My husband and I spent our first year of marriage in Stockholm. As newlyweds we were deliriously happy, but as grad students we were broke. Our best entertainment consisted of visiting the city’s beautiful food hall, where we longingly eyed all the seafood we couldn’t afford. After a while, a kindly fishmonger named Tommy Henriksson took pity on us and introduced us to some local fish within our budget. Tommy taught us to make magic with fresh herring and cod — fish so inexpensive they were taken for granted. We learned how to pan-fry herring and to sear cod in a blazing hot cast-iron skillet with plenty of salt. It cooked up into beautiful, moist flakes.
But times have changed, and we can no longer take cod for granted. By 1994, the once-bounteous stock of cod in Georges Bank, a continental shelf off the coast of New England, had been depleted from overfishing. And although strict quotas were put into place, these protective measures came too late. Our native fish stocks still haven’t recovered.
The world’s largest population of native cod now swims in the Barents Sea, which washes the far northern coasts of Norway and Russia.
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These cod are called skrei, from an Old Norse word meaning “to wander.” And wander they do. The skrei live for five years in the Barents’ nutrient-rich waters, where they acquire exceptional flavor. They then migrate to spawn in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago off Norway’s northern coast.
Until the 1980s, when wet-fish and factory trawlers began to proliferate, small-boat fishing was the islanders’ lifeblood. They lived by the annual rhythms of the fisheries and revered all parts of the cod. By simmering the cod with its liver, roe and a little whey, they made a traditional one-pot meal called mølje. Besides adding depth of flavor, the liver’s high content of vitamin D kept people healthy during the dark, sun-starved winters.
The importance of cod
By Darra Goldstein
Ten Speed Press, 2015
Cod’s importance to the North dates from the earliest recorded times, both for its nutritional and commercial values. The Vikings were trading dried skrei by the 10th century. Today, the fish continues to be dried in various traditional ways, two of which are recognized by Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, an international effort to identify and catalog unique regional food items.
For tørrfisk (stockfish), the cod is line-caught, then quickly gutted and beheaded before being brought to shore. Two fish of similar size are bound together by their tails and draped on wooden racks to dry for two or three months in the salt air. Klippfisk (salt cod) is prepared farther south on Norway’s coast where large, flat rocks rise at the edge of the sea. The rocks are cleaned and spread with salt before split cod is laid out on them to dry into a delicacy that is less hard and brittle than tørrfisk. My personal favorite is boknafisk, cod that has been only partially dried in the salt air. When poached, its texture turns silken.
Population is threatened
The Barents fisheries have been generally well regulated. Norwegians recognize that a healthy population of cod also means rich populations of valuable groundfish like haddock and pollock. But this piscatorial treasure is now threatened. In 2010, after years of negotiation, Norway and Russia ratified the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean Maritime Delimitation Treaty, which opened the waters to commercial interests.
The sea contains rich oil and natural gas deposits, and corporations on both sides of the border are eager to begin exploiting them. And although Norway is highly sensitive to environmental concerns, Russia is not. Pressure is increasing to drill for oil and gas in one of the last truly pristine places on earth.
Preservation is vital
Undamaged ecosystems are essential for fish to thrive. Unless carefully regulated, the oil and gas extraction industries will deplete the Barents Sea’s resources and then move on, leaving behind oil boom debris and polluted seabeds. The World Wildlife Fund expressed concern as far back as 2004, well before the international treaty was signed, over the potential loss of the Barents Sea habitat to overfishing and industrial development.
Because of the decline in the annual catch, the Lofotens are already less a working fishing community than a holiday destination. Rows of wooden drying racks now stand empty on some island beaches, like so many looming sculptures memorializing a once-crucial livelihood and tradition. Cod encapsulates the collective history of the Barents region and the Lofoten Islands. It is vital that we preserve the last healthy population of wild cod and protect these waters that nourish not only the body but the soul.
Main photo: Cod are hung out to dry in Norway. Credit: Copyright 2014 Stefan Wettainen