Byline: Matt Carroll
[bar] HE guilt, the shame, the awkwardness... Every time I ask for cod at my local chippy, my conscience screams that I should really know better. After all, according to experts there's hardly any of these poor, persecuted fish left in the North