It's been more than 50 years since I was first introduced to lutefisk but I will never forget the smell. I had a summer job guiding at Mt. Assiniboine Lodge, and lutefisk was the favorite delicacy of Erling, the Norwegian lodge owner. The basic ingredient is a rock-hard slab of stockfish (dried cod), which after soaking in water for several days is bleached with lye and then soaked for several more days to remove the lye before cooking. Erling never entrusted Doreen, the lodge cook, with the final preparation and after a clatter of pots and pans he would emerge from the kitchen and announce proudly - "This is lutefisk the way we serve it in Norway". The pungent glob of gelatinous, semi-translucent flesh drenched in caramelized butter is definitely an acquired taste. After leaving Mt. Assiniboine I never thought much about lutefisk again until last summer when we arrived in the Lofoten Islands where stockfish in king.
Located about 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle off the north coast of Norway the cluster of islands that make up the Loftens jut out from the mainland where they catch the full sweep of the Gulf Stream. The steady flow of warm southern water streaming along their shore has transformed them into a sort of high latitude Shangri-La, an Arctic anomaly blessed with year-round moderate temperatures and a bountiful yield of fish from the sea.
The Lofotens are where the Arctic cod come each winter to spawn, and for longer than anyone can remember it's where Norwegian fishermen from up and down the coast have gathered from January to April to reap their annual harvest from the sea. Unlike their southern cousins the Norwegian Arctic cod continue to thrive and multiply despite the intense fishing. When we arrived in the islands last June, near the end of the drying season, the acres of commercial drying racks were still hung with the split carcasses of literally tons of fish. Others hung from stair railings, window ledges, and the roofs of private homes. It had clearly been a good season.
A reliable source of fish is only one reason the Lofoten Islands have become the country's undisputed stockfish capital. Producing stockfish has been compared to the making of good cognac or well-matured cheese and the Lofoten climate is ideal for the making of good stockfish. As soon as they are caught the cod are split and hung on outdoor racks to dry. The stable dry, cool weather, with temperatures holding steady a few degrees above freezing prevents damage due to insects, frost, or decay while allowing the dried flesh to cure from the action of low temperature bacteria. After hanging outdoors for three months the dried fish spend another three months maturing in indoor drying rooms before being graded and sent to market.
Stockfish is Norway's longest sustained export commodity and, until the discovery of North Sea oil, it was the main source of the country's wealth. In 1994 almost 5,000 tons of stockfish were exported, most of it to Italy and other Catholic Mediterranean countries where consumption of red meat on Fridays is forbidden. The dried heads and lower grades go to Nigeria and other African countries where they are ground with berries and herbs to form a nutritious soup stock. And a relatively small amount is made into lutefisk for sale to Scandinavian ex-pats like Erling who long for a taste of home.
The role that stockfish played in the expansion of the early Norse empire is hard to assess but it is doubtful that the Vikings, using their open, oar-propelled boats, could have made their heroic sea voyages to Iceland and North America without a supply of stockfish. Once dried and cured it is virtually indestructible, retaining all the nutrients from the fresh fish for years without any refrigeration.
Archeological and historical research has revealed a vibrant fishing culture on the Lofoten Islands that goes back to the late Stone Age and extends through the Viking era into modern times. Storbathallaren Cave, a Neolithic site on the island of Vestvagoya, has yielded bone fishhooks, harpoons, and stone sinkers that go back 6,000 years and excavations near the town of Borg have uncovered one of the largest and best preserved Viking settlements anywhere in Europe.
Although stockfish is still the driving force behind Lofoten's economy tourism has become increasingly important in recent years. The islands are stitched together by a network of bridges and causeways that make touring by car practical and the scenery is breathtaking — picturesque fishing villages and wharfs tucked in against incredibly rugged mountains that seem to rise directly out of the ocean. The Lofoten Stockfish Museum, the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, and the Viking Museum at Borg are just three of the many well-done venues highlighting Lofoten's long history.
We spent most of a day at the Viking Museum, which encompasses the vast estate of a powerful Viking Chieftain who ruled over the region in 500 AD. It features both original and replica structures, including an 83m longhouse, several boathouses, and a full scale Viking boat. Entering the longhouse, the largest of its kind in all of Europe, is like stepping back in time. The staff, dressed in traditional Viking clothes, are tending the hearth and going about their chores as they might have done a thousand years ago. Unlike most museums the displays are not locked behind glass but scattered about the building to be touched and examined up close. I tried on one of the iron helmets and hefted some of the swords. Everything is incredibly heavy, which says a lot about the physical strength of the Viking warriors who wielded this stuff in battle. Before leaving the museum we were treated to a taste of local cuisine – stockfish of course, but mercifully no lutefisk.