Food Critic Richard McComb enjoys a food tour of Stavanger, Birmingham's culinary sister in Norway.
We have been brought to a very deep, very cold fjord to take a look into the present – and future – of fish production.
It has taken an hour’s boat ride to get here, cutting around scarcely populated islands outside Stavanger in south-west Norway.
The landscape is majestic, with water cascading down sheer rockfaces. But it is what lies beneath that matters.
Swimming about in water so cold and so deep it looks black are thousands and thousands of the finest halibut in the world.
The idyllic setting, the fishes’ living conditions and the eating quality of the product are a shining example of Scandinavian gastronomique ingenuity.
We have moored at Sterling White Halibut, an immaculately clean, immaculately efficient floating fish farm at Hjelmeland, part of the Rogaland area. Within the large netted pens containing the fish, the fjord is 300 metres deep. Out in the middle, it’s 700 metres to the bottom.
Sterling White Halibut is a model of modern fish production and is being highlighted to delegates from the Délice Network, a global association of food cities, of which Birmingham, backed by Marketing Birmingham, is a senior member.
Délice, whose members include founder Lyon, Barcelona, Brussels, Gothenburg and Osaka, promotes gastronomy, excellence in food production, healthy eating and food education and culinary training.
The body was only formed in 2007 but it already operates as a unique and influential forum of sharing international best practice on cuisine.
New members sworn in at the annual general meeting in Stavanger include Birmingham’s US sister city Chicago and Rabat in Morocco, both of which had to prove their credentials as centres for gastro-tourism.
Food sustainability and welfare are high on the list of concerns for Délice and fish farming, often portrayed as the mass breeding of species such as salmon, in cramped, badly maintained conditions, has not always been favourably portrayed.
However, the system of production at Sterling White Halibut is of different order.
The fish start their life in indoor plants with plenty of fresh seawater before being moved to selected fjords and placed in open sea nets. It takes five years for the halibut to reach maturity for harvesting, by which time they weigh 6kg.
The UK, Sweden and Norway are the biggest markets for the fish. Halibut is loved by chefs because it holds it shape well – as fillet, loin, steaks, cutlet or for sashimi and sushi – and has good quality, pure, white meat.
The message about eco-friendly, sustainable fish farming is hammered home at the Rygjabo Marine Upper Secondary, which is a 15-minute journey by boat. The school takes its 80 pupils, aged 16-18, from 15 local islands and combines food education with career paths into fisheries and agriculture.
Seafood is a major focus – the school has its own commercial salmon smoking plant – and a high proportion of students become chefs after graduating from the state-funded institution.
Principal Magnus Mathisen insists fish farming is far more efficient, and sustainable, than pig rearing, for example.
He says it requires five to 6kg of feed to get a return of 1kg of pork, whereas only 1.3kg of feed is needed for 1kg of salmon.
“Fish farming is a very effective way to get food,” says Mathisen.
His deputy, Nils Petter Sand, makes the point that all farming, whether on land or sea, creates some form of “pollution,” adding: “But we need to food.”
He maintains farmed fish has a better taste than wild varieties because of its higher fat content. “This has been proven in blind tastings,” says Sand.
As a food education institute and a business, Rygjabo continues to look to the future and has set up what must be one of the world’s first sea urchin farms. We take a tour of the farm, where it takes two years to grow a mature sea urchin. In a small glass jar, there are barely discernible squiggles. The jar actually contains 5,000 “babies,” which will be transferred to breeding tanks when they are big enough.
Workers show us another jar containing three very small green fish. They are lump suckers and live off that parasites that attack salmon. As well as serving as a non-invasive pest control measure, the lump fish can also be used for caviar production.
The centre is still at the development stage, but there has been good feedback from Michelin chefs about the product.
Nothing has been overlooked – the species are non-poisonous and don’t have sharp spikes, making them easy to handle.
Stavanger’s fish industry has had to reinvent itself since the demise of the fish canneries. In 1925, there were 198 canning factories in Norway, 59 in Stavanger. Piers Crocker, of the Norwegian Canning Museum in Stavanger, says: “People used to say when the sprats came into the fjord it was like the water was boiling with them.”
Today, all the sprats caught in local waters are canned in Poland because labour is cheaper. The local market was killed off by the growth in frozen foods, cheaper competition and the better salaries offered in Norway’s booming oil industry.
Crocker takes tourists through the old factory, where each of the 14 wood-fired ovens used to smoke 8,000 fish at a time. The fish were then decapitated with scissors and canned by hand, head to tail, eight sprats per can. Before the introduction of a sealing machine in 1900, the lids of the tins were soldered on by hand. Norwegian food culture has a way of reinventing itself, of which the canning museum – located in a former plant in Gamle Stavanger (Old Stavanger) – is just one example. Another can be found half an hour’s drive away in Lauvvik, near the dramatic Lysefjord, which contains the famous Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock, a 600m high flat mountain plateau.
Paradise has been reclaimed at Lauvvik by Kronengruppen (the Kronen Group), which runs seven hotels in Rogaland. The company has acquired and renovated an 18th century wooden house by the waterfront which used to serve as a holiday home for the bakers of Stavanger – hence its name, Bakers Paradise. The artisans’ former summer retreat is due to open next year as a restaurant specialising in traditional Norwegian food.
Manager Sonja Hargaut says the signature dish will be halibut soup, which uses the head of the fish for the stock. “We will fish the halibut out the fjord, just there,” says Sonja, gesturing to the water less than 100 yards away.
This magical place illustrates the indelible link between food and people’s life experiences. Sonja tells me how pensioners have turned up at the property unannounced and explained how they used to play at the house when they were young, the children of bakers.
She says: “People have been telling me how they had their first kiss here and their first love. It is so nice to hear their stories. People have sat here crying.”
Sonja has been a chef for 26 years and loves cooking traditional dishes such as sursteik, in which meat is soaked in sour milk for a week before being baked in the oven. “The milk tenderises the meat and gives it a creamy taste, like a poor man’s elk or reindeer,” says Sonja.
She has laid out a table for afternoon tea, overlooking the fjord, and is aghast to learn that I have yet to try Norwegian pancakes. Over the next half hour, sipping some local apple juice, this culinary oversight is rectified. Fresh fluffy pancakes are piled high on a plate with a choice of thick cream and berries (and chocolate) or raspberry jam. Or all of them.