Preserving the Glut: Rakfisk, the New Nordic and Grandiosa Pizza
Words by Jan-Peter Westad; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee
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If you turn to page 174 of your Book of Prayer (The Nordic Cookbook, Magnus Nilsson, 2015), you will find, under the innocuous name ‘Norwegian fermented trout or char’, a recipe for rakfisk. Nilsson writes about it unsensationally, describing it as another recipe that uses ‘our favourite pet microbe’ lactobacillus in order to preserve a perishable product. He calls it ‘an iconic recipe’, ‘as culturally important to Norway as sour herring is to Sweden’ and calls the procedure ‘straightforward’. The first and only inkling that you get that rakfish might be a little bit more complicated, both as a recipe and as a product, is the last line ─ a completely deadpan suggestion that before you try it, it might be a good idea to send a sample to be analysed by a professional just to make sure its safe.
There are remarkable similarities between Nordic and British cuisine. Both, in their New Nordic and Modern British iterations, are trying to reclaim a lost past, a past where traditional and hyper-regional dishes were eaten by every family, a past which may or may not be true. Nilsson’s book is a more convincing argument for this hyper-regionality than any of the restaurants, yet he is unafraid to list indigenous practices side by side with a recipe for a shrimp salad which is ‘traditionally’ eaten with Ritz brand crackers. Similarly, any book that deals with the regionality of British cuisine may also have to deal with the fact that the regionality we fetishise, the dishes our grandmothers cooked, the dishes with lineage, are not the ones eaten day to day.
I’m not sure rakfisk has a direct counterpart in the UK ─ a very traditional dish that is beloved and hated in equal measure. It does, however, have plenty of processed and manufactured foods that are: Marmite and baked beans, to name two. As globalisation and corporations slowly erode the ability of regional traditions to maintain themselves away from outside influence, a new hybrid of national cuisine, global cuisine, and regionality is being born. As Jan-Peter Westad points out in today’s newsletter, the spiritual function of rakfisk ─ of longlife food that preserves the glut ─ is perhaps now carried more in aisles of supermarket pizzas than the original dish.
I await the British version of Nilsson’s book, which I’m sure is being written right now. I just hope it has the good sense to recognise, that alongside scouse, jellied eels, cullun skink and Lancashire hotpot, that there is nothing more hyper-regional than a Gregg’s corned beef pasty and the two burgers for £2 deal at Sam’s Chicken.
Preserving the Glut, by Jan-Peter Westad
When my grandfather ate cod heads, his face would contort into impossible shapes as he chewed, pausing only to spill bones onto his plate until there was no meat left. On long summer evenings spent at a wood cabin on Norway’s south coast, our whole family would descend upon a huge bowl of prawns, cracking and peeling the skins and sucking at the pink eggs attached to the bellies. Legs, whiskers and eyes like peppercorns fell into the cracks of the table as we prepared our supper of shellfish on white bread with mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon. After dinner the carcasses were thrown into the sea and we would watch as seagulls and arctic terns competed for the spoils from above, while below small fish would nibble and the occasional crab would carry off a head of its own to enjoy in private under the jetty.
Growing up in one of London’s nondescript suburbs, I attached great meaning to those summer meals, which I considered to be very Norwegian. I was thrilled by the raw messiness of eating on an island where we fished, picked blueberries and foraged for mushrooms. Then there was the period of feasting when stores had to be used up before we returned to the mainland. I remember a happy afternoon sitting with a cousin who, taking out his pocketknife, cut us pieces from a great leg of cured ham that needed finishing. It seemed to me to be perfectly wild.
Most wild of all were the grisly traditional dishes, described in hushed tones but rarely seen or tasted: sheep heads served whole, slabs of grilled whale and, perhaps the most gruesome, rakfisk – fish left to rot in ice for years until its smell could make you sick (or so I was told by rascal cousins).
The reality isn’t so far off. Rakfisk – first recorded in the fourteenth century, but likely eaten long before – is fermented fish (usually trout or char) made by packing fish tight in a barrel of salt and water for any length of time between six months and a number of years. The smell can only be described as terrible. The taste marries the sweetness of cured fish with something sharper, almost like a strong soft French cheese (the bacteria used in the fermentation process is the same). As with all traditional foods, there’s a ceremonial aspect to rakfisk consumption. People hold rakfisk parties and there is a popular rakfisk festival every year. Although it was once a staple, today rakfisk divides Norwegian households. For every Norwegian who genuinely loves the taste, there is another who will not touch the stuff. It is usually only served at Christmas, with potato flatbread, sour cream and red onion, and chased, gratefully, with a shot of aquavit.
