Cod’s own country: fishing and feasting in Norway’s Lofoten islands
These days, you fly into Lofoten on a series of planes of decreasing sizes. The last short hop is in something with about a dozen seats that has to be retrimmed if you board with a large bag. As you swoop low over cliffs and fjords, it is sobering to remind yourself that until recently, the only people mad enough to make this journey were doing it in open boats.
Lofoten is an archipelago off the north-east coast of Norway, just inside the Arctic Circle. There are only two reasons it matters more than any other piece of remote geology; its insane bleak beauty and cod. Cod come to Lofoten to spawn and for thousands of years, men have come to Lofoten to catch them.
Cod are found in the Pacific, Atlantic and most northern seas. Arctic Norwegian cod live in the Barents Sea. Skrei, meaning “wanderer”, is their Norwegian name. Today, they are usually caught before they weigh 30kg but in previous centuries they were regularly caught at 50kg or larger.
Their flesh is clean, firm and delicious, a desirable protein that when salted, smoked or air-dried can last for years without refrigeration.
Cod has a large, fatty liver from which oil can be extracted by a variety of simple methods. Whether steamed or mashed and simmered, oil will float to the surface and can be skimmed off by the gallon. The Vikings harvested it to use in lamps and as a medicine and, prior to the large-scale extraction of underground crude, cod liver oil was the main oil for engineering.
Lofoten, remote and hostile though it is, is right in the middle of the spawning grounds of the Arctic Norwegian cod. Its deeply fjorded coastline has many sheltered harbours and its climate is uniquely suited to the natural air-drying of fish. Man was lucky to discover a place as perfect as Lofoten to gather a lucrative harvest. It was less of a blessing for the cod.
Å is about as large a community as the brevity of its name implies. Jammed between rocks at the freezing water’s edge, it contains very little except a mud road and a small museum.
A holey wooden shed houses one of the boats they used to fish from. It’s about five metres long, reminiscent of a Viking longboat but wider and worryingly shallow at the middle. Nearby are some of the old long lines — spools with dozens of hooks hanging off them. It’s a simple enough display but it needs a couple of facts to put it in context.
This boat would be crewed by two men and a boy. They could fill it with a tonne of fish two or three times in a day, sometimes offloading to larger hulks while still at sea. Every year, the crew would sail this boat to and from Lofoten, hundreds of miles up the wild coast from the warmer parts of the country where they lived.
From February to April, according to the faded photographs on the walls, you could hardly see the sea round Lofoten for the thousands of boats just like them.
By the time the cod arrived to spawn, a 1,000-mile swim from the Barents Sea, they were large, muscular and lean from exertion. They were not difficult to catch in quantity — the process is as much harvesting as fishing — and, in the centuries before deep freezing, they were processed immediately, their livers crushed to extract oil and their bodies salted and dried.
All across the islands, you can still see the huge frames where the gutted fish are hung to desiccate in the freezing salt air before exporting as salt fish, or bacalao.
I’ve come to stay in Holmen, a luxurious converted fishing camp that now hosts a series of events called “Kitchen on the Edge of the World”. Guest chefs Mark Hix and Valentine Warner are cooking precisely where the great fish are hauled out of the water.
Both Hix and Warner are keen and experienced fishermen but even they are taken aback by the sheer scale of this pre-machine age industry. In the evening, returning to our own rorbu, or fishing hut, they get their hands on their first freshly caught fish.
There are three, weighing in between 15kg and 20kg each, and they’ve been unloaded straight on to the jetty outside the kitchen. Chefs usually receive neatly filleted pieces, so they’re full of enthusiasm as they “break down” whole giant fish.
Things that might never normally make the menu are suddenly a possibility. Hix fries full sacs of milt, or fish sperm, on a bed of fresh tartare sauce, and a length of the digestive tract that he cleans carefully and serves as chitterlings on toast.
The following day, we look out of the dining-room window through ice-clear air to the two mountains that guard the mouth of the fjord where it spills into the Norwegian Sea. Film directors have often chosen the location to represent unimaginable landscapes in science fiction or, more appropriately, the gates of Asgard. You can kind of see their point. No amount of CGI will ever fake something that terrifyingly inspiring.
Breakfast is suitably mythic: fresh-baked black bread, local eggs and “bacon”, made with salted crisp-fried cod skin, straight from the hands of Warner, who is already butchering more cuts for the evening.
