As winter settles on Norway’s Lofoten Islands, its inhabitants await the arrival of the fish that made the nation. We join them to discover how the humble cod still bewitches this beautiful, far-flung archipelago
WORDS: AMANDA CANNING
PHOTOGRAPHS: JUSTIN FOULKES
It appears indistinct at first, a light smudge behind a grey bank of clouds. As the wind whips in off the ocean and races howling across the valley, small puddles of clear sky appear, briefly revealing the Milky Way and the smooth arc of a satellite far above. The smudge starts to glow and build, lashing across the heavens in a series of tormented twists, before pouring down to Earth in a last spasm.
It’s not so long ago that the people of Lofoten believed the northern lights to be the visible form of angry gods, eager to scoop unsuspecting souls up into the sky to roam across the darkness for all eternity. Even today, to prevent an untimely disappearance, local superstition dictates that one mustn’t whistle when the aurora comes to town. But death takes many unexpected forms in this remote string of islands in northern Norway, and, if humans aren’t safe on dry land, they’re certainly no better off on the rolling seas. Legend tells of the draugr, a headless fisherman slathered in seaweed who sets out on stormy nights to ride the waves in a broken boat. The first a mortal seafarer will know of his presence is the sound of his screams carried in on the wind. They are soon dragged to the bottom of the ocean, doomed never to return to shore.
The life of a fisherman is hard enough without the meddlings of a mythical sea creature. Guide Ragnar Palsson, a jaunty fellow in a thick Nordic knit and black cap, leads the way round Nusfjord, Lofoten’s oldest fishing village and now a living museum, with a restored general store, blacksmith’s and boat-repair workshop. Striding across icy paths that have others flailing wildly for balance, he unlocks the door of a rorbu – a grass-roofed wooden hut once used to house fishermen during the winter fishing season. Inside, the turquoise water of the Norwegian Sea glimmers through the gaps in the rough floorboards, and fishing nets and heavy ropes hang on the walls. “In the 19th century, the fishermen wore woollen clothes,” he says, slapping his hands together to keep warm. “If they fell overboard, they would just sink. There was no mercy.” He stares out of the window at the rising swell. “But that is the life here. The ocean decides if you live or not.”
The siren that made men risk all was one that made Norway what it is today: cod. As stockfish, air-dried on racks to the consistency of bark and retaining its nutrients for half a decade, it was the food that allowed the Vikings to travel farther and longer than any of their contemporaries. More than a millennium on, Norway’s polar explorers had discovered no improvement on it, and dried cod was first on their expedition packing lists.
For centuries, cod was the country’s biggest export. “One hundred years ago, 80 to 90 per cent of Norwegian income was from tax on stockfish,” says Hartvig Sverdrup, ambling cheerfully in blue overalls and wellies about the slippery floor of his fish factory in Reine, a small coastal town ringed by a horseshoe of mountains. His ancestors (all also called Hartvig) established the factory five generations ago, and its business remains much the same. Great crates of fish are delivered straight into the building from boats on the quayside, gutted and sorted, and packed off around the world – to the chip shops of Britain, the restaurants of Italy, and the markets of Nigeria. He takes a bit of dried fish from a plastic bucket and whacks it with an axe to soften it; the taste can best be described as inoffensive, and milder than the smell. “In Norway now, we really eat only fresh fish, but the Vikings took with them stockfish. It wasn’t always that they would rape and kill. They traded too.”
The islands’ interest in fish has always gone far beyond what might be deemed strictly necessary for commerce: Lofoten is crazy for cod. Every winter, schools of the fish travel over 800km south from the Barents Sea to the archipelago’s relatively warm waters to spawn en masse. After the long journey, their meat is lean, and highly prized. “We look forward to the cod arriving,” says Olga Wiesniewska, a Polish PhD student completing her fisheries studies in the historic village of Å. “My friends are fishermen and all summer they are waiting, waiting, waiting for the fish. Now I don’t see them – they are out 24 hours a day.”