Photograph courtesy SeafoodfromNorwayUS
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A fishing vessel sets off to search for skrei, the prized cod that come back to spawn on Norway's coast every winter.
Photograph courtesy SeafoodfromNorwayUS
The Plate

Savor the Fleeting Season of Skrei, King of Cod

If taking on the January storms on the Barents Sea just south of the Arctic Circle to catch some cod sounds good to you, you might be a Norwegian fisherman.

If eating said cod—called skrei (from the old Norse skrida, which means “to travel”)—sounds better, you’re from anywhere else.

Skrei is the name given to the best 10 percent of the 400,000 or so Norwegian cod that migrate south to that country’s coast every  winter to spawn. Skrei are bigger, stronger, and firmer than standard coastal cod, and full of omega 3s and vitamin D—critical nutrients for people living in a land where the sun doesn’t come up for three months a year. But they also happen to taste delicious.

The Norwegian government touts its high quality due to strict controls over the harvesting and processing of wild skrei (pronounced sk-RAY) as a reason why the rest of the world should eat it, too.

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Fisherman haul skrei from their boat to the drying racks. Photograph courtesy SeafoodfromNorwayUS

“Fishing is a big part of the culture in Norway,” says Chef Espen Larsen, who runs the Culinary Academy in Oslo. Larsen is also a skrei “ambassador” who recently wrapped up a tour promoting the fish to American chefs. “My grandfather was a fisherman in the 30s. He left in January and came back in March.” To this day, he says, children in his village are paid to cut out the skrei tongues—a prized delicacy.

Norwegians have traditionally been very protective of skrei, resisting the major trawling efforts other nations like Great Britain, Germany, and the USSR were so enamored with in the early decades of the 20th century. “It was feared that offshore trawling, which captured large amounts of small and young fish, would reduce the amount of larger cod [skrei] approaching the cost in winter-spring and thus lower the availability of fish to the Norwegian cod fisheries,” according to Norwegian Spring-Spawning Herring and Northeast Arctic Cod, an exhaustive tome on fishing history in the region by Odd Nakkan.

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Skrei drying relies on the salty air coming off the Barent Sea. Photograph courtesy SeafoodfromNorwayUS

Of course, the famous fish had been feeding the Vikings for centuries earlier. Once they learned to dry skrei, split and spread on tripods over the windy cliffs, it sustained them through harsh winters.

Nowadays, you don’t have to resort to skrei jerky if you don’t want to.

The traditional Norwegian skrei preparation, skrei mølje, involves serving a fillet with boiled roe, alongside the liver and a peeled and boiled potato, Larsen says, but the fish is extremely versatile, and becoming more widely available outside of Europe.

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Legal Seafoods in Washington, D.C. served fresh skrei in a modern way last month. Photograph by Becky Harlan

Last month, the Legal Seafoods chain was offering pan-fried skrei with fingerling potatoes and roasted Brussels, with a sprinkling of olives and bacon.

Chef Todd Gray of Washington D.C.’s Equinox prepared it in a lobster broth with steamed spinach and topped with roasted hazelnut butter.

And one more thing. If you want a taste, you’ll have to hurry. The season for fresh skrei ends this month.