We are passed the choicest pieces to eat raw as he trims the “collar”, a traditional cut mentioned in medieval cookery texts, full of complicated bone structures but also the sweetest meat. Large pieces of the fillets go into salts and various cures for later.
We head out in search of more contemporary cod fishing. The drying frames are gaunt against the Arctic sky, though often empty. Today, fresh cod, frozen quickly at the harbourside, fetches a higher price than the painstakingly dried fillets, but there is still a market for it in west Africa, where dried fish head is an important ingredient.
We reach a small landing stage with a modern-looking aluminium building housing long prep benches and stacks of plastic crates. Like most of the local kids, Maria Rasmussen Melhus, our host’s daughter, works in the processing plants during the season.
She is 14, studies at an international school, speaks four languages with faultless fluency and is, by fortunate coincidence, the champion fastest beheader of cod in the archipelago. Like most of her school friends, she’s paid by the number of fish she can process and it’s not unusual to raise enough money in a few seasons to pay for a car or a downpayment on a first flat or boat.
Today’s boats are an improvement on the old rowing skiffs. They’re cheerful, rounded little aluminium hulls with a covered cabin, winches to pull in the lines, equipped with fish-seeking sonar and refrigerated wells for the catch. The boats take sports fishermen out for part of the year but in season, like every other available craft, they are fully committed to the harvest.
A fisherman shows us the lure, a lead weight the size and shape of a banana in a shiny chrome sheath, with two sets of triple-barbed hooks. There is no attempt to conceal them with appetising bait.
Down there in the dark, the seabed is covered with numberless giant fish, hungry as hell and hopped-up on who knows what mad spawning lusts. They will hit anything that glints, with huge muscular force and zero discernment.
As fast as the fishermen can haul fish over the side, Melhus picks them up by the gills, severs the head with a single swipe and deftly carves out the tongue and cheeks. Hix collects both as she swings the head up into the air and slams it down on to a metre-high steel spike set into the floor.
There’s a string running up its centre and every 20 heads, she lifts off a chain of fishy skulls and throws them into a barrow. At the long tables, young men in heavy white aprons, one arm in a long chainmail sleeve, are filleting so fast their knives are a blur.
Our “camp”, like dozens of others dotted around the coves of the fjord, comprises half a dozen roughly cube-shaped wooden houses on stilts coming out of the water. There are slatted timber walkways connecting them and forming docks and jetties.
Originally, the fishing crews would have rented these for the season. Two eight-man crews could sleep in the two rooms, in bunk shelves set up the walls; and when they weren’t sleeping, mend their lines in the middle. Each house had a cook and a small kitchen. At Holmen, the interiors have been brought up to modern standards. Not strictly “luxurious”, but highly considered austere minimalism.
The dining hall, though, is warm and inviting, with a large open kitchen. Hix and Warner are working together on an astonishing menu, a kind of omakase by English chefs, with locally foraged and caught Norwegian ingredients.
Warner has opened out an entire fish, the two bulky sides still attached by the tail, and topped one with a green “mojo”, or spicy sauce, and the other with a red one, before slow-roasting — a kind of deconstructed “Veracruz” style.
The green side is intensely vegetal, fresh and herby, the red fragrant with warming spices. Both chefs bring out expensive Japanese knives to cut sashimi and Hix works on a delicate cod dumpling in black fungus broth.
As a storm builds, we drink ferocious little cocktails made with foraged local berries and the tongue and cheek appear as side dishes — the tongue deep fried, the cheek raw but subtly cured with citrus and chilli. Finally, the mighty collar of cod butchered earlier reappears as a stunning fresh-scented curry with onion pakora.
Most cod in UK supermarkets and chippies will not come from Lofoten. It seems to suit us better to get it from larger “factory” ships in other fisheries. The use of inshore boats and processing at such a comparatively modest scale keeps the cod industry on these islands at a sustainable level.
Today, they also rely on tourism; it’s a popular destination for Norwegians but also for eco-tourists from around the world who come to see the Northern Lights, unspoilt scenery and to take selfies in front of scenes that have backdropped their favourite movies.
Cod fishing as a business may be less vital to Lofoten than it once was, but for a couple of bone-achingly cold months every spring, it’s still possible to visit, to eat like a god in Valhalla and to experience just a little of the cod’s enormous significance.