What did Magellan and I eat a lot of in Norway?
Norwegian Arctic Cod. Skrei to the Norwegians.
Steaming bowls of fiskesuppe, generous with chunks of cod. We ate it twice in Bergen, the city we started out in, and in many other places over the next five weeks, including homemade and store-bought versions in our camper. Fresh cod in restaurants like Credo, Umami and Kontrast and one caught by Magellan off the Atlantic Road bridge. Baccalà mantecato—made from air-dried cod they call Tørrfisk that’s reconstituted and whipped into a creamy cloud then lavished on seeded crackers. Bacalao, a salt cod stew made with tomatoes, olives, potatoes, garlic and shallots for my birthday on Lofoten and a take-out dinner on this same island chain.
After oil and gas, Norway’s largest export is fish, most of it cod. A lot of it is Tørrfisk—Norway’s oldest export—from Lofoten, which nets the country NOK2.4 billion annually. Because it retains its nutrients for half a decade, Tørrfisk was the food that enabled the Vikings to travel farther and longer than their contemporaries.
An article in Saveur magazine says, “Tørrfisk is to Norwegian fish as prosciutto di Parma is to Italian pigs.” Like Parmigiano-Reggiano and champagne, Tørrfisk has a protected designation of origin—the first Norwegian edible to earn this honour.
On Lofoten for almost a week in September, we realized how large the Tørrfisk industry is when we saw the many hjells, towering wooden racks where cod (unsalted) is flayed and hung to dry by the natural forces of cold air and salt wind.
We didn’t see Tørrfisk curing. Or smell it, which is described as both a foul stench and the sweet smell of money. The air-dryings happens between February and May when the ambient temperature hovers around 0° keeping the fish safe from freezing (or from spoiling as it would in warmer climates) and evaporating 80% of its moisture content.
Does Norwegian Arctic Cod taste any different? The texture, I’d say, is firmer and the taste more pure than either Atlantic Cod or Ling Cod from the Pacific. Perhaps it’s because Norwegian Arctic Cod live so far north, in the frigid Barents Sea, the body of water that separates the northernmost regions of Europe from the Polar Ice Cap. They migrate 800 kilometres to spawn in their birthplace in the deep Vestfjord that separates Lofoten from the mainland, earning the nickname “wanderer cod.” After spawning, they hang out awhile in waters 100 metres to 300 metres below surface before migrating north. Unless they’re caught.
Norway has had some of the same problems of overfishing as we did in Canada. When cod stocks rapidly declined after an extreme cooling event in the Barents Sea in 1989, Norway and Russia agreed to close down the fishery. Since then writes Camiel Derichs,
The entire fleet of Lofoten cod fishers worked together to secure MSC certification in 2011. To meet the requirements, they modified their fishing gear and introduced a minimum catch size of 60 cm, allowing smaller fish to grow and reproduce. Rigorous efforts were also made to prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, an issue that has now been successfully eradicated.
Well, maybe not entirely. Our friend Ed pointed out an article in The Economist, “Norway has haddock enough of fish smugglers.” In the first six months of 2019, border guards seized eight tonnes of illegal catch from vehicles bearing the license plates of Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania and Belgium. Most of the vehicles were loaded with a hundred kilos of fish, ten times the limit. Magellan and I saw evidence of this farther south at Nothavagen Fiskecamping near the town of Kyrksæterøra where we met a couple from Belgium with a van clearly outfitted for carrying an ocean of fish. The article goes on to say that to stop the “piscine flow” (don’t you love the wit), Norway has increased spot-checks and nearly doubled the fines for smuggling.
Before we went to Norway I made fiskesuppe from a recipe in Saveur, delicious with a kilo of cod and assortment of root vegetables you’d find growing in Norway . I’d planned to include the recipe in this blog. But the only changes I’ve made are adding ribbon strips of seaweed and dots of chive oil, channeling chefs in Norway. Why not just provide you with the link? Besides, it seemed unfaithful to Tørrfisk.
