The island of Sandhornøya sits near the mouth of the Saltstarumen Sound in the far north of Norway. The shape of a squished heart stabbing into the Norwegian Sea, Sandhornøya is a wild and craggy rock guarding the entrance to some of the dramatic fjords that cut deep into the Arctic Coast. Back in the boulders and there in the few copses of trees that could get a hold on life that close to the Arctic once lived the huldrafolk or hidden people.
“I think they are still back in there,” said Sami. We stood on the sandy beach and considered the sea, which was to be the main source of our food over the coming days. “This was always the northern limits of Christianity and the old ways never quite died out. The little people? It is possible they were never completely exterminated.”
Although a Finn, my friend and companion Sami had fished the Norwegian coast for a decade or more, learning from the coastal fishermen he met how to catch, prepare and preserve food from the sea in ways that date back to before the time of the Vikings. I had asked him for a demonstration and so we drove south from the town of Bodø through gray drizzling fjords dripping with rain and low passes where the snowmelt was beginning to fill rivers hidden among thick stands of pine.
It rained more in one hour than I typically see all year at home. The beach was backed by a towering cliff. Two low outcroppings of sea-smoothed red and black marbled rock surrounded the campsite but didn’t really offer any shelter. A chill wind blew off the water and you could smell the salt in the air. Off to the south was a massive chunk of snowy rock rising hundreds of feet into the sky and sheltering a fjord at its base. To the north was the open sea, which I scanned for whales. I saw none.
“Do people still eat whale in Norway?” I asked. Sami nodded. “But it is expensive and not terribly easy to find,” he said. “It’s good though.”
Our tent was a little teepee-shaped thing; just enough to keep us dry and out of the wind at night. We built a fireplace and kitchen area from the stones we found, constructed a bench and then a little table from the largest chunks of wood in the flotsam and set up the tent.
Few people live on the island anymore. No one wants to raise cows on a thin spread of grass or be a fisherman anymore.
In the morning we had been at the Saltstarumen where hundreds of millions of tons of seawater slams through a two-mile long, 500-foot wide strait at nearly fifty miles an hour – every six hours. This special current makes Saltstarumen one of the best places to catch a large amount of fish in a short time – and boy did we, pulling in a generous pile of saithe, a type of Pollock, in less than half an hour.
“Look,” I said and pointed.
There was a harbor seal in the little creek that cut through the wet sand and ran into the water. He was small for a male, tan with short flippers and spots that covered his entire body. He thought us over, and then rolled himself back into the ocean.
“He’s out looking for an easy meal,” said Sami, stamping his feet to keep them warm. “He knows we have all this fish.” In fact, we were up to our ankles in fish.
“Speaking of this, what do we do with it all?” I asked. Sami rubbed his belly, licked his lips and smiled. Traditionally, Norwegians prepared saithe as fried fish balls or breaded with oatmeal and fried. We simply cut off the heads and split the fish in half, lathered the filets with real butter and sprinkled on salt and pepper. The saithe smelled clean, like air, and not at all fishy. While we waited for the coals to cool and the potatoes to boil, Sami pulled out a slab of rotten meat that ruined the easy scent of the saithe and placed it delicately on the makeshift table.
“It’s a Norwegian specialty,” insisted Sami. “You have to try it.”
Raake Orret is rotted trout. You take the fish and put in water containing bits of sugar and salt. Then you put it someplace cool and dark for several months. What does it smell like?
Sami took a hit of the aquavit, spread the slithery mass of raake orret on a flat-bread made from yellow peas and shoved it in his mouth. I followed suit.
The trout’s texture was smooth and the taste surprisingly mild. If you could get past the smell, it wasn’t so bad. Of course I was taking a shot of the aquavit both before and after each bite so I’m not quite sure how accurate my description really is. But the aquavit was a good one. Distilled from potatoes and spiced with caraway, it smelled like a combination of nuts and wood and went down a bit too smoothly, making my chest and belly feel warm and lifting the cold from my lungs. Before too long the aquavit had me considering a swim. Considering was as far as I got.
We fried the saithe in a skillet on the skin side for just a few minutes. The meat was sweet and soft and melted in the mouth.
