Leslie Pariseau is Special Projects Editor for SAVEUR. Her journey to Lofoten, Norway was documented in her article "The Shipwrecked Sailors & The Wander Cod" published in the September 2016 issue of the magazine. In it, she discusses the important of dried cod to Norwegian culture and cuisine. The Splendid Table contributor Von Diaz talked with her about the trip.
Von Diaz: I'm from Puerto Rico, where we eat salt cod all the time. Tell me, is the cod from Lofoten different?
Leslie Pariseau: The cod from Lofoten is different. It is generally not salted. It comes straight out of the ocean and put onto racks to dry in front of a salty ocean. It does take on that salty flavor, but it is not salted.
VD: It's weird to me that it's not salted. I can't even imagine it. What does it look like?
LP: When you're driving through Norway, in this tiny archipelago, you see these huge racks that are sitting on ocean fronts. They're usually in the shape of an A-frame, and hanging over these racks are dried cod. When you get up close to them, you can tell that their heads have been cut off and they've been tied together in pairs by their tails. They almost look like withered skeletons of fish, and the smell permeates all of Lofoten. When you get out of your car, that first whiff of air, no matter where you are, smells like cod. It's salty. It's almost the equivalent of aged cheese, but a fish.
VD: Tell me about Lofoten. What does it look like?
LP: Lofoten is breathtaking. It's a small archipelago that sits above the Arctic Circle. Even though it's so far north, it's rather temperate. It still gets very cold there, but not in the way that you would think about an Arctic climate. When you first drive into Lofoten, the thing that strikes you are these giant mountains that you're winding through. There are some that are snow-covered, but it's rather verdant for such a far-flung, northern place. The waters are turquoise, almost like you would see in the Caribbean. This is the place where people say fairies come from. If you can imagine a place that is verdant, green and covered in wildflowers with turquoise waters – that is what Lofoten looks like.
VD: What did you taste that you weren't expecting from what they make there?
LP: There is a ubiquitous soup that you can find in almost every restaurant. It's called fisk soup, which is, very simply, "fish soup.” It's generally made with cream, fish stock, pieces of cod. Seasonally, that can change and become something else, but anywhere that you go, you can find a variation on that. The cod tongues were very surprising, and they come almost like you would see a clam strip. It isn't exactly a tongue. It's more the throat that sits underneath where a fish's tongue would be.
VD: What do they taste like?
LP: They're salty and fishy, fried and delicious. It's interesting because all of the children are the ones to take out these cod tongues. They generally have these sort of small cottage businesses where they sell them to local restaurateurs. There was another very simple thing that I came across that I did not expect at all. There's a thing in Lofoten called cod caviar and, essentially, it's roe that comes from the female cod. They're taken out in these large sacs. There it's considered a delicacy. The industry died out at one point, but there are a few people who are trying to bring it back and market it as more of a delicacy around the world. It often gets smoked. When you see a cod roe sac, they cut it open, and they take out a big chunk, put it on a piece of cracker with a little crème fraiche, maybe some onions. It's this wonderful, soft, smoky flavor, sort of akin to smoked salmon but much more delicate.
VD: That sounds incredible.
LP: It was great.
VD: What surprised you most on your journey?
LP: I was very surprised to learn that all of the cod heads – after they're cut off and dried – all end up getting shipped to Nigeria. There's a dish in Nigeria – it’s essentially a stew – that the fish heads get folded into. It's because somewhere along the way, the slave trade stopped by Norway coming from England and eventually made their way down to Africa. It has a bit of a dark history. It's not something that everybody talks about, obviously, but there is this entire side industry where cod heads are getting shipped off to a very foreign place and have a place in a culture that we would never expect.