Thumbing through one of my favourite cookbooks, The New Nordic by Simon Bajada, I found a recipe that’s more unique and complex because the ingredients share the Norwegian trinity of pickling, smoking and salting. In Cod, cabbage & smoked rye, Simon intermingles fresh cod poached in milk and canned anchovies to nudge a salty flavour toward that of bacalao, then flakes it into mashed potatoes. I used Icelandic cod, which is close in taste to that from Norway. Red cabbage is pickled—the day before. Although our bbq has a place for hickory chips so I could have had Magellan smoke the rye bread, it’s been snowing here so I followed Simon’s alternative using hickory-smoke powder and toasting the slice of bread in the oven. It’s about the cod. Although Simon’s recipe was delicious Magellan and I felt the potatoes dominated the flavour of the mash. We’ve changed that by reducing the amount of potatoes, giving cod top billing while retaining the delicacy of the dish.
Cod, I love it.
- 1½ cups red cabbage thinly shredded
- 1 Tbsp mustard seeds
- 1 tsp dill seeds
- 10 oz white vinegar
- 7 oz water
- 4 Tbsp sugar
- 2 Tbsp salt
- 2 bay leaves, separated
- 2 fillets of fresh cod, about 5 oz each, 275 grams in total
- 2 cups of chopped potatoes
- 1 cup whole milk
- white pepper and freshly ground sea salt to taste
- 2 anchovies in oil plus 1 tsp of the oil
- 1 Tbsp salted butter, separated
- ½ tsp lemon juice
- 2 thin slices of seeded rye bread
- ½ tsp hickory-smoke powder
- Toast the mustard and dill seeds in a small saucepan for a few minutes. Add the vinegar, sugar, water, salt and one of the bay leaves. Bring to a boil and pour over the shredded cabbage. Refrigerate for at least a day.
- If you are not smoking the bread on the bbq, heat the oven to 350°F. Spread the bread with ½ Tbsp of salted butter. Sprinkle the hickory smoke powder on top. Bake for 15 minutes until it's golden at the edges and crisp. Tear into pieces.
- Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft, 12-15 minutes.
- While the potatoes are cooking, combine the milk, one bay leaf, white pepper, anchovies and anchovy oil in a large saucepan. Heat gently for 4-5 minutes until the milk is steaming hot but not boiling.
- Submerge the cod fillets in the milk mixture. Cook for 4 minutes, turn and cook for another 5 minutes or so depending on the thickness of the cod. It should break apart who pierced with a fork.
- Gently lift the cod from the milk mixture with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate. Pour half the milk into a measuring cup leaving the rest in the pan. Discard the bay leaf.
- Add the drained potatoes to the pan of milk along with ½ Tbsp of salted butter and mash. If it seems too thick, add more of the milk from the measuring cup. Flake in the cod and stir it throughout the mash. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Bajada, Simon. The New Nordic. Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books, 2015. Highly recommended, this cookbook has more than a few recipes that Magellan and I have rated 9/10. Fisk frikadeller (fish pancakes with pickled broccoli). Brined cod, parsnip & ymerdrys (the latter is rye bread crumbled, sugared and baked), Pork, barley & beettroot salad, Roast pork, carrot chutney & sunflower cream and our favourite (10/10) Stout lamb, lentils & cranberry. I found hickory smoke powder at South China Seas at the Granville Island Public Market and have been told it’s also available at Safeway/Sobey’s.
Derichs, Camiel. “Searching for Skrei.” Marine Stewardship Council. 2017.
The Economist. “Norway has haddock enough of fish smugglers.” August 8, 2019.
Pariseau, Leslie. “The Shipwrecked Sailors & the Wandering Cod.” Saveur magazine. September 19, 2016. A great read and the source of this blog’s title—street art by Norway’s Pøbel and Dolk as photographed by Michelle Heimerman. Leslie includes a recipe for fiskesuppe but I prefer another one, also from Saveur, from Penny De Los Santos, published December 15, 2012. However, Leslie’s recipe includes how to make chive oil to dot the top of your soup with bursts of green.