three days here without getting bored. The city is home to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, built as a replica of an oil platform. If you are feeling like a good walk, then why not head to The Pulpit Rock, which is one of Norway's most popular hikes. You might remember it from Mission: Impossible – Fallout when Tom Cruise hangs by his fingernails from the cliff face.
Or if you just want to sit back and take in the view, take a cruise on Lysefjord, something that can be done at any time of the year.
Brian Crisp was a guest of Viking Cruises.
Viking's 13-day In Search of the Northern Lights itinerary sails from London to Bergen or vice versa between January and March, from $7195 a person twin share. Some excursions are included in the fare but the Taste of Stavanger tour was extra costing $159 a person. See vikingcruises.com.au