In the morning, outfitted against the sporadic rain, we fished our way along the edge of the coastal conifer forest up into the fjords and down around peninsulas and islands with names like Straumøya and Knaplundøya.
We found the best fishing under a high multi-span bridge that crossed the Saltfjorden, a narrow, shallow fjord that cuts deep into the Norwegian mainland. In our knee-high gumboots we crawled down from the roadway through scrubby willow to the water, slipping all the way on the wet stones.
By the afternoon we were deep in cod from the fjord. I’d lost several of the expensive treble hooks with my poor technique and while Sami didn’t seem to care, I could swear someone was laughing at me. Huldrafolk? I hate that feeling that someone is watching me.
Back at camp, we sliced the cod liver to perfectly sized bites and salted them. While they absorbed the salt, Sami created a grounded mixture of crackers, some old wheat bread, one whipped egg, juniper berries, thyme, black and rose pepper. He then breaded the pieces. Fried lightly in the iron pan with a butter and olive oil mixture, the goal was a crisp outside and an al dente inside. The liver was served on top of thin crispy bread with cumin seeds sprinkled on top.
But what do you do with cod tongue? Done in a mix of butter and olive oil with garlic and parsley the tongue needs to be fried quite a long time. If you’re not into that wobbly, soft, jellyfish, seafood-tasting version then breading the tongue first might be your style.
We tried it both ways with a dry Riesling on the side. And then another dry Riesling for good measure. It seemed that the more wine we added the more spirited the debate got over eating whale.
“Well, you’re just have to try it,” Sami insisted.
“Fine. I guess I will!”
“Good. In fact, I’m going to catch one tomorrow,” and I pointed at the sea. A wind blew through the pines behind us and I swear I heard giggling. It was probably just Sami.
The cod filets came back out the next night for a pot of Bacalao. That was after a breakfast of trout right from a stream that burst from the forest into the sea and lunch of still more saithe from a small inlet on the back side of the island. Bacalao is the Spanish term for dried salt cod but we used the fresh fish, white, delicate, and tender. The Norwegian name is Tørrfisk. In a Dutch-oven type of pot we fried onion and garlic and tomato and flaked the fish into the pan for a long, slow cook.
Ours was moist with a subtle tomato-ey taste. It had a pleasant fishy flavor and a slightly chewy texture. We lubricated the dish with an oaky Rioja while huddled in our rain gear on the beach behind a low rocky wall to keep out of the North Atlantic wind. Well, I didn’t catch a whale. I never even saw one. The chunk of whale came from a store.
I honestly had mixed feelings about eating the whale but I felt compelled to just give it a chance and anyway, I was ridiculously hungry sitting there by the fire, trying to roast the chill out of my marrow. My slice of northern minke whale had been lightly seared on each side then boiled slowly in a ceramic pot with a generous handful of south Asian spices, crushed almond, and Arctic lingon berries. Our little makeshift seaside kitchen smelled like an Indian restaurant happily lost in a wet and mossy Boreal forest full of mushrooms and sweetly rotting wood. The whale looked like a beef steak. It had a slightly rubbery texture that was a little dry and felt just a little rough in the mouth. It was a dense meat and the taste was a little like beef. I washed down the cetacean with a strong, ruby-red South African Shiraz.
Holy mother, I thought, if you’re going to eat whale, it might as well be this way. Then I felt bad for being so flip about it all. I fell asleep in the sand next to the fire and dreamed of little people from the forest just standing still and watching me and then of that seal sniffing at my feet and nibbling on my toes. Then I dreamt about whales, whales floating in the deep blue with streaks of sunlight around them. It had to have been an overdose of food from the sea, the smell of salt and the pounding waves.
The ocean was under my skin.
In the dull light of morning we were sliding over icy marbled bedrock and casting our treble hooks out among some skerries where the sea made the sound of a dog lapping water from a bowl. I tripped and fell into the ocean, pulling myself out just in time to avoid a good-sized wave. There were snowflakes in the air.
The eagle was back, circling above and watching. The crows and gulls were on the beach behind us. The huldrafolk? I’m sure they were chuckling away at this desert boy eat his way up the coast of Norway.