Dry, salty air that contains almost no bacteria comes naturally in northern Scandinavia, and makes drying fish, even huge whole, split fish, fairly easy. As with many of our ancient necessities, the product has been refined over time and dried fish in Scandinavia is now a delicacy sold at high price.
Norway has been trading dried fish, caught as far away as Newfoundland, with the Catholic countries of southern Europe since before Reformation. In the Catholic fasting tradition, you are allowed to eat only fish for a large part of the spring. And although Portuguese and Spanish fishermen were catching and drying fish in the same waters, the huge demand exceeded the supply.
Dried fish in Scandinavia
Stockfish and salt fish, made from a variety of fish in the cod family, are very good travelers and keep for years. Even if preservation is no longer a necessity, the taste of these foods is more than enough reason for people all over southern Europe to demand an ongoing supply, even now and whatever the price.
Most salt cod sold in Spain and the rest of Europe is still sourced in Norway and Iceland, though nowadays most of the fish is salted and dried industrially. Confusingly, while stockfish and salt fish are two rather different products, Scandinavian recipes are not usually specific, which means you can use either; as long as you know what you are dealing with, it is not a problem.
The term klipfisk (klippe means cliff, after the cliffs originally used for drying the fish) is used loosely for both types, as well as for the dishes made from them.
This is the oldest and most basic form of dried fish. It is not salted, and as it is extremely dry takes several days to reconstitute in fresh water. Stockfish is made by dipping the whole, hutted, split and flattened fish in seawater and then hanging it up to dry in icy wind – being practically free from bacteria, the cold, dry air allows the fish to dry without it going bad.
The famous wooden racks often features in pictures of northern Norway, are not much used any more. Once dried hard, stockfish keeps for years. During drying, the fish ferments slightly, giving it a delicious taste not present in salt fish. While stockfish us still produces, it is rare and very expensive.
The flesh of a dried stockfish keeps magically fresh and, once soaked, can be restored to a salty, lightly fermented glory. Some people say it’s an acquired taste, but we don’t agree: If you love fresh fish, you will love this. If you are lucky enough to come across stockfish, the flesh us dry and cream-colored rather than white.
Salt fish (klipfisk)
Made from several species of fish in the cod family, which are caught way out at sea, gutted and salted straight away, then dried after landing either in the open or in huge during sheds, salt cod is much more common than stockfish. It has also been made for thousands of years, beginning with the Phoenicians, but it only gradually became common in the north.
Nowadays, salt cod is made all over Scandinavia, but mostly in Norway. Salt cod fish is extremely salty, but not very dry, and reconstituting it is only a matter of drawing out the salt in several changes of cold water. The flesh should be white – yellow fish indicates old age or poor quality and, while edible, is not as delicious.
Buying and storing
You can buy both kinds of dried fish at good fishmongers, or at West Indian, Spanish or Portuguese shops. Always look for a good color and avoid dark pieces. The best quality is from the thick, meaty middle part of the fillet. This is also the easiest to handle, as it contains fewer bones, fins and skin, which means more flesh to the kilo.
Thinner pieces tend to be dryer and saltier, with more wastage. Needless to say, the best pieces are more expensive. Pieces with a high ratio of bone and mucilage should be cheaper. Dried fish keeps indefinitely if stored in a container in the fridge. Soaked fish keeps maybe a little better than fresh fish, but it should be eaten within a day or two,
You can’t do a thing with salt cod or stockfish until it has been soaked in clean water to soften the flesh and, in the case of salt cod, to remove most of the salt. Salt cod should be soaked for about 12 hours, with 3-4 changes if water, though you should adapt the soaking time to suit the thickness of the fish and how salty you want it. Be warned, though, that if the fish becomes complete devoid of salt, it’s actually a little bland.
Related: Food and drink in Norway
Stockfish, on the other hand, needs around 48 hours if it’s a thick piece. When it resembles fresh fish it’s ready to use, and the saltness will be gone.
We are not too adventurous when it comes to food up north, and almost all dried fish is eaten in much the same way, maybe it it’s so good. Strong spicing is necessary to stand up to the fish’s flavor, and a thick sauce and floury potatoes to mop up the sauce. Horseradish, mustard, vinegar and capers are all traditional accompaniments, as are pickled beetroots and bacon.
Along Denmark’s wst coast there is a traditional soeciality known as tørrede jyder, meaning ‘dried people from Jutland’. This consists simply of dried fish which are soaked for a day, fried in butter and served with potatoes and raw sugared lingonberries.
This unique treatment of dried fish often gets put on to lists of ‘the world’s weirdest foods’. Originating in Norway during the Middle Ages, lutefisk is a relatively new invention. Traditionally it was served on Christmas Eve, but now a rising number of Norwegians – and Swedes, too, these days – eat lutefisk not so much on that particular evening, but during winter in general.
This is part of a growing awareness and pride in northern specialties and food culture. Interestingly, more lutefisk is eaten by North Americans of Nordic ancestry than by native Scandinavians themselves.
To make lutefisk, stockfish or salt cod is soaked in water for several days to swell, and then treated with lye (lut); historically, this was generally in the dorm of birch ashes, but nowadays caustic soda (leached from wood ash) is normally used. This breaks down the proteins in the fish and gives it a particular, jelly-like consistency. Then it is soaked for several days to bring down the pH to normal, and finally prepared very simple: baked in its own juices for a very short time, sealed in with a lid or foil.
The odor is strong but the taste is surprisingly mild. The fish is most eaten with a white sauce, buttered peas, bushed neeps (mashed swede) and potatoes.
Feature image (on top): Stockfishj from Lofoten, photo: Michael Ulriksen
Dried Fish in Scandinavia, written by Tor Kjolberg