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Stories from Norway

Skrei - The secrets of the world's best cod

An award-winning chef explains how to recognise high-quality cod and why you should keep your eyes peeled for “skrei” when it’s in season.

Skrei - The secrets of the world's best cod

The supreme quality of skrei

When you first try a glass of good but unfamiliar wine, your instinct isn’t to think about how it’s made. You wonder where it’s from. The place of origin and the type of grape is, in this instance, more meaningful than knowing how the grape juice was pressed, fermented and stored.

Award-winning chef Roy Magne Berglund, whose accolades include numerous Norwegian seafood awards and representing Norway in both the Culinary Olympics and the World Championships, feels the same about cod. The quality of any cod, he explains, depends wholly on where it is from.

"The most important criteria are when and where it’s fished. The ideal conditions for cod are cold, clear waters - that’s where it lives and eats best. This makes an easily recognisable difference in the firmness of its meat and the gloss of its skin, as well as the flavour," Berglund explains.

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Perfect conditions for skrei

For these reasons, he’s adamant that cod from Norway is a notch above all others – the cold and brutal Arctic Ocean simply provides superior conditions for cod to thrive. According to Berglund, the best cod in the world is the cod known as skrei – more on that below – which lives at the northern edge of the Barents Sea, almost closer to the North Pole than the northernmost tip of mainland Europe. Now, Berglund is happily running Lofoten Food Studio, an acclaimed small-scale seafood restaurant in Lofoten, the epicentre of the Norwegian cod fishery. In-season cod is one of his favourite ingredients.

"It’s a lean and versatile fish. Cod has a full and gentle flavour without being overpowering, so it gets along great with a wide range of other flavours. Additionally, all of the cod is edible: the head, the chin, the tongue and the intestines are all used in local and global delicacies."

Heralder of hope

It’s the combination of their Arctic origin and the formative trek through the Barents Sea that gives skrei the properties that makes it stand out from other cod. Chef Berglund explains:

"When the skrei arrives, it’s basically like a well-honed athlete. You can see the difference in the musculature which gives it an unsurpassed textural quality. And its native habitat in the Barents Sea is even better suited to the cod lifestyle in terms of environment and nutrition – that’s why, amongst other things, it’s almost impossible to find a skrei with visible blemishes or imperfections."

Unfortunately, the very conditions that shape the skrei into one of the world’s most delicious seafoods are the same that limit their availability: you can only get freshly caught skrei during the spawning season, typically between January and April.

When the skrei finally arrives

In Lofoten, where most of the world’s skrei fishing is done, the coming of the skrei is one of the most important events of the year. The exact date varies annually and the whole community eagerly awaits reports of skrei sightings, signalling that the season is nigh. When the skrei finally arrives, the entire fishing fleet sets out en masse – come hell or high water – and seafood lovers all over Norway and Europe rejoice. Although skrei season is the most lucrative part of the year, there’s virtually no danger of overfishing: Norway’s world-class marine researchers keep a constant eye on skrei stocks and strict quotas are in place to make sure that Norwegian skrei remain the most sustainably managed cod stock in the world.

And for Berglund, as well as the Lofoten community as a whole, skrei season represents more than a culinary event: it’s a season of joy and hope.

"This community is geared to operate in tune with the seasons of the sea. For a thousand years, the skrei season has heralded surplus and joy after the lean, hard and dark days of autumn and early winter. Additionally, skrei season also arrives when the days draw out – Lofoten sees no sunlight in the middle of winter – which creates a general air of optimism.’"

Skrei do’s and dont’s

It’s important to bear in mind that although all skrei is cod, not all cod is skrei. Only the population residing in the North Barents Sea, which returns to the Norwegian coast every year, is considered as skrei amongst fishermen, chefs and marine biologists alike. In 2016, scientists even managed to sequence a distinct genetic marker for skrei, providing irrefutable evidence for the distinctiveness of this species. If you do manage to get your hands on an in-season skrei, Berglund has a few tips to ensure you can make the most of this culinary opportunity.

"I prefer baking it gently. Season it carefully with a pinch of salt and sugar and leave for about twenty minutes before washing it off. I set my oven to 150 degrees celsius and when the skrei goes in, I turn it down to 50 degrees. This allows for the heat to gently seep in – instead of “cooking” the skrei, you can think of it as letting it relax in the sun, as if it were on holiday in Spain. It’s important to be careful with the temperature, as you don’t want the fragile cod proteins to burst," he adds.

As for Berglund, he feels privileged to live and work in a place with such easy access to amazing ingredients, such as skrei. "My philosophy is to use the best ingredients when they’re at their best. That’s why I’m so lucky to have some of the best resources in the world right outside my doorstep. It’s so accessible: every morning, I can head down to the harbour to have a look at the day’s catch - and plan my day accordingly."

The Skrei Quality Label

In order to make it easier for consumers and restaurants to find real, high-quality skrei, the Norwegian Seafood Council has launched the “Skrei Quality Label”. This quality label guarantees to the buyer that the fish in question is of irrefutable origin and top-notch quality, and follows strict standards in terms of sustainability, freshness, storage and packaging. Quality-labelled skrei is wild-caught between January and April in the spawning grounds just off the Norwegian coast, is packed within twelve hours of being caught and is guaranteed to be free of nicks, bruises and other damage.

Any exporter wishing to sell quality-labelled Skrei goes through a thorough vetting process. As an extra failsafe, there’s even a dedicated Skrei Patrol which conducts checks at the docks and export centres across Norway and abroad.