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Some Surprising Facts about Norwegian Salmon

The oldest Norwegian document that describes salmon fishing is quite an odd one. It’s not a letter, not a manuscript but… a rock. More precisely, a runic stone which used to stand on a riverbank in Southwestern Norway, some 900 years ago. The stone told about a salmon fishing station in the river. The fact that people in the early Middle Ages felt that they had to claim their ownership of good fishing waters so publicly, proves that salmon has been a big deal in Norway for close to a thousand years.

Before the past few centuries, salt was an expensive spice for the rough fishermen who made a living catching and exporting salmon. Because of this, the fish had to be preserved in other ways. In the Middle Ages, the gravlax technique became widespread in Scandinavia but an even older technique can be found among Sámis from Finnmark. There, locals traditionally used a saltless smoking technique which consisted of drying the entire fish, heads and insides included, over a small fire for a longer period in order to trap the salmon’s tasty fat inside its meat. Once dried, such fish could be kept for weeks.

When it comes to historical fishing methods, these varied a lot between Northern and Southern Norway. Coastal Sámi fishermen used a combination of harpoons, nets, and the building of small temporary dams on the side of rivers to catch fish. In Southern Norway, the favored technique, born in the Middle Ages, was the varp. A varp was a river trap made of a giant net that could be closed by pulling a rope from the shore. In the 17th and 18th centuries, fishermen developed better nets and boats in order to gain access to the great salmon shoals in the open sea.

For the longest time, salmon was such a prized export good that very few fishermen had the means to serve any to their family. Yet, unwilling to disappoint them, fishermen would often resort to a sneaky strategy to surprise their loved ones: instead of using expensive salmon, they instead used much-cheaper pollock. They’d then dye it with red lobster powder before salting, smoking and sugaring it to make it look, and maybe even taste a bit, like salmon. That dish was traditionally called skomakarlaks (“cobbler’s salmon”) stressing that, in those days, salmon was not for low-class households. One can only be thankful that such a situation does no prevail anymore!

Sources:

  • Andersen, Christian (1977). Tilberedning av laksefisk i gammel og ny tid. Ottar 35-39.
  •  Eikset, Kjell Roger, Heitmann Kari and Nielsen, Jens Petter (2001). I Storlaksen rike, Historie om Altaelva og Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap. Alta: Alta Laksefiskeri Interessentskap.
  •  Fjelde Larsen, Marion (2014). Næringsmangfoldet ved kysten i middelalderen. In Nils Kolle and Alf Ragnar Nielsen (Eds): Norges fiskeri- og kysthistorie, Fangstmenn, fiskerbønder og værfolk, fram til 1720. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget Vigmostad & Bjørke AS (233-260).
  •  Storeide, Moreno (1994). Fra Lofotkokkens Grytter. Stamsund: Orkana Forlag. 43.