The fishing boat M/S Sjøblomsten bobs gently in the dark green waters off Norway’s Vesterålen coastline, 150 miles above the Arctic Circle. A fresh tang of sea salt punctuates the 15°F morning air, and from the boat’s deck I see snow-frosted peaks on the horizon glowing rosy orange as the sun prepares to rise at noon and set soon after. It is a silent, twilit scene of stark winter beauty, broken only by the cries of the chefs and food journalists on board as we land the catch we’re after: a unique migratory cod and true Norwegian culinary and cultural treasure called Skrei.
From January to April, one of the sea’s timeless miracles unfolds in Norway’s northern waters as more than 400 million Skrei—pronounced skray, from the Old Norse meaning “to wander"—make their spawning run. The thousand-mile journey takes these lean, muscular fish from the nutrient-rich Barents Sea to breeding grounds farther south, where for centuries they have been caught during the long, frigid nights of winter. Vikings prized dried Skrei as food and a valuable trade commodity during their long voyages, and the fishery remains essential to life in remote coastal villages.
It was fresh Skrei, a seasonal delicacy now subject to strict quality and sustainability controls, that drew me, other journalists and seven top European and American chefs to Vesterålen. Unlike other cod, quality-labeled Skrei must be in pristine condition, packed within 12 hours, and kept on ice between 32°F and 39.2°F; only 10% of the migrating cod receive the label. Stringent quotas ensure the continued health of the huge Barents Sea cod fishery, which includes Skrei, with the Marine Stewardship Council having certified the catch guidelines and management system.
“Families across Norway, including mine, look forward to Skrei season every year,” I was told on my first evening in Vesterålen by Anne, a rosy-cheeked student at a cooking school in the fishing port of Myre. “We all eat mølje, a traditional meal of poached Skrei fish, liver and roe served with boiled potatoes.”
I met Anne in the school’s kitchen as she and her classmates furiously chopped, sliced and stirred under the direction of the visiting chefs, who were preparing a special dinner of their own modern Skrei dishes. Dressed in their Sunday finest, a crowd of townsfolk filled the school’s dining hall, done up with candles and white tablecloths for the occasion, and a swelling buzz of conversation greeted the arrival of each chef’s contribution. The dishes were spectacular. Pristine fillets sported a bergamot-sage crust or were perched atop creamy parsnip puree. Chef Ben Pollinger of New York City’s Oceana restaurant conjured a velvety chowder studded with colorful baby vegetables and crowned with a crisp chip of Skrei skin. No matter the preparation, each dish showcased Skrei’s firm texture, delicate flavor, exceptional whiteness, and touch-of-a-fork separation into large, succulent flakes.
The following day, after our fishing expedition, we visited one of Myre’s fish landing facilities for a lesson in cutting Skrei tongues. Virtually every part of a Skrei is used, and the tongue—a tender, tasty knob of prime meat, often cut into chunks, then lightly breaded and fried—is no exception. Generations of young Norwegians have earned pocket money as seasonal tongue cutters. “I’ve made enough to buy a boat,” said 15-year-old Sindre Bekken, a champion cutter who beat the pants off the chefs during a lighthearted tongue-cutting contest. “But,” he added shyly, “it’s a small boat."
That night, the last of our trip, local newspaper editor Hjalmar Martinussen invited us for Skreimølje[AB6] dinner at his cozy, wooden home outside Myre. We watched as he prepared dinner from fish caught that day almost within sight of his kitchen window, and when we sat to eat I began to understand why Anne, the culinary student, so looks forward to this meal. As faint green Northern Lights wavered in the sky outside, we ate and laughed and drank long into the Nordic night, celebrating the miraculous winter bounty of the Norwegian seas.
"Takk for maten,” I said to Hjalmar as we finally left, repeating a simple but heartfelt Norwegian phrase I’d learned during the trip. Thanks for the food.
San Francisco freelance journalist Christopher Hall reports on food and other cultural topics for many U.S. publications, including Saveur, Smithsonian and National Geographic Traveler.