It's been more than 50 years since I was first introduced to lutefisk but I will never forget the smell. I had a summer job guiding at Mt. Assiniboine Lodge, and lutefisk was the favorite delicacy of Erling, the Norwegian lodge owner. The basic ingredient is a rock-hard slab of stockfish (dried cod), which after soaking in water for several days is bleached with lye and then soaked for several more days to remove the lye before cooking. Erling never entrusted Doreen, the lodge cook, with the final preparation and after a clatter of pots and pans he would emerge from the kitchen and announce proudly - "This is lutefisk the way we serve it in Norway". The pungent glob of gelatinous, semi-translucent flesh drenched in caramelized butter is definitely an acquired taste. After leaving Mt. Assiniboine I never thought much about lutefisk again until last summer when we arrived in the Lofoten Islands where stockfish in king.
Located about 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle off the north coast of Norway the cluster of islands that make up the Loftens jut out from the mainland where they catch the full sweep of the Gulf Stream. The steady flow of warm southern water streaming along their shore has transformed them into a sort of high latitude Shangri-La, an Arctic anomaly blessed with year-round moderate temperatures and a bountiful yield of fish from the sea.
The Lofotens are where the Arctic cod come each winter to spawn, and for longer than anyone can remember it's where Norwegian fishermen from up and down the coast have gathered from January to April to reap their annual harvest from the sea. Unlike their southern cousins the Norwegian Arctic cod continue to thrive and multiply despite the intense fishing. When we arrived in the islands last June, near the end of the drying season, the acres of commercial drying racks were still hung with the split carcasses of literally tons of fish. Others hung from stair railings, window ledges, and the roofs of private homes. It had clearly been a good season.
A reliable source of fish is only one reason the Lofoten Islands have become the country's undisputed stockfish capital. Producing stockfish has been compared to the making of good cognac or well-matured cheese and the Lofoten climate is ideal for the making of good stockfish. As soon as they are caught the cod are split and hung on outdoor racks to dry. The stable dry, cool weather, with temperatures holding steady a few degrees above freezing prevents damage due to insects, frost, or decay while allowing the dried flesh to cure from the action of low temperature bacteria. After hanging outdoors for three months the dried fish spend another three months maturing in indoor drying rooms before being graded and sent to market.