Wild cooking: Fishing for Norwegian skrei cod with Michel Roux Jr
Ella Walker joins the celebrity chef on a trip to Tromsø, in Norway's far north, to get to grips with Scandinavian delicacy skrei cod
IT'S RATHER extraordinary to be 300km north of the Arctic Circle, in the land of the Northern Lights, eating fresh cod – so fresh it was still swimming the fjords a couple of hours ago – with two-Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux Jr. But this isn't just any old cod (and it's certainly not battered).
Roux is a Norway Seafood Council skrei ambassador, and we're in Tromsø (alongside a group of talented chefs) for skrei cod season, which runs from January to April.
The fish are muscular, hulking things, with red-rimmed eyes and scales the colour of razor-clam shells – and they're a national delicacy.
Fishing for a skrei supper involves patience and thermals Roux visits Tromsø for skrei season year after year, but promises: "It doesn't lose any of the magic."
Out on the fjords surrounding Sommaroy Island, an hour north of Tromsø airport, and squeezed into thickly padded onesies to ward off great sprays of seawater and the freezing temperatures (it's –8C), you can see his point. We're flanked by ragged, snow-dusted mountains, the sun barely cresting their summits.
Our Sommaroy Cruises crew explain how the blackly swirling waters are invisibly divided up. Each fisherman has their own patch – the higher up the fishery food chain, the better your spot, and the newer you are to the skrei game, the further out your slot.
Captain Ketil Voll instructs us to reel our lines out – no bait needed – until we can feel the weight hit the sea bed, and then swoop our rods back and forth in big, arcing motions ("You have to work to get the cod's attention").
My first catch is a silvery slip of a thing – and sadly not a skrei ("Cat food," announces one of the crew), but my next two are; heavy on the line and wrestling powerfully until hoisted over the edge.
In previous years, the skrei would be sharing the water with orca, as well as whales feasting on herring, but this year the herring are absent, the water not being cool enough, which means no whales. Sea eagles still roil and whirl overhead though.
Back on dry land, we tramp round Sommaroy fish factory, Ivan Lorentzen Fiskeforretning. The family-run enterprise – four generations and counting – has been in skrei production since 1896, and process around 2million kg of skrei each season.
We watch a trio of fishermen, luminous in bright waterproof overalls, unload nine tanks of skrei from the belly of their boat, tipping the fish – which are bled on board as soon as they're hauled in from the nets, to keep the flesh as milky as possible – into a vat, before their bodies are lugged up a conveyor belt to be immediately processed and packed in ice.
The operation is slick and mechanised, but the skrei tongues are still cut by hand – and, when the catch is unmanageably large, local kids are paid to help out after school. Sharp knives – with a slippery ball inlaid to avoid damage to the roe – are used to slice out the cod tongues ("It's not really the tongues, it's more like the whole throat," explains Roux), which are then spiked on a stick as the next fish awaits its fate. It's a strangely hypnotic process to watch.
At the nearby Sommaroy Arctic Hotel, we eat them deep-fried in breadcrumbs alongside cold king crab legs, whose sweet flesh falls in perfect snow-white shards from their sunset-orange carapace.
Wearing thick woollen fisherman socks that our hosts, the fish factory's owners – sisters Unni Lorentzen and Torbjorg Lindquist, and Unni's husband, Trond Lorentzen – have warmed on the radiator for us, we settle down to a meal of skrei molje, a traditional Norwegian dish that uses every available morsel of the cod.
Served with amber glasses of aquavit, we start with corrugated curls of butter on brittle, nutty crackerbreads before being presented with wedges of barely grainy, pale pink skrei roe. Roux explains that "the pinker the roe, the more shrimp the cod must have eaten – just like flamingos".
There's also steamed, skinless potatoes and the cod flesh itself, poached, luminous white and flaking succulently at the slightest nudge of a fork – we liberally grind over fresh black pepper and sprinkle on finely chopped raw white onion.
A tray of stuffed cod stomach, gelatinous with a slightly spongy crust with a rubbery wobble to it, prompts Unni to admit: "The flavour, if you have not tried before, is...", at which point her sister finishes with a laugh, "Interesting!"
"Go on – be brave," Roux says, passing the platter, and well, it's not totally unpleasant, although a little chewy.
A fragrant bowl of skrei liver appears, greyish blobs of it floating lightly in an oily liquor. I'm sceptical again, but people heave huge dollops of the stuff on to their plates. "The best way to eat it, if you're nervous, is to squash a potato, add a bit of pepper, and mix the liver in like butter – it melts," Roux tells me – and he's right, it dissolves into a rich, umami dressing that's not fishy at all.
"It's so, so simple, and the fish is so clean," says Roux. "When it's this fresh, nothing is so good."
:: Ella Walker was a guest of the Norwegian Seafood Council. Try these skrei cod recipes from Michel Roux Jr.
STEWED SKREI WITH CANNELLINI BEANS AND CHORIZO
3 Norwegian skrei fillets (deboned and skinned) - or any cod available
175g cooking chorizo
2 small white onions, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
70g cavolo nero, roughly chopped
125g cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 sprig thyme
200ml fish stock
For the cannellini beans (best prepared the day before):
240g dried cannellini beans
1 carrot, peeled
1tsp sea salt
Salt and pepper
Soak the beans in cold water for at least five hours. Once doubled in size, drain and rinse. Place in a large pan with the carrot and shallot, season and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, scoop off any foam and reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Cover pan and cook for approximately one hour, adding more water if it gets too low. Once tender, strain and discard the cooked carrot and shallot.
Slice the chorizo into bitesize morsels. Sear in a frying pan over med-high heat for three minutes on each side (no fat needed). Remove the chorizo from pan and set aside on kitchen paper. Use the fat left in pan to sear the onions, garlic and cavolo nero. Cook for about four minutes until tender. Then add the tomatoes and cook for a further five minutes until softened. Finally, add the cooked beans, chorizo, thyme and stock together with the Skrei. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook for approximately eight minutes.
Season to taste and discard the sprig of thyme before serving. Plate simply with the skrei placed over a good bed of the stew.
MISO-GLAZED SKREI COD WITH CARROT AND GINGER PUREE AND CRISPY KALE
6 thick Norwegian skrei cod fillets (deboned and skinned) - or any available cod
1tbsp rapeseed oil
For the glaze:
1tbsp light soy sauce
50g brown caster sugar
150g white miso paste
1tsp sesame oil
For the puree:
6 carrots, roughly chopped
1tbsp freshly grated ginger
400ml vegetable stock (or water)
For the crispy kale:
175g kale, roughly chopped
Drizzle of oil
Salt and pepper
For the fried chickpeas:
1 x 400g can chickpeas
Drizzle of rapeseed oil
1tsp fine salt
Place the mirin, soy sauce, sake and sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently and mix until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from the heat and whisk in the miso paste together with sesame oil until combined. Leave to cool to room temperature. Coat the cod with the marinade, cover with cling film and infuse overnight.
The next day, melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat. Add the carrots and ginger and cook for three to four minutes. Pour in the stock, reduce the heat and simmer for a further eight to 10 minutes. Once the carrots are cooked and the liquid has reduced by two-thirds, transfer the veggies and cooking liquor to a blender and puree. Once silky smooth, season to taste.
Season the kale with oil, salt and pepper, coating all the leaves. Spread onto a baking tray and roast for eight minutes at 160C until crisp. Leave to cool. Heat the oven to 200C. Drain the chickpeas and rinse. Transfer to a kitchen towel and pat dry. Spread out onto a baking tray, season with a drizzle of oil, salt and paprika and roast for 25 minutes until crisp.
Ten minutes prior to the chickpeas being cooked, turn your attention to the Skrei. Heat the oil in a non-stick pan over a high heat. Sear the skrei for two minutes on each side, caramelising its exterior. Transfer to a baking tray and place in the oven for eight to 10 minutes until golden brown. Serve on a drizzle of puree, delicately sprinkle the chickpeas and garnish with the crispy kale.
POACHED SKREI COD WITH CAULIFLOWER PUREE AND PICKLED RADISHES
4 Norwegian skrei fillets (deboned and skinned) - or any available cod fillets
For the curry infused oil:
100ml rapeseed oil
1tsp curry powder
For the pickled radishes (fills a 1/2 litre jar):
1 bunch radishes
Pinch of mustard seeds
2 crushed black peppercorns
200ml white wine vinegar
2tsp fine salt
For the roasted cauliflower:
150g large cauliflower florets
Drizzle of olive oil
Pinch of chilli powder
For the cauliflower puree:
Drizzle of olive oil
400g cauliflower florets
1tbsp curry powder
1tbsp chopped garlic
1tbsp salted butter
1tbsp extra thick double cream
Zest of half a lemon
Coriander cress for dressing
Salt and pepper
For the curry infused oil, place the oil in a saucepan and gently heat to 60C. Stir in the curry powder and cover the pan with cling film. Set aside to infuse for two hours. To make the pickled radishes, rinse and trim the radishes. Slice finely or for extra crunch, quarter. Place in a half-litre jar with the mustard seeds and peppercorns.
Bring the water, vinegar, salt and honey to the boil in a pan. Once at a rolling boil, pour into the jar of radishes. Cool to room temperature before using. Preheat oven to 200C. Place the cauliflower florets in a bowl. Combine with the oil, chilli powder and a pinch of salt. Spread onto a baking tray and roast for 25-30 minutes until charred.
For the puree, put the olive oil in a pan over a medium heat. Sweat the cauliflower for two minutes. Add the curry powder and garlic and sear for a further two minutes. Add the milk and simmer for 10 minutes until tender and three-quarters of the liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a blender and puree with the butter and cream. Once silky smooth, season with salt, pepper and lemon zest.
For the fish, pour the milk into a pan and season with salt. Place over a gentle heat. Once simmering, delicately add the skrei and cook for six to eight minutes. Remove the fish from the milk and serve immediately with the puree and cauliflower. Garnish with pickled radishes and herbs.