The Local Experience: Cod Tongue and Whale Steak in Norway

Testing out new foods and traditions in the Lofoten Islands. 

I was once a vegetarian.

For years, I didn’t eat meat. I cut it out for environmental reasons. I didn’t support the energy that was going into each burger, steak and chop, that I had been consuming, so I decided to stop eating it completely.

It wasn’t until 2007 when I took a trip to Australia that I made the choice to introduce it back into my diet. I was staying on farms and decided that since I was a guest in these homes, I would eat anything that was put in front of me. And I’m glad I did. I didn’t want to miss out on any experience that came my way.

Recently I have found myself in a similar situation, working for several weeks in the Lofoten Islands in Northern Norway. Before I came, I knew that I would be up to my ears with fish, something that has brought me much joy. From talking with local fisherman to trying my hand at the sport – without much luck, sadly – my interest has been peaked.

I have landed in the heart of the cod industry.

The Lofoten Islands supply the world with cod, and you can feel it. Lofoten is an archipelago that is surrounded by the Norwegian Sea to the north, and the Vestfjorden fjord to the south. The small chain of islands stretches a mere 200 kilometers in length, and is the home for cod migrating down from the Barents Sea when they are 5 or 6 years old. It is the largest population of cod in the world. There are roughly 1500 boats based in Lofoten, pulling in up to 1000 kilograms of cod a day with a single hook. Nets and trawling are prohibited here in an effort to protect the highly valuable population. The winter catch is dried and exported to North America, Europe, parts of Africa, everywhere. Your daily spoonful of fish oil, that’s coming from here.

Every harbor is home to countless fishing boats. Driving the coastal roads, there are fish drying racks as far as the eye can see. As for menus, well they’re full of seafood prepared in more ways than Bubba could list out – fillets, steaks, stews, you name it. Dried cod has become one of my favorites. Similar to jerky, it’s the perfect protein boost in the middle of climbing one of the many spectacular mountains here that jump out of the sea.

“Ooo Sarah! Cod tongues. This is a real specialty up here. Let’s get a plate,” said my friend Kristin when we stopped into a restaurant in Reine. I was surprised when my reaction was not nausea, but rather an excited, “Oh Kristin, yes! We have to try!”

This particular dish speaks to the industry being so ingrained in the tradition and history of Lofoten. In the spring time, I’m told that you’ll find local children walking the docks asking fishermen for the heads of the cod. They’re the ones who cut out the tongues and sell to markets, restaurants, and individuals. This is how they first learn the fishing business, while still making a little money for themselves.

Cod tongues cut out by children? I can deal with that, but I was really thrown by the whale meat. It’s the season for it, you know, so it’s being thrown on every grill between Solvær and Værøy. When I first noticed it, I was bewildered. My friend Kristin picked up on my astonishment, and simply said, “Well you Americans. You’re all into your Free Willy stuff.” But this wasn’t about Keiko. I told her that we simply didn’t kill whales and eat them. Never. More and more people continued to sum this up to the children’s movie we all know and love. I kept defending our case for not eating whale as being about animal rights, talked with them about endangered species, all of that stuff. I just didn’t feel right about killing such an animal.

Norway Landscape Reel from Sarah Menzies on Vimeo.

After much conversation, I learned that in this region, it’s a species that is in abundance up here, and the regulations are strict. Deer and elk were compared to whale meat. I was also told about the role that the whale plays in the history of Norway, and the low quotas of meat caught annually that are barely being met each year. Still, something feels off about it. And you can feel the dilemma here. At the mention of whale, feathers are ruffled. Either people are strongly for it, or just as strongly against it. I’ve decided to not bring the matter up for fear of offending my present company.

This has forced me to think a lot about food choices. What are we eating in America that stirs up the same kind of controversy? Some could argue that clear cutting in the name of a Big Mac is just as offensive, and certainly more harmful, environmentally speaking. Seeing boats come into a harbor with the daily catch of whale meat gets me thinking about the low environmental impact. Did the whale live a free and happy life before meeting its end? I hope so.

Images: Sarah Menzies, Kristin Folsland Olsen