In search of Skrei cod. Lofoten Islands

Every year, Norwegian cod undertakes a journey of more than a thousand kilometers from the Barents Sea to the coasts of the Lofoten Islands archipelago to spawn.

From there comes the skrei , the best Norwegian cod , only between 15% and 20% of the fish caught will be worthy of that seal of excellence that is obtained after exhaustive control. Its destination is Europe, while the rest of the production is distributed across the globe.

Salted cod mainly reaches Spain and Italy, dried cod in Italy, and dry and salted cod is mainly destined for Portugal and South America.

Despite being beyond the limits of the Arctic Circle, this beautiful corner of the world where in winter the mountains emerge covered in snow from the sea itself, is the ideal place for the reproduction of cod and for its capture and processing.

Not surprisingly, the average temperature of the place is around 0º C (that of the water is between 4 and 6ºC), neither so cold that its meat freezes and breaks during its handling, nor so warm as to put it in its conservation is in danger.

Fishing for the best cod in Heningsvaer

Heningsvaer is a small town of no more than 500 inhabitants that in the scarce two months that the cod season lasts (from mid-February) bustles with activity. Although it is used to receiving tourists in search of fabulous northern lights or the best off-piste skiing, the fishing season is the high point of the year.

From there, at 5 in the morning, small boats started, occupied by one or two sailors, who will return with cod caught with nets or hooks. The latter are more likely to be considered skrei , the requirements are so demanding that even a brand from the networks will prevent a specimen from meeting them.

That of fishermen is not only hard work, but even dangerous, sometimes an accident on deck can cost them their lives when they are alone and far from the coast.

One of the keys to cod fishing is a strict licensing system that limits the amount that can be fished depending on, among other factors, the size of the boat.

These quotas ensure that the sea is not depleted, thus guaranteeing the survival of a way of life on which hundreds of families depend. Still, we are talking about impressive production capacity. In 2016 the total amount of catches reached 56,000 tons of cod.

The boats deliver the catches directly to the processing plants (in the region there were 69 factories that today have remained in only 5 that employ more than 100 people) and negotiate the price with those responsible. There, the best specimens are carefully chosen to be set aside as skrei .

In Heningsvaer the old tradition is also maintained according to which children cut the tongues of cod to sell them. If you go to a processing plant, you will find girls and boys accounting for huge containers full of heads handling the knife like true veterans. A child of about 8 or 9 years old can cut 20 kilos of tongues in just a couple of hours and earn thousands of euros during the season.

The maintenance of these old customs and a determined commitment by the government so that the new generations have facilities to dedicate themselves to fishing contribute to cod remaining a fundamental pillar of Norwegian society and economy, as it has always been since centuries ago.

Skrei Patrol (the Skrei patrol)

How is the highest quality standard maintained to ensure that only the best cod reaches the end consumer with the skrei seal ? For this, the Skrei Patrol has been created, an organization contracted by the Norwegian Seafood Council that is responsible for ensuring the excellence of the product.

The members of the patrols carry out controls not only in the processing plants themselves, but also in distribution centers beyond the Norwegian borders (this is how they often visit Spain and other countries that receive skrei ).

The check list to which they submit the selected cod is so detailed and demanding that it includes from the labeling area (the brand cannot harm the loin, the part with the best meat), to the appearance of the skin and even the smell, and thus up to 12 control points. Special care is taken in correct bleeding of the fish to guarantee that its meat is completely white, the true seal of the skrei, and that its consumption is carried out within a maximum period of 12 days after its capture.

All this serves to ensure that only the flott fisk , which in Norwegian is translated as “excellent fish” bears the skrei seal .

Gastronomy in the Lofoten Islands

As expected, cod is the king of gastronomy in the area, after all, it is the most precious product that is extracted from its waters.

Despite its small size, Heningsvaer has 10 restaurants where you can taste from the most traditional recipes such as battered and fried cod tongue and cheeks, a delicious (and hearty ) fish soup or mølje , a dish that once, when the fishermen only had one casserole, it was prepared by cooking potatoes, liver, loin and cod roe at the same time. Today these ingredients are cooked separately and the liver is served as a sauce, but the recipe still perfectly condenses all the flavor of the sea.

Full Steam is a restaurant that occupies an old ship full of fishing tools (there are even a couple of boats hanging from its wooden roofs), located on the edge of the sea on an island where cod dries in the air in front of an impressive landscape . There you can try the traditional dishes prepared by the family that runs the premises or taste the food of prestigious chefs such as Einar Hallstensen.

Here is a menu as an example of the most Varguandista local cuisine based on the quintessential product of the Lofoten Islands:

Skrei cooked at 50 degrees with leek ash, artichoke cream and candied artichoke, pickled onions and “beurre blanc” sauce with caviar.

Crispy Skrei Tongue, Carrot and Fennel Puree and Crispy Carrot, with brown butter, lemon and dill.

Skrei cocochas with beet tartar and goat cheese cream, crispy rye and pickled carrot.

On Full Steam you can also listen to the history of the elaboration of cod liver oil to, after the bellow of high-pressure steam, toast with a small gulp of that drink made on site to the cry of skal! (Health!).

When you hear the inhabitants of the Lofoten Islands talk about cod you can feel the pride they feel in keeping alive a way of life that, thanks to ideal weather conditions and the commitment of all the links in the chain, from the fisherman to the Skrei Patrol , makes it possible to bring the best cod in the world to the tables and place Norway as a world gastronomic reference.

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