Thursday, 15 April 2010


The fish van showed up. Ah, excellent, I thought, I’ll get a box for the freezer. Handy for all those fishy meals my kids will refuse to eat.

I cycled down to the harbour to catch Mr Fish Man and as I gazed at a wall of frozen boxes, I wondered out loud what might be nice.

‘Where are you from?’ inquired Mr Fish Man, sizing me up and down to see if I was in any way Norwegian.


‘Well you’ll want this.’ He climbed into the fan and extracted a heavy, very cold fish box. ‘You Scottish people don’t like salted fish, so this one’s for you.’

I didn’t argue. He obviously knew more about me than I did, so I produced the required spondoolies and strapped the box onto my bike. It weighed a tonne so the ride home was hilariously precarious, reminiscent of something out of a Charlie Chaplin film.

As I cycled, I thought hard about salted fish. I was reminded of a meeting I once had with a Norwegian girl back home. Maud was a big, strong, blonde, tough, electrical engineer, a Viking with a raft of mermaid-like hair that tumbled down her back to the base of her spine, a noble brow and a palm-crushing handshake. I imagine Boadicea was exactly like this...she looked as though she’d just stepped out of a chariot having lashed her horses to smithereens as she charged into battle. You just wouldn’t mess with Maud. She worked for an oil company and was running a mind-bendingly complex operation off-shore, the basics of which eluded me within a few seconds of her starting to describe them. She spoke impeccable English, but it was the electrical engineering part that I had to pretend to understand.

Maud had grown up in the very far north of Norway, a place too remote and icy for anyone south of the Arctic Circle to have heard of before. She told me about her childhood up there in the 1960s when things in the Arctic Circle were, to say the least, basic. It didn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but maybe I’m just choosy. She was telling me all this between mouthfuls of eye-wateringly hot curry, Scotland’s ‘other’ national dish, chicken tikka masala. As I nursed my damaged right hand beneath the table, I asked her what she had eaten as a kid in the Arctic.

Her no nonsense answer was swift, precise and matter-o-fact.

‘Salt and fish. Only salt and fish. There was nothing else.’

‘Golly,’ I said, suitably impressed. Suddenly Maud seemed even tougher than Boadicea.

‘Maybe whale,’ she added. ‘Sometimes.’

You just don’t argue with Norwegians about whale, especially when they are bigger than you. The whole concept of eating whale is a step too far for us Brits, and it’s very hard to comprehend why such a foodstuff could still be available here. The issue produces actual, visible rage and red-faced fury amongst visitors to the country. I have tried, on behalf of my host country, to explain it to tourists as they stand in the fish market at the harbour and innocently point at a piece of whale meat asking what it might be. The official line put out to tourists is that the available whale-meat is the surplus produce from the whales used for scientific research...appetising eh? The tourists stand there, open-mouthed, staring at anyone who says this as though they are some kind of crazed maniac.

There are of course, still some Scots around who were a part of the Scottish whaling fleet. A job on a whaling ship was one of the toughest imaginable, and the tales those guys have to tell would make Boudicea’s hair stand on end. But, it was quite a while ago. If I feel brave enough, I will have to come back to the issue of the Norwegian whaling industry at a later date. It is a long and complicated history, but it remains the one issue that other nationalities can’t fathom. Except the Japanese.

My conversation with Maud did leave a considerable impression. Of course I was shocked, but I could at least see why eating whale was still contemplated here. If salt and fish were the norm, then whale would be a luxurious alternative, option number three on the relatively limited Arctic menu. In the 1960s, even the 70s and 80s, the choice of food on offer in Norway was nothing like we had in the UK, and while retailers are continually introducing new products, there is still far, far, far less choice than we have in the UK.

It’s funny how Mr Fish Man didn’t even mention whale to me. I know he had it in that van. I guess no matter how hard I try, I’m just never going to look Norsk.


  1. That Norwegians eat whale meat is a myth really. True, you can sometimes find whale meat in certain shops, but only hard core whale enthusiasts of age 70+ will buy it (for nostalgic reasons), or Japanese tourists. It's really expensive, and it really doesn't taste very good.

    Being a child of the 60s and 70s myself, with my father from Lofoten, I can remember my mom serving us whale for supper only a handful of times. None of us children ever liked it, neither did my father.....

    The last time I had whale myself was in 2002 in Brussels. The Norwegian King and Queen were on an official visit to Belgium. My wife and I attended the official "return dinner" (according to royal protocol) hosted by King Harald and Queen Sonja. Among dozens of Norwegian game and seafood delicacies on the buffet was the most tender and tasty meat you could ever imagine - it was garlic and ginger marinated whale......

  2. Tor..I'm so glad you explained that. It is one of the oddest things about Norway, and THE issue that perplexes everyone else. As I said, it was part of our Scottish history too, and we didn't have any land within the Arctic Circle. The least we can do is try to have an informed view.