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It’s OK to Eat Skrei!

Every year, from January until April, a particular kind of fish comes — briefly — into season. This is skrei, the Norwegian Arctic cod, which sets off in massive shoals from the icy Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle, headed for the waters around the Lofoten archipelago off the coast of Norway. The name of this winter wandering cod is derived, appropriately, from the Norse word for a “walker” or “wanderer.”

The arrival of the mature fish, which migrate southward to spawn, is greeted with jubilation by the north Norwegian fishermen and their customers. Once strictly a local delicacy, skrei is now found at top tables all over Europe. I recently heard one Spanish chef describe it as “the pata negra of the cod kingdom,” referring to the prized jamón ibérico. The flesh is pearly white and unbelievably succulent, with bold, firm flakes.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was a skrei virgin. Then everything changed with a visit to chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s restaurant La Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim near Colmar, Alsace. Just a taste of Guggenbuhl’s skrei with a citrus crust and orange butter sauce and I was hooked. Chef Guggenbuhl discovered this fine fish some 10 years ago; now he serves it up every year at his restaurant. “I put it on my menu as a special every January till the beginning of April,” he says. “People know about it now, they look out for it.”

Before you round up a lynching party and set off for the Taverne Alsacienne to stage a boycott à la Legal Seafoods, it’s important to realize that there’s cod, and there’s cod. Overfishing of Atlantic cod is a hot topic. The Norwegian Arctic cod from the Barents Sea is another story. Here, the fisheries have been strictly regulated since 1816 when the first regulations governing skrei fishing off the Lofoten Islands were put into place. Today’s regulations cover the type of boat permitted, the size and type of nets, even the time of day fishing may start. Thanks to these measures, Arctic cod stocks are so robust that the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) actually increased the recommended permitted skrei catch from 577,500 metric tons in 2010 to 703,000 in 2011.skrei-specimen

As Karin Olsen of the Norwegian Seafood Export Council explained: “There are several different cod populations in the world, but unfortunately they are often mentioned just as ‘cod’ in the media. Therefore there is a big confusion around the question of whether cod is sustainable or not.” Invoking the careful, fruitful measures that have been taken for almost two centuries to conserve Norway Arctic cod stocks, she adds, “You can serve your skrei with good conscience.”

Guggenbuhl delights in the annual skrei season, buying the whole fish (average weight 4 to 6 kilos, or 8 to 12 pounds) from his supplier in Strasbourg and preparing the fillets in the restaurant kitchen. He loves its firm, snowy white flesh, and the fact that it’s slightly cheaper than the generally less interesting (and endangered) regular cod. This allows him to offer his fine dish at a competitive 23 Euros. And with a clear conscience.

Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s
Skreï de Norvège en Croûte d’agrumes Au Beurre d’oranges

(Arctic Cod With a Citrus Crust and Orange Butter Sauce)

Serves 6

Ingredients

For the citrus crust:

1 lemon
4 ounces (100 grams) unsalted butter, cut in cubes
4 ounces or 2 cups (100 grams) fine dry bread crumbs
Juice of 1 pink grapefruit and 1 orange

For the orange butter sauce:

2 ounces (50 grams) sugar
6 tablespoons water
A scant cup (200 millileters) orange juice
7 ounces (200 grams) unsalted butter

For the fish:

6 skinless, boneless fillets of skrei or other firm white fish, about 5 ounces (150 grams) each
salt and white pepper
butter and oil for frying the fish

Directions

For the citrus crust:

  1. Take very thin slices of zest off the lemon using a potato peeler.
  2. Boil a small pan of water and blanch the zests briefly.
  3. Drain zests, repeat the process four more times, then chop the zest very finely.
  4. Put the cubes of butter, finely chopped zest, breadcrumbs, grapefruit juice and orange juice in a food processor and process till well mixed.
  5. Scoop the citrus butter out of the food processor onto a sheet of baking parchment, cover with a second sheet of parchment.
  6. With a rolling pin, pat and roll out the citrus butter between the sheets of parchment to a large square about 1/8 inch thick – about the thickness of pie crust.
  7. Refrigerate citrus crust (or freeze – goes faster) till quite firm.

For the orange butter sauce:

  1. Make a caramel with the sugar and water.
  2. Deglaze the pan with the orange juice and let it cook down to a syrupy consistency.
  3. Pull the pan off the heat and beat in the cold butter bit by bit, as if making a beurre blanc, until it emulsifies and thickens.
  4. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.
  5. Keep the sauce warm – it will hold for about half an hour.

For the fish:

  1. Season the fish on both sides with salt and white pepper.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil and a small square of butter in a frying pan until sizzling.
  3. Fry the fish till just done, about 2 to 3 minutes each side, depending on thickness.
  4. Lift fish pieces onto a lightly oiled baking sheet that will fit under your grill (broiler).
  5. Heat the grill (broiler) to maximum.
  6. Cut the chilled citrus crust in squares to fit exactly on top of the fish pieces.
  7. Lay a square of citrus crust on top of each piece of fish and give them a fierce blast under the grill/broiler until the crust is lightly golden and bubbly.
  8. Serve with the orange butter sauce and vegetables in season.

Sue Style is the author of nine books, and writes on food, wine and travel from her base in Alsace. Her most recent articles have appeared in FT Weekend, Decanter and on her website www.suestyle.com.

Photos from top:

Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s Skrei de Norvège en croûte d’agrumes au beurre d’orange. Credit: Thierry Meyer

Norwegian Arctic Cod. Credit: Frederike Arndt, © Norwegian Seafood Export Council



Zester Daily contributor Sue Style lives in Alsace, France, close to the German and Swiss borders. She's the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October 2011, is "Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture." Her website is suestyle.com.

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