Visitors to my blog will be well aware of my penchant for endorsing, promoting and eulogising about the diversity and exceptional quality of UK seafood. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise other equally important and internationally-acclaimed products that are worthy of note, tell a story of utmost provenance and sustainability and are absolutely delicious into the bargain.
Until this week, I’d not known much about Skrei. A cursory understanding of its origin perhaps and a nod to its alleged quality, stories of which frequently abound at this time of year in food writing circles. But, I’d not as yet tasted it. I’d not thus far, been party to its fascinating background tale of traceability, nor realised how an such important a part of Norwegian culture it has become.
Norway has a long-standing and proud association with the UK. It has close ties, commercially and culturally and with its tried and tested fisheries policy, covering the North Sea, North Atlantic and Barents Sea, it’s reputation for sound management and best practice draws admiration from afar.
So it was with gathering anticipation, that I made my way to Kensington, for a comprehensive introduction to this much-heralded visitor from Arctic waters, to the rocky fjords and archipelagos of Norway’s North Western coast. As we gathered in the magnificent splendour of the Norwegian Ambassador’s residence overlooking the Palace gardens, I gleaned the distinct impression that we were in for something rather special and I wasn’t to be disappointed.
Hosted by the Embassy’s charming Cultural and Political Counsellor, Sigrid Anna Oddsen and presided over by Jack Robert Møller, UK Director of the Norwegian Seafood Council, we were summoned and welcomed for a dinner which was to prove exceptional in so many respects.
Long time advocate and ambassador of Skrei, Michelin-starred chef, Michel Roux Jr had recently led an expedition to the pristine and glacially-cold waters of the North Norwegian coast to hunt for this much prized and paraded Gadoid. Essentially the same species of cod that inhabits all the waters of these icy Northern Hemisphere seas, the Skrei is unique in the respect that it’s spawning population originate in the Barents Sea and migrate South annually, for thousands of miles, to the grounds off Lofoten and Vesterålen where they congregate en-masse.
A hugely and commercially vital commodity for the Norwegian economy, some 10,000 tonnes are landed annually, with a catch value of approximately NOK 186M, depending on availability. Roughly 1/3 of these landings are consumed domestically, the remainder being exported across Europe. It’s accreditation is unsurpassed, insomuch as it is subject to its own incredible high set of grading standards. All Skrei-labelled fish are MSC certified, dorsally tagged and constitute only 10-13% of the total cod-catch. Care of the fish is of paramount importance from net to plate, thus ensuring total confidence in the product which must be packed within 12 hours of capture, usually by gill net or longline from the local dayboats.
The intrepid fishing party travelled to Sommarøy and included among its ranks famed Chef Simon Hulstone of Michelin-starred The Elephant in Torbay and accompanied by much-acclaimed Young Chef of the Year 2016 Ruth Hansom, both eager to get stuck into rod-bending specimens. Although timing their visit for the commencement of the 2017 Skrei Season, the fish hadn’t yet arrived in any number and catches were small, although according to food critic, broadcaster and Skrei champion, Nigel Barden “everyone caught something, even if the size wasn’t always overwhelming.”
Inspired by what she’d seen in Norway, Ruth had conspired under Simon’s expert guidance to deliver a menu befitting of the sheer quality of flavour and texture that this most iconic of sea fish affords. Taking our places at the beautifully-appointed dining table, we were again welcomed and engaged by Jack Robert Møller who sought to explain exactly what Skrei meant to the Norwegian people and their economy, detailing every aspect of its production and sale.
Waxing lyrical on the extraordinary journey the fish make each year, starting in the Barents Sea, he emphasised that the structure of the flesh was very much a product of the muscle exercise and diet that these hardy denizens encounter on their migration South.
“The flesh of the Skrei is uniquely toned and conditioned by the physical activity required to transport it all those miles,” he explains. “The fish arrive around January and are in prime condition prior to spawning.” A truly desirable product per se, but made increasingly more so by the meticulous marketing strategy adopted by the Council.
“We have strong support from premium retailers, chefs, fishmongers and of course our distribution partners. Unfortunately for this year, the weather has meant the season has got over to a slower start and prices are higher owing to a lower catch volume in January compared to last year. However, things are picking up and we expect a good season overall.”
Michel Roux Jr then took us through the culinary message, explaining just how he had come to develop such respect for the fish and how its exceptional quality requires the utmost reverence in its preparation and presentation, attributes that were shortly to be showcased spectacularly by Ruth, in a menu to inspire and indulge.
Michel described exactly what attracted him to Skrei. “As a chef I always look for exceptional ingredients. Skrei never lets me down, it’s so incredibly versatile and its quality shines though whatever the dish. I’m so honoured to be an Ambassador for what I consider to be one of the finest products of the sea.”
And so dinner was duly served and with an unrivalled and excited buzz of seafood passion around the table, the starter of fabulously flavoursome and expertly arranged Confit Skrei Cheek, Crispy Skrei Tongues with apple, ginger and coriander, kick-started the whole sensory process with a cleverley-paired 2015 Riesling Spatlese, from Josef Leitz, proving an ideal partner for the succulence and freshness of such underrated cuts of the fish.
The company at dinner provided ample opportunity to enthuse about sustainably-caught fish in general and to my delight, I enjoyed an ongoing and inspirational conversation throughout the evening, with fellow seafood lover and restaurateur Sabrina Gidda of Bernardi’s in Marylebone, one of the newest and most happening venues on the London Italian scene, who passionately concurred that sustainability should exist not just at source, but throughout the supply chain.
For the main course and showcasing the Skrei to its maximum potential, Ruth Hansom treated us to the most sensational and perfectly cooked Pan-Roasted Skrei with Coco Beans, Parsley Purée, Baby and Jerusalem Artichokes and Alsace Jus Gras, which, not only a sight to behold with the most almighty of portions, was beautifully offset with a delectable Alsace Pinot Gris, Grand Cru Kirchberg, 2009, from Henry Fuchs.
The texture of the Skrei is one thing, the flavour another, but what was equally remarkable was the translucent, pinky-white pearlescence of the flesh, which fell away from the loin in gigantic flakes, akin to the crumbling face of a Svalbard glacier. It left me mesmerised.
The traditional Norwegian approach to Skrei was also explained during the meal and endorsed further by Michel Roux Jr having recently sampled the classic dish “Mølje” which presents the fish simply-cooked along with its liver, tongue and roe in a rustic approach that beautifully celebrates the heritage. Lightly poached in salted water and served with boiled potatoes, it once again exemplifies the taste and texture with minimal preparation and fuss. A Norwegian household staple for generations in the myriad of coastal communities.
Dinner concluded with a flavoursome and delicate burst of Rhubarb, Vanilla, Astina, complimented with a very moreish, Shiraume Umeshu Plum Sake, which for someone who is no fan of dessert wines, impressed me hugely.
A culinary spectacle delivered with precision, flair, passion and charm by a young chef who knows exactly what she wants from her career. To appreciative applause, Chef Hulstone and his young protégé, put in a welcome appearance to conclude proceedings and took a well-deserved bow for her accomplishments, which had delighted us all.
With conversations lingering, I bade my farewell with grateful thanks and picked my way back across London reflecting intently on what I’d just heard seen, tasted and heard. Make no mistake, I’ll always be first in the queue to extol and promote British seafood, but where exceptional quality, combined with responsibility and consumer engagement exists (as is most definitely the case with Norwegian Skrei), then I’ll also be as swift to express my sincere endorsement and confidence in a product that can be traced to the source at every stage of its journey. That’s true traceability.
Brexit should provide the UK Fishing Industry with considerable opportunity, for increased share of fish stocks and a greater say in their administration. Norway, with its exceptional track record of fisheries management and its wider interests in supplying seafood to UK consumers, (notably the fish & chip trade), already exists as an ideal trading partner. The UK will never be able to domestically supply all its own dietary needs, but with an ever-burgeoning population and sustainable, wild protein from seafood set to play an integral part in that equation, we can learn from the Norwegian example and undoubtedly work with them, for greater prosperity and recognition for those who toil on our high seas.
But for now, let’s hear it for the Skrei- its quite a story.
My grateful thanks to the Norwegian Seafood Council for the accompanying images and the Norwegian UK Embassy for their hospitality.
Mike Warner February 2017