Skrei – “skray!”– might be some agonised, Munch-like shout into the frozen Scandinavian wastes. And in a way, it is. Skrei is a special type of cod, which swims all the way from the Barents Sea to spawn along the coast of far-northern Norway. Known to the Vikings as “the wanderers” (which sounds like a compliment), the cod appear in the depths of winter, when there are just a few hours of light each day, literally millions and millions of them, and they swarm around the islands of Senja, Vesterålen and Lofoten.
The arrival of the skrei is something of an event in the dark calendar of northern Norway. And so, in celebration, this year the Norwegian Seafood Council invited seven chefs from around Europe to Senja – to see what they’d do with a slab of top-quality skrei. And to provide a little spice, Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway, decided to put in an appearance too.
It’s a novelty travelling in the deep Scandinavian winter as the titanic battle between light and dark is waged around you – oddly more interesting than constant daylight. Even schoolchildren celebrate when the sun breaks the horizon, but here it hasn’t a hope of poking through the mountains, so there are just a few hours of dim light. Still, there’s the excellent cod – in order to experience skrei truly fresh, you need to visit between January and April.
Nearly two hours north of Oslo, we descend into the massive white bowl that is Bardufoss Airport. The air, at -15ºC, nips at us as we make for the terminal building. Then it’s due northwest to the island of Senja (which has recently crept onto the ski-touring map – you can ski from mountain heights right down to the sea’s edge). Eventually, we reach Hamn on the western shore, where rockfaces scarred with snow and ice loom in the gloaming. Hamn hotel is set in a former fish depot – a central building with a series of comfortable villas stretching along the bay. As we arrive, a small pod of killer whales is playing in the harbour. Beyond them, the view looks out over the blue-black sea to Greenland.
Not for long, though. By 2.30pm it is dark again, leaving me discombobulated. We are at 69 degrees north here and it really is unutterably different from normal life anywhere else. And bitterly, bitterly cold. I test the water with my hand and it’s five minutes before the warmth starts to seep back into it. Was that the blood beginning to freeze inside my skin?
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of cod to Norway before there was oil. Even the Norse sagas refer to it. For several hundred years it was the only source of prosperity in a remorseless land. Over the long, near-lightless winter months fishermen would row out into the Norwegian Sea to haul it in. And they found ingenious ways of preserving it. They salted it and smoked it, even air-dried it: left hanging on frames in air so cold that it couldn’t rot, it became as stiff as cardboard. From here it was sent as far as Spain and Italy, where, of course, dried cod – bacalao and baccalà – is now a delicacy.
But we are here to see what our chefs will do with skrei, and in the darkness of the afternoon we retreat inside to the kitchen. So what do they think of it?
“Well, it’s a lovely, firm bit of cod”, says Michael Mathieson, a partner and consultant chef at Michelin-starred Chez Roux.
The 1,000-mile and more journey, all the way from the Barents Sea, is the thing that distinguishes skrei. They arrive exceptionally lean, with nary a gram of fat. Their flesh is more muscular, firmer and whiter than the regular coastal cod that stays off the Norwegian shoreline year round. And it is superb to cook with. Around me, it is all industry as the chefs get to work. A few hours later, at dinner with the dignitaries of the local fishing community and Prince Haakon, six dishes of skrei tapas are brought out for us to taste.
Mathieson’s is a small tower of shredded skrei and crab meat topped with sandy orange roe, smoked egg yolk and a whisky gastrique, a will o’ the wisp of single malt that evaporates as soon as you put it in your mouth. Jonas Lundgren, of the eponymous Swedish restaurant, teases the Norwegians with a take on a traditional Swedish codfish, serving the skrei with egg and roe, brown butter and dill. And ElBulli alumnus Sergio Pérez from Spain offers up a variant on callos, using the cod tripe with peppercorns, onion, garlic and tomato – and chorizo, of course. There’s a whole Latin party going on in there.
The main course, prepared by the two chefs from the Norwegian national culinary team, is a roll of cod loin with caramelised cauliflower purée, pickled onions and a sherry vinaigrette. On top sit two battered cod tongues. Locally, the tongue is considered the most delicate part, but I’ll beg to differ. Skrei flesh itself is magnificent. People talk of “flakes” of cod, sections of flesh that slide out from one another. With skrei they’re a couple of inches across and firm – more like the slab of an avalanche than a snowflake.
Next morning we head off for a trip out into the fishing grounds. The weather is so unbelievably cold hereabouts that you need to wear multiple layers and a full windproof suit, complete with furry boots and gloves, and a head cover and hat to protect every exposed inch of skin. Dressed up like noddy men we sail for 45 minutes out into the gloom, the moon providing more light than any sun (it’s still loitering below the horizon somewhere). We halt in about 30m of water and, after bobbing for a while, we cast lines overboard, jerking them from time to time to make the sinker flash.
I’m sorry to say that catching cod is not really a skilled thing. As the fish roam the sea floor they snatch at pretty much anything, and at moments there are so many of them down there that a deft jerk of the rod can actually hook one through the tail. However, it is fun to catch supper and that’s what we do. Sadly, not skrei in my case, though the prince managed one.
Skrei is an impressive fish to be sure – reaching up to 2m in length, it is visibly lean, thinner than other types of cod. And the Norwegians are strict about quality. To qualify and be stamped as skrei, it must be of Barents Sea origin and without nicks or discolouration. Once gutted and checked, it is packed on ice and kept at a constant temperature, then exported immediately. It is sent all over Europe.
There follows a frozen press conference on the dock with Prince Haakon, but later the retinue reassembles in more relaxed circumstances in the hotel kitchen and the prince chats to the chefs about their creations. He seems like a good sport and joins in, asking questions and allowing a few himself.
What does he think? Well, he loves his fish.
He eats it two or three times a week.
And is he a cook himself? He’ll admit to cooking eggs for the family at breakfast in the morning.
As well as the cod flesh and the tongues – which are cut out by young Norwegians as a rather lucrative after-school job – the fishing community eat the cod liver and roe. That evening – well, I assume it is evening… it’s becoming rather hard to tell in the relentless darkness – we are treated to a fisherman’s dinner, skreimølje, traditionally cooked at sea. It is boiled cod, boiled cod liver and onion, boiled cod roe and potatoes.
A skreimølje shows off the cod at its very simplest and purest, it’s true, but such plain presentation when you’re surrounded by Michelin-starred chefs seems like a travesty to me. Boiled potatoes and cod liver is enough to have me howling at the windswept, moonlit cliff face on the other side of the valley…
But I am happy again the next morning, as the chefs are back in their aprons preparing fillets of skrei for our parting meal. We start with a soup made with stockfish that’s been soaked and reconstituted and then cooked with white wine and cream and topped with samphire and croutons. A delightful combination of crunch, silkiness and eminently firm cod. And finally several styles of fillet appear, spilling over with roe and dill, cress and asparagus spears, oozing with brown butter, sour cream, caviar – even a bit of foie gras.
Outside the light is marching along, hammering away at the darkness. They talk of 20 minutes’ increase in daylight each day at this time of the year. Dawn may not come till around 11am but, befuddlingly, I can actually feel it as the light waxes and swells around me.