Tuesday, 20 April 2010


The seemingly dull act of opening a can of sardines will never be the same again. It is a task that’s now infused with deep and significant meaning. Which is surprising, I know. It’s not as though a can of sardines is anything to do with glamour. It’s not even expensive. It’s the sort of store cupboard stand-by that hangs around for ages until we forget to organise dinner.

But that was long ago. Now, a can of sardines induces a powerful wave of nostalgia, a kind of fishy longing, a bending of one’s mind towards the sea. You’d be amazed at what a simple biddy-little can of sardines could do to a person once they have lived on the Norwegian coast.

Everyone knows that for a place to thrive, one needs a few tricks up one’s sleeve, a good idea that brings growth and prosperity. Stavanger's periods of growth and prosperity all seem to last about fifty years, with nasty slumps in between. Firstly, there was approximately fifty great years of herring, followed by about fifty years of shipping. After the shipping industry had taken a dive, people were wondering ‘what’s next’ when someone heard about a French bloke who’d decided to put a sardine in a tin.

‘Good plan!’ thought the Norwegians. ‘We can can.’ By 1865 a can of ‘brisling in oil’ was the thrilling, glitzy highlight at an exhibition in Bergen, and by the turn of the century, Norwegian canning of sardines, and other products, was all the rage. By 1900 the herring were no longer plentiful, but from time to time there was a bunch of other stuff in the sea, particularly little toatie-wee toots called sprats, conveniently small for packing into tins. The sky was the limit, and there followed fifty years of super-successful canning.

By the mid 1920s there were almost 200 canning factories in Norway, with at least 60 of them in Stavanger. Over half of the city’s population worked in the canning industry, a larger proportion than work in the oil industry today. Women and children were employed in the factories, and during the height of the season, whole families would work around the clock. They were super fast, and could pack a tin of sardines in 5-6 seconds. Artists designed labels for specific countries and climates, and soon the industry had refined its marketing skills to such an extent that Norwegian sardines were exported around the globe. It was said that if you lined up all the tins of sardines produced in Stavanger in one year, they would stretch right up the Norwegian coast-line, which, as we know, is the longest in Europe. That’s an insane number of tins.

There was a hiccup at one point when a legal case tried to prevent Norway from calling this product ‘sardines’...after all, the raw ingredient didn’t come from Sardinia. Norway was forced to use the term ‘brisling’ although ‘sardine’ was still permitted for exports to America and some parts of the British Empire, (presumably they reckoned these customers would have no idea where Sardinia might be, so the name was of no consequence).

There is no doubt a tinned sardine is a wonderful thing, good for the constitution and ready for any occasion at the drop of a Sou’wester. The great Roald Amundsen himself, realising how useful a tin of sardines could be, took a supply away to help him conquer the South Pole. He packed them into his suitcase in 1910, but forgot to eat them so they returned to Norway unopened. The tin was finally cracked open by some white-coated boffin in a lab in 2005, who declared the contents to be perfectly delicious and tucked into a hearty 95 year old lunch.

By the 1950s canning was in decline. The invention of the freezer rather put the brakes on things, and eventually there were only a few factories operating in the city. Nowadays the canning industry has departed Norwegian shores completely and headed towards Eastern Europe instead.

I was once told ‘there is nothing a Norwegian hasn’t done to a fish’. My mind boggled at the time, a sudden riot of lurid images involving sea-creatures racing through my head, the details of which I will spare you. But having spent hours on end in this country catching, gutting, smoking, poaching, frying, baking, eating, photographing, throwing, drying, drawing, predicting the weather and decorating the house with fish, I couldn’t agree more.

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