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Gravlax: The Arctic Origins of a Legendary Dish

Gravlax is one of the few world-famous Scandinavian dishes out there, and while many know that it is basically prepared with salmon and herbs, few know its ancient, Arctic history.

The origin of gravlax can be traced all the way back to 14th-century North-Sweden. In the Middle-Ages, salt was expensive and most foods had to be preserved using alternative methods. In North-Sweden, peasants and fishermen developed a unique technique called gravad lax (“buried salmon” hence the name gravlax): The filleted salmon was placed in a hole in the earth, covered with birch bark and laid in a bath of water, the fish’s own blood and various spices and herbs. The result was a rather strong-smelling product that would be closer to todays infamous surströmming (fermented herring) than the gravlax that is eaten nowadays.

Over time, gravlax-making techniques evolved, and the introduction of salt and dill, among other things, lead to the development of a much gentler dish. In Arctic Norway, North-Sweden’s nearest neighbour, it soon became customary to make use of a curing blend made of salt, pepper, honey, local spirits and, of course, dill to soften and ripen the fish in a uniquely delectable way.

After about 72 hours of curing, the gravlax is generally ready to be served. However, in many North-Norwegian households, no gravlax dish would be served without a proper mustard sauce crafted from traditional mustard powder, oil, flour and extra dill. This somewhat more modern local variation on traditional gravlax was particularly popular among coastal communities such as Karlsøy, where it has been enjoyed by generations of Hegelunds for close to four centuries.

Sources:

  • Kaspersen, Ardis (1990). Havgodt fra Nord-Norge. Oslo: Cappelen.
  • Moe, Nils Harald (2007). Tradisjonmat fra nord. Tromsø: Vitus Forlag.
  • Waldenström, Victor (2001). Laks!. Trans. Mette-Cathrine Jahr. Oslo: Cappelen

Related article:

Authentic Arctic Smoked Salmon à la Hegelund