Over the years, my fascination with these traditional dishes has only grown. In an attempt to better understand why such an ostensibly unappealing delicacy remains part of Norwegian culture, I travelled to a region named Valdres, one of the main homes of rakfisk. Historically many inland farms would have prepared their own rakfisk, but today most of the commercial production is done by just a handful of farms clustered around Strondafjorden lake in the Valdres valley, a three-hour uphill journey north from Oslo by bus. Nils Noraker, a short, gentle man with a toothy grin, is one of the seven main producers: his family have been making rakfisk for more than 500 years. ‘I’m the fourteenth generation,’ says Nils, his amused smile suggesting this is quite ordinary.
While the main homestead sits at the foot of the valley overlooking Strondafjorden’s deep-green waters, behind it stretches a steep rocky incline covered with pines. ‘In summer, farmers moved their cattle up the mountain to graze and lived at the summer farms,’ says Nils – during this period they would fish for rainbow trout in the mountain lakes. When autumn came and it started to cool, they would pack their catch in barrels before carrying them down to the main farm to be stored and eaten over the desolate winters.
Rakfisk was practical and cheap. ‘By the sea, people had all the salt they could want for preserving food, but in the valleys it was many days by horse to the coast, so salt was expensive,’ Nils explains. ‘The solution we used was water and around 5% salt.’ An almost identical recipe and method is used today, though the cleaning process is much more thorough. ‘We take out all of the blood, which was the source of the bad smell in the old times,’ Nils says as he shows me the room where they now gut, clean and fillet the fish. The smell, though not overwhelming, is strong enough for me. Nils admits he’s long stopped noticing it.
The drastic cut in rakfisk’s production costs from the introduction of fish farming helped encourage a renaissance in its consumption in the 70s. ‘For a long time people were eating mass-produced food from supermarkets and traditional local foods weren’t widely available,’ says Nils. ‘Now we have thousands of visitors every year who want to see the process and understand the history.’ This renaissance has allowed for a rapid increase in the volume produced. When Nils’ parents first produced rakfisk commercially they sold 170kg. Last year he sold 30 tonnes.
Rakfisk is that strange thing: a recipe borne out of geographic necessity, subsequently embraced as a national food before coming to stand for, and be celebrated as a symbol of, hyper-regionality. Norwegians have recently been trying to reconnect with local food culture, helping to rejuvenate Valdres’s economy: there are now a number of producers offering different delicacies. When Nils gives me a lift to town we stop by a shop where he exchanges rakfisk fillets for a large brown paper bag. Noting my interest, Nils tells me it’s a local cheese – ‘made in the old way on the summer farm, of course.’
The inventiveness of the ‘old ways’ remains instructive when considering Norway’s contemporary food culture. In the last few decades, a broader return to traditional, seasonal and local produce has been amplified at restaurant level with the phenomenon of so-called ‘New Nordic cuisine’. This cuisine is both regional and hyper-regional: it conglomerates the cuisines of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and celebrates the local on a micro level.
Internationally, the New Nordic has become synonymous with a stylish, functional (and expensive) minimalism. As someone who loves Norwegian food for its lack of glamour, this self-serious trend instinctively leaves me cold. Of course, René Redzepi’s Noma has transformed the perception of Nordic cuisine. But the perceptions New Nordic cooking sought to change seemed to be mostly those held by elite restaurateurs and critics. The food might be local; the audience less so. At the two-starred Oslo restaurant Maaemo, rakfisk is plated with a pool of lettuce juice, grilled leek, leek oil and a tartare of trout and horseradish cream – perhaps a new, gentler version of the classic bit where well-meaning foreigners are subjected to a particularly strong batch of rakfisk in order to watch their reactions.
Rakfisk really stands for a particular Nordic temperament – a good-humoured resourcefulness borne out of necessity – the lack of glamour of which means it does not always translate well into high-end cooking. Yet the masochism in serving up fish that has been fermented, in some cases for years, hints at something even deeper in Norwegian culture, something that New Nordic cuisine no longer represents. Today rakfisk is enjoyed as a reminder of a time when food was difficult to come by, especially in the long and harsh winter months when Norwegians had no choice but to be creative and good-humoured in equal measure.
