“Once a year a miracle takes place in the Arctic Ocean. Between January and April the Norwegian coast is the scene of one of nature’s most magnificent events. From the enormous, nutrient-rich grazing areas in the Barents Sea in the north, the arctic cod arrive by the millions, migrating into the spawning fields along the wintry coast of Norway to carry on their family name.” so states the website Seafood from Norway. Skrei, the Arctic Cod is a type of Cod fish all its own. Spawned along Norway’s northern coast along the spectacular Lofoten islands, above the Polar Circle, the baby Skrei find their way back to the Barents Sea, some of the cleanest waters left, where they spend 5 years maturing, reaching 30 Kg or more as adults. As ”teenagers”, they return to Lofoten to start a new generation. Skrei, by definition a Winter foods, is a delicacy and I miss it. Practically every part of any cod fish can be eaten and is, but especially the Skrei, everything save the skin and bones, which one of course can make broth on or use as fertilizer for the fields. I remember many a meal enjoying sauteed cod liver, roe and tongue served as delicious additions to a poached cod meal. Cod has a delicate flavor that should not be overpowered by other flavors when preparing it. Interestingly it seems that Atlantic cod has a slightly better nutritional profile than Pacific cod in that it contains vitamin D. The best, most nutritious cod liver oil, in my mind anyway comes from the Skrei. So as you see this is my own ode to the cod.
Even the ancient sagas describe the Skrei. Already during King Øystein I Magnusson’s rule (1088-1123), every fisherman in the north had to pay 5 Skrei yearly in taxes. It was an export article even then, so in the end the king could fill his coffers. In the 1600 the well known Norwegian poet and writer, Peter Dass, a Lutheran clergyman, wrote the epic poem ”The Northland Trumpet”, which describes the land, the animals and the peoples who live in these northern regions. He also wrote verses to the Cod and the Skrei and the importance they had for the survival of the coastal people. In my family, being from the islands north of Lofoten and from a long line of hardy fishermen, who fished cod in the rough seas from open boats, Peter Dass’ poems were oft quoted, cod frequently eaten and both have formed the rock bed for my love of that land. Eating fish brings health, improves brain function and is thought to help in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Cod fished along eastern US is on a watch list. Norwegian cod appears in a different situation now than before.
Realizing the other day that the Skrei must be arriving at its spawning grounds just now, made me hanker for a good cod meal. I will have to satisfy myself with regular cod, since Skrei is hard to find where I live. The only Arctic cod I could find was already seasoned and no one messes with my fish. I already had an adapted recipe “Cod moch Bourgogne” in mind that sounded delicious. Personally speaking, I will take cod over salmon any day, provided it is fresh and by fresh I mean just caught, which of course these days is a near impossibility unless one knows someone who fishes. But during my growing up and later summering on Cape Cod, we could buy fish from the boats and it has spoilt me for life. I therefore often resort to frozen cod and also halibut, provided I can get either Norwegian or Alaskan brands. With good brands you know the fish has likely been processed and frozen within hours of being caught. It comes down to reading labels.
In Norway significant parts of the catch is dried and/or salted for export. Many in the north fish cod for their own table or buy it and dry it right outside their houses in the clean northern air for use later for for example Lutefisk, the single most extraordinary dish to come out of Norwegian cuisine. Songs are written about Lutefisk and it is regularly mentioned in the Prairie Home Companion in the same breath as Norwegian bachelor farmers and their socks. As a child visiting my grandfather, I loved munching on dried cod, we called it northern chewing gum. We’d just walked outside and cut ourselves a sliver. Cod is delicious served poached, lightly sautéed, as fish and chips, slapped as a burger between two pieces of bread with lettuce and tomato or prepared in more exotic ways. Right as we are speaking they are having a Skrei Festival a number of places up there north and I am envious.