ASKOY, Norway — “Two minutes after you’ve eaten good smoked salmon, take a breath,” says fishmonger Ragnar Fjellskal. “The taste sits long and gives you a sense of wellness, like a cognac.”
Fjellskal and I are on our way to his smokehouse in Askoy, an island in western Norway not far from Bergen, the country’s second-largest city and the hub of its fish trade. Located some 300 miles northwest of Oslo, the city is reachable by the Bergen Railway, a scenic train route that runs through the Hallingskarvet range, rising 4,000 feet above sea level and passing the pristine fjords for which this Nordic nation is renowned.
A burly man with a graying beard, Fjellskal abandoned a lucrative career as an engineer to join the family fish business 14 years ago. Some 85 years ago, his grandfather exported smoked salmon to the United States. Then his mother took over. Today, he and his brother, Oystein, run Fjellskal Fisketorget, one of the largest stalls in the Bergen Fish Market.
Part of the draw, Fjellskal says, is his smoker, a massive metal kiln in a house otherwise indistinguishable from nearby residences. Fish trucks rumble by continually, but the neighbors don’t seem to mind.
“They’re used to it,” Fjellskal says. “This oven has been here for nearly 50 years.”
There’s little in common between the Talmudic and Viking traditions. Sit a Jew and a Norwegian at a table and they might grasp for common ground. That may be because the country has only a tiny Jewish community, the story of which is told at the Jewish Museum in Oslo, housed in the second synagogue built in the capital, in 1921.
But when the subject turns to smoked salmon — the translucent pink strips, the way the salt puckers the tongue and the smoky oils coat it — members of both tribes go into paroxysms of delight.
“It’s not surprising that these cultural staples overlap,” says Niki Russ Federman, the fourth-generation heir of Russ and Daughters, a 100-year-old New York smoked fish shop. “Herring, smoked salmon and pickled lox aren’t just Jewish foods; these are shared by lots of cultures. Jews like to take ownership: ‘These are our foods.’ Then you get Scandinavians saying, ‘Wait, these are ours.’ ”
Today, the vibrancy of Norwegian fish culture is evident in places such as Vulkan, an Oslo neighborhood that might be described as the Brooklyn of Norway. Wedged between the art school and graffiti-scrawled dive bars, an artisanal food market opened nine months ago in a former smelting plant. Vendors offer iconic Norwegian foods like reindeer sausage, cloudberry jams and, of course, fish.
Maruis Tvethaug, the manager of Froya Seafood, points out the catch of the day. Pink spiny king crabs and fists of whale meat crowd one display. Long flanks of smoked fish line the other. Tvethaug’s boss started out selling shellfish from a cart at an Oslo gas station 16 years ago and became an underground sensation.
Unlike in America, where smoked salmon is typically sheared into paper-thin slices, Tvethaug cuts thicker pieces vertically, places the salmon on buttered bread and eats it like an open-face sandwich. That way, the fish’s flavor and texture is naked; it can’t hide under a doughy bagel and a blanket of cream cheese.
“Norwegians know everything about fish,” Tvethaug says. “Or at least they think they do.”
The Jewish and Norwegian fish traditions actually emerge from very different places. Norwegians cold smoke their salmon in a labor-intensive process that begins with filleting the fish, handpicking the pin bones and laying the fish in a tub of curing salt for up to two days. Then the fish is hung inside a smoker whose temperature never climbs above 80 degrees. Wood chips from up to a dozen types of tree burn on the floor of the oven while the salmon flanks hang from hooks high above the heat.
Jewish lox is traditionally cured in brine and tends to be much saltier, but these days most lox is lightly brined and then smoked. Its popularity in the United States owes more to the arrival of Germans and Scandinavians in the 19th century than to immigrants from the European shtetls.
By mid-century, when the Transcontinental Railroad connected the abundant salmon fisheries on the West Coast with the hungry Jewish immigrants on the East Coast, lox became popular because it was cheap, parve and easy to prepare. It was only in the 1930s that lox met the bagel and became a Jewish substitute for the brunch de rigueur of the time — eggs Benedict.
“You can’t get much more treif than that,” says Gil Marks, author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. “As a Jewish equivalent, you substitute a bagel for the English muffin, lox for the Canadian bacon and cream cheese for the hollandaise sauce. The irony is, how many people have eggs Benedict on Sunday, and how many have bagels with lox? We won that culinary war.”
Smoked fish has a storied past in Norway, too.
The Vikings lacked the salt necessary to preserve fish, but had plenty of timber for smoking. Some 800 years ago, in the same spot where Fjellskal now has his stall in Bergen, men of the Hanseatic League, an expansive German trade confederation, settled in these wharves and started a lucrative export monopoly. Their preferred fish, however, was cod, not salmon.
A vendor at the Bergen Fish Market offering smoked salmon to customers. (Joongi Kim/Creative Commons)
It was only in the 19th century that Norway started exporting salmon mainly to England, according to Arstein Svihus, director of the Norway Fisheries Museum in Bergen. Salmon is so abundant in Norway that “the servants stipulated in their contracts that they should not be served salmon more than four days a week,” Svihus said. “They were so sick and tired of eating it all the time.”
Housed in an old storehouse from 1670, the fish museum, founded in 1880, is closed for renovations until 2015. But when it reopens, visitors will learn about Norway’s love affair with the sea, from the early herring and cod fishermen to the digitized, modern fleet of today.
Norway continues to be a major salmon exporter. With 64,000 miles of coastline, the country produces some two-thirds of the world’s salmon exports, about 1 million tons annually, nearly all of it from fish farms along the coast.
At the Bergen market, Fjellskal offers a taste of his favorite smoked fish, a wild smoked salmon that costs $60 per pound. The fish is intensely red and denser than typical smoked salmon. The flavor fills my mouth with salt and fish oils and tickles my nose with a scent of pine needles. And just as I swallow, it wallops me with a satisfying, almost metallic tang.
“You’re not going to get that from a ham and cheese sandwich,” Fjellskal says.