But in some ways the same situation which required fourteenth-century farmers to ferment fish still exists. There are people in Norway who experience a lack of food as a real and contemporary problem; food insecurity is rising. The problem is particularly acute for Norway’s immigrant community, as well as its recent asylum seekers – one study of 205 asylum seekers found that no less than 93% could be categorised as food insecure. The added pressures of Covid-19 have cast new light on the issue. According to data from Matsentralen – a network of food centers that acts as the link between the food industry and charities – there was a 40% increase in demand for food from food banks between March and July 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
For the past seven years, Jon Kaastad has been volunteering with the Salvation Army in Grünerløkka, which is one of the oldest and largest organisations providing food in Norway today. Just east of Oslo’s centre, Grünerløkka has been one of the city’s most diverse areas for decades and home to many of the city’s Pakistani, Somali, Turkish, Kurdish and Polish communities. In recent years, it has turned into one of Oslo’s trendier neighbourhoods, where new bars, restaurants and designer clothes shops stand next to Turkish grills and Pakistani confectionary shops. Rising rents are starting to push some of Grünerløkka’s earlier residents further east.
Jon is careful to put his work into perspective. ‘I can see why it might seem strange that there is even a need for food banks in Norway, but it's important to understand that poverty is always relative.’ Although Norway’s generous welfare provision is the envy of many, higher salaries offset higher living costs. This means those who are unemployed or with insecure part-time work can quickly find themselves struggling. ‘Many people with previously well-paid jobs have come to us after losing work to Covid-19. It can happen very quickly,’ says Jon.
The response to food insecurity has been spearheaded by Matsentralen, which also uses food provision to address social problems in innovative ways. As Paula Capodistrias, Matsentralen’s project manager, explains, ‘Our slogan is “more than a meal”. Relative poverty means that those under the poverty line in Norway fall out of society – this can happen in many different ways. We support a lot of people with addiction and mental-health issues. When these people reach out for a free meal at their local charity, they also receive companionship, support and resources to help them come out of their difficult situation.”’
Matsentralen is also trying to tackle some of the wider inequalities in Norwegian society. The day I speak to Paula in Oslo, she has attended a conference on increasing diversity in the workplace. ‘The unemployment rate for ethnic Norwegians is 10%, and for foreigners it was 35%,’ she tells me. One project launched during the summer in cooperation with Unikum – an organisation that creates inclusive employment opportunities – tackled the issue head-on. The pilot in Oslo created jobs picking up, cooking, and distributing food across the city, turning more than 4000kg of surplus food into 7500 meals in the process.
While there are constant improvements, Norway’s climate means that fresh food is more expensive and less abundant than in other markets. The result is that the food distributed to food centres is typically longer-life processed produce. Norway imports around 60% of its food and was ranked the least food self-sufficient country globally in 2012. Growing fresh produce is difficult and the Norwegian diet is less varied as a result. In my experience, breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner is not musk ox tartare, but bread and cold cuts, cheese, jam or pickled fish. Your standard midweek dinner might be fish, potatoes and carrots, all steamed or boiled. Meals at the family cabin were examples of summer abundance. But in the long, dark winters, processed foods provide the most affordable way to eat.
Processed foods are even celebrated in ways reminiscent of rakfisk. It’s often said – expressed with either embarrassment or ironic pride – that Norwegians eat the most oven pizzas in the world per population. The brand Grandiosa is a particular institution, selling more than 25 million pizzas a year, a lot for a country with a population of five-and-a-half million. The joke goes that rather than rakfisk, some families eat Grandiosa at Christmas. Likewise, no dish is more ubiquitous than pølse med lompe: a frankfurter-style sausage wrapped in a potato pancake.
Preservation culture still has a fundamental role to play in Norway. The need for preserving the glut for leaner times is what makes it a place where rakfisk, New Nordic cuisine and Grandiosa pizzas can exist side by side. From this developed the highly localised culinary processes celebrated both at rakfisk parties and in haute cuisine, and Norway’s wider everyday eating habits continue to draw reference from it. For Jon, it’s this same resourcefulness – of being able to redirect the glut where it’s needed – that might also be instructive in reversing the trend of growing food insecurity. ‘There will always be some who fall out of the social net and who need someone to pick them up. Mainly that is the public system, but where it cannot help, we will find a way.’
Speaking to Jon and Paula, it’s possible to be hopeful that even while need is increasing, they can meet the challenge. ‘We always have new volunteers coming in, especially at Christmas when we are busiest,’ says Jon. I ask him whether they serve rakfisk at that time of year. Jon is of the camp which believes rakfisk belongs firmly in the fourteenth century and assures me he wouldn’t put his guests through that. When I tell him about my trip to Valdres, he makes his position even clearer. ‘Disgusting!’ he says, and then, as if reconsidering, he adds ‘But yes, in Norway there is a strong sense of duty. Even to rotten fish.’
The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://www.natashaphangleeillustration.com.
All photos credited to Jan-Peter Westad
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead and Virginia Hartley for additional edits.