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Stockfish is Norway's longest sustained export commodity and, until the discovery of North Sea oil, it was the main source of the country's wealth. In 1994 almost 5,000 tons of stockfish were exported, most of it to Italy and other Catholic Mediterranean countries where consumption of red meat on Fridays is forbidden. The dried heads and lower grades go to Nigeria and other African countries where they are ground with berries and herbs to form a nutritious soup stock. And a relatively small amount is made into lutefisk for sale to Scandinavian ex-pats like Erling who long for a taste of home.
The role that stockfish played in the expansion of the early Norse empire is hard to assess but it is doubtful that the Vikings, using their open, oar-propelled boats, could have made their heroic sea voyages to Iceland and North America without a supply of stockfish. Once dried and cured it is virtually indestructible, retaining all the nutrients from the fresh fish for years without any refrigeration.
Archeological and historical research has revealed a vibrant fishing culture on the Lofoten Islands that goes back to the late Stone Age and extends through the Viking era into modern times. Storbathallaren Cave, a Neolithic site on the island of Vestvagoya, has yielded bone fishhooks, harpoons, and stone sinkers that go back 6,000 years and excavations near the town of Borg have uncovered one of the largest and best preserved Viking settlements anywhere in Europe.
Although stockfish is still the driving force behind Lofoten's economy tourism has become increasingly important in recent years. The islands are stitched together by a network of bridges and causeways that make touring by car practical and the scenery is breathtaking — picturesque fishing villages and wharfs tucked in against incredibly rugged mountains that seem to rise directly out of the ocean. The Lofoten Stockfish Museum, the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, and the Viking Museum at Borg are just three of the many well-done venues highlighting Lofoten's long history.
We spent most of a day at the Viking Museum, which encompasses the vast estate of a powerful Viking Chieftain who ruled over the region in 500 AD. It features both original and replica structures, including an 83m longhouse, several boathouses, and a full scale Viking boat. Entering the longhouse, the largest of its kind in all of Europe, is like stepping back in time. The staff, dressed in traditional Viking clothes, are tending the hearth and going about their chores as they might have done a thousand years ago. Unlike most museums the displays are not locked behind glass but scattered about the building to be touched and examined up close. I tried on one of the iron helmets and hefted some of the swords. Everything is incredibly heavy, which says a lot about the physical strength of the Viking warriors who wielded this stuff in battle. Before leaving the museum we were treated to a taste of local cuisine – stockfish of course, but mercifully no lutefisk.