Saturday, 17 April 2010


As I was saying before I was diverted by whale, I wobbled home on my bike with a big block of frozen fish. I staggered into the kitchen and slung it down on the table where it sat steaming in the sunlight.

The fridge stared at me as though to say, ‘what now?....I’m not having that thing in here, you know.’ Apparently I was going to have to spend the afternoon dividing frozen fish into sensibly-sized portions and lugging it all into the freezer down in the basement.

I tried to open the box. This was a job for the professionals. I found my boiler suit, hard-hat and industrial gloves, hoiked my toolbox into the kitchen and set to work. I managed to open the box with a stanley-knife, and prize off the lid with a chisel. The fish was welded together with ice in a great white rectangular block. I launched an attack using the hammer and chisel, but achieved nothing but a shower of ice particles. I found a saw and began sawing through the block, but it hurt my arm. I donned a pair of safety glasses and revved up my battery-operated power-drill.

The drrrr drrrr drrrr brought a small child running into the room.

‘Wow,’ they yelled. ‘That’s the biggest ice lolly I’ve ever seen.’

Before I could reply, the child had attempted an enthusiastic lick of the giant ice-lolly, whereupon their tongue became instantly stuck fast. There were two loud yells, one from the child, and then one from me as I realised what had just happened. The child was imprisoned, by tongue, to the block, their hands waving around in panic, a pair of anxious eyes rolling up towards me in a desperate plea for help.

After several to-ings and fro-ings with hot water, we had successfully separated the tongue from the ice with minimum levels of pain. Order was restored and I decided to wait until the warmth of the sun had achieved more than I was able to, despite the wonders of my tool box. I stared blankly at the frozen block and contemplated the wonders of freezers. What a form of preservation that was? And considering how vital fish had always been to the Norwegian diet, what in the name of cod had people done before freezers?

Living in a cold climate with a harsh winter, the ability to preserve food has literally meant the difference between life and death. I ran through the various fishy options in my brain. There was Maud and her salted fish, there was the ‘stock-fish’, cod which is preserved through being dried in the salty wind in Lofoten(see photo above), and there is the ability to marinate, smoke or pickle.

Then there are two peculiarly Norwegian fishy treatments that must be mentioned.

1. Lutefisk....dried cod, left to soak for a few days in running water (often a burn or stream). Meanwhile, birch ash is boiled in water, cooled and strained. The fish soaks in this mixture (known as birch lye although it is actually potassium carbonate). A wee dicht back in the stream to wash off the lye, and it’s ready to be cooked. I am unable to comprehend the fearsome reputation of this dish, apart from the fact that it can look like grey jelly. I am happy to report, thanks to my excellent friends and their culinary expertise, Lutefisk is delicious.

2. Rakefisk....fermented fish, first recorded in Norway in 1348. Along the coast, people would ferment herring, while inland, trout, char and common white fish were used. There is a story about Rakefisk the details of which are often said of Lutefisk, but I sense the myth is muddled. Long ago, a Norwegian wife was so fed up with her greedy and debauched husband she decided to do away with him using a fish. Having caught her weapon, she doused it in caustic soda and buried it in the garden. A few weeks later, she recovered it, cooked it, and served it up on an attractive dish with an artfully arranged garnish on the top. The husband showed up for dinner, took a hearty bite, and leapt off his wooden bench in ecstasy at the brilliance of his wife’s ingenious cuisine. He lived to tell the tale and a new delicacy was born.

And then there is canning. But that’s a long story for another time.

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