On the first night, I take the plunge. Not the swimming – that came later, after I’d summoned up a second helping of courage. The first was needed for stockfish. Grey-tinged, slightly chewy, high in protein, off-grey in taste and Norway’s second-biggest export. Why they keep any of it for themselves beats me, but there it is, occupying half the real estate on every menu. This is how to experience it, though – with curiosity and before you’ve seen what it looked like a week earlier.
In the winter, cod swim south from the Barents Sea to the more temperate, Gulf Stream-fed waters around the Lofoten archipelago. Mating season. For the past thousand years or more, fisherman have been interrupting cod coitus, the unfortunate paramours subjected to a barbarously medieval fate: their heads cut off, their guts pulled out, then paired off, tied by their tails and hung from gallows-like wooden racks.
And left. From January to March they’re caught, and from March to June they dangle silently, eerily on these endless racks (called, almost poetically, hjell) along the southern shores, the prevailing winds carrying the odour and moisture out to sea until all that’s left is a desiccated, protein-rich husk. Want to eat? Soak it in water for a week before liberally sprinkling across every menu from Bjerkvik to Å. And you thought the Scandinavians had life sussed, right?