By John Waldman | email@example.com
John Waldman is a professor of biology at Queens College, NY, with a focus on aquatic conservation biology. Previously, he worked for twenty years at the Hudson River Foundation for Science & Environmental Research. Dr. Waldman has authored more than 100 journal articles, several books, and contributes essays and op-eds to the New York Times, Environment 360, and other publications. His most recent book is “Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and their Great Fish Migrations” and he is currently working on a book titled “Awe & Nature.” He and his wife Carol live in Sea Cliff, NY, but also have an old country house in West Cornwall, CT – a base for their part-time antiques business, for enjoying the region’s many cultural activities, and for fly fishing in the Housatonic.
It was an invitation I could easily refuse: Arctic Circle. In winter.
But then I couldn’t: Charming little island in Norway’s Inside Passage. State-of-the-art salmon ranching. Gourmet seafood dinners.
I was to be a guest of Whole Foods – part of a small party invited to view some of the sustainable fisheries they sourced their seafood from. I got packing.
Flying to Oslo is easy, but getting around greater Norway definitely is not – it’s mountainous and its coast is savagely irregular. Punctuated by fjord after fjord, Norway’s shoreline is longer than that of the United States – despite having only 3% of America’s landmass. But Norwegians make travel work, relying on an efficient network of boats and planes of all sizes. After a local flight northward from the capitol city, we board a vessel and speed toward Kvarøy Island down the Inside Passage, a spectacular world of rock and water. Along the way, Dave Pilat, the Whole Foods Global Seafood Buyer and Steve Damato, co-owner of Blue Circle Foods, a seafood distributor committed to environmentally responsible seafood, describe Kvarøy Fiskeopp-drett, or Kvarøy Fish Farming, as what they see as an exemplar of sustainability.
The sheer health of these clear green waters is obvious, there is little human intrusion, seabirds abound and, as we ease into Kvarøy Island’s cozy harbor, we see thousands of young saithe, a groundfish related to cod and pollock, milling among the docks. A tall ruddy-faced blond greets us and grabs our dockline – it’s Alf-Goran Knutsen, the CEO of Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett, who we soon learn is an ubiquitous presence on the island.
What is commonly known as Kvarøy Island is actually Inner Kvarøy Island; its rugged outer twin was last inhabited year-round more than a millennium ago. Though Outer Kvarøy is several miles away, with its lofty profile reminiscent of a man riding a horse, I feel it looming – a mysterious monolith that continues as a source of legends involving trolls and other whimsical Norse creatures.
Even today, keeping residents put on far flung islands and remote peninsulas is a chronic problem in Norway, with populations sometimes dwindling to below a viable number. Some coastal villages shrink from the pull of Oslo and other big cities; most often it’s the women who flee, leaving behind bachelor communities of lonely men who refuse to give up the sea.
Kvarøy now teeters at 70 inhabitants, down from 80 not long ago. In such a place, everyone must wear more than one hat and people are always in motion. Alf wears many, serving as a veritable engine for the community. Beyond being the CEO of the fish farm, he is CEO of the tourist company, accountant for the market, pub, and restaurant, and leader of the community organization. Alf’s wife, Lill owns the salmon company and is chief of the kindergarten. Her mother, Olea, runs the restaurant and the market. Communities like this are why flow charts were invented.
Alf settles us into his well-appointed cabins overlooking the Inside Passage and high above a primitive shore-side enclosure where hundreds of slabs of “klippfish” are curing, the name stemming from the traditional practice of drying fish on stone cliffs. Before dinner we explore Kvarøy’s two-square miles, a rustic landscape of fir trees and heather, dirt roads, farm plots, and naked outcrops. Remarkably, we are downright comfortable, the nearby Gulf Stream conveys heat from lower latitudes to these northern reaches; in fact, that week it was warmer than back home in New York. But most of all we are enchanted by the atmosphere – it hangs with a magical luminosity from the sun burning at low angles through sea-suffused air and reflecting off snow-lined mountains.
An emphasis on seafood
At dinner time we gather at the island’s only restaurant, Olea’s Kjøkken, housed in a refurbished cobbler’s shop on a pier and open only by request. Olea insists we first have drinks downstairs in what she has turned into a museum of the island’s modest commercial history and we chat among aged cannery tins and antique machinery. Then we take seats upstairs at a long table where we are served an epicurean dinner prepared by Geir Olsen, the originator of the salmon farm.
To launch that complex enterprise Geir put in endless hours. Now, with the salmon business thriving, he affords himself his true passion, cooking local wild and farm products, using traditional recipes, served leisurely in three or four courses and paired with fine wines.
Dinner is superb, carefully conceived with an emphasis on seafood, dazzlingly fresh and expertly prepared. The starter is lobster soup with klippfish confit, followed by scallops roasted in butter with a carrot and ginger puree, and garnished with chips of a ham we earlier saw curing in an old fishing shed. The third course features tongue of cod, a part of the fish most appreciated in its far northern realms, cod-reliant places like Scandinavia and Newfoundland. Combined with mussel cream and cauliflower, the gelatinous meat dissolves on my tongue like no other fish I’ve encountered.
Evidence of the regional sea’s plenteousness continues with a gratine of haddock, followed by the main course: poached salmon (of course) and halibut, vegetables, shrimp, potato mash, all in a buttery fish sauce. Everything is flawless – the attention to detail at Olea’s Kjøkken is even shown by
the place mats, which are hand-made by Olea. Each is shaped like a halibut; each requires fifty hours to embroider.
As marvelous as was the main meal, what follows is sublime, homemade vanilla ice cream bathed in wild cloudberry soup. Cloudberries were new to me, and what will likely forever remain a rare treat inasmuch as they are found in wild boreal habitats, such as occur in Scandinavia. Although cultivation of cloudberries is just beginning, I wonder if a farmed product could ever do justice to Geir’s cloudberry soup.
The next morning we are to learn about the salmon farming practices. But first, breakfast, served by Geir and Olea, but with a faster, help-yourself feast for which signs help us negotiate the many unfamiliar offerings. Crab with chili. Gravlax. Shellfish salad. Sashimi. “Sylte,” a Norwegian meat roll made with pork. “Rulle,” meat roll from lamb. And to soften the gamy flavor of marinated reindeer, cloudberry-suffused sour cream.
Soon I am satiated and ready to learn about the salmon. We gather in the company offices and Dave tells of the evolution of the standards used by Whole Foods, criteria he said were so stringent that salmon producers throughout the world either rejected compliance as too difficult or adopted them, thereby bifurcating the industry. It is clear from Dave that the fish farm at Kvarøy is considered a flagship operation as a Whole Foods supplier. Alf then proudly covers the history and philosophy of Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett. He informs us that “Three familial generations over almost forty years have refined their approach to where they produce 1,700,000 salmon each year.” And that this is accomplished using no chemicals and in an eco-friendly way, something not true for many salmon farms elsewhere in Norway and in other parts of the world where raising the fish in open net pens remains controversial and has been shown to cause considerable environmental harm.
The science of feeding
The meeting ends; it’s time to go and actually see the salmon. We board a workboat and approach the chain of nets, the scale of which seems colossal. These are the grow-out facilities – a dozen circular pens, each 300-feet wide, 30- to 60-feet deep, and holding upwards of 120,000 fish.
When we arrive the salmon are being fed. This is no minor mission; the salmon appear to live to eat – the water boils with their excited, streaking bodies. A fine balance must be achieved in nourishing salmon: underfeeding slows their growth, yet, there is serious concern from overfeeding when using automated systems in which excess food commonly sinks and pollutes the sea floor. To avoid this, Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett uses underwater cameras to watch the salmons’ behavior, halting feeding just as the fish become visibly satiated. This allows their operation to routinely pass the rigorous quarterly governmental dive inspections as to the ecological health of the bottoms under the nets.
A hungry but frustrated eagle circles overhead, eyeing the myriad silvery forms in the pens as the net tenders scoop a few salmon into a trough for us to inspect. The fish are bright and healthy looking and, most notably, are free of sea lice, an external marine parasite that often flourishes where salmon are kept in high densities and that frequently weaken and even kill their hosts. Then the workers net and display the surprising reason why sea lice are few here. Unlike many operations elsewhere that use poisons to control sea lice, the Kvarøy facility employs a biological control – an odd little toad-like fish called the lumpsucker. Down-and-out cute in their frumpiness, lumpsuckers inhabit kelp that hangs off floating rings placed in the pens. Salmon swim near the kelp and soon learn that the harmless lumpsuckers will happily eat the sea lice off their flanks. Before long, the salmon are swimming among the kelp fronds as if passing through a car wash.
Fishing and a blind test
With a little downtime before dark we are offered a deep sea fishing trip, targeting cod and wolf fish. Over much of its broad range, and especially in New England and Canada, cod on the various offshore banks have been obscenely overfished. Here, in the wildly tortuous geology of Norway’s Inside Passage the deep sea is not miles, but only yards from shore. We motor a short distance from the island, I drop my lure one hundred feet to the bottom, and within ten seconds I am fast to a cod. And in little more than an hour we add saithe, haddock, a flounder, and a wolf fish to the catch.
At the restaurant, but before dinner, Alf announces a test he has prepared for us, a blind tasting of cooked squares of fresh and frozen salmon and cod – the challenge is to discriminate between the fresh and the frozen. Between the Kvarøy salmon crew and the Whole Foods group I am in the presence of some world class fish-as-food expertise.
Everyone slowly bites, chews, considers, chews some more, and writes their answers. I intuitively adopt a wine-based approach – taste whites before reds – trying the milky looking cod before the russet colored salmon. More importantly, I focus on texture, not taste; I presume that flash freezing should maintain a flavor’s essence but that it might rupture some of the fish’s cells, rendering it slightly more mushy. In fact, I find the taste indistinguishable between the paired morsels of the salmon and also of the cod but there is the merest difference in texture. My strategy works. Only Steven and I among the ten contestants get it right and I celebrate with one of Olea’s traditional aperitifs, a glass of clear aquavit, but one lit up by the bright orange shrimp soaking in it.
That night our group climbs a rocky hill to watch for the Northern Lights. Earlier, we enjoyed another extraordinary multi-course repast prepared by Geir and Olea. One dish for me was a gustatory revelation, klippfish in a pea sauce with chunks of home-cured bacon. The fish’s flavor exploded in my mouth – not overwhelmed with salt as for baccala – but a manifold magnification of its subtle quintessence. It turns out not to be a great night for celestial phenomena, though we do detect a faint emerald swath in the northern sky. No matter – I am satisfied with the little island community, its salmon, and the richness of the Norwegian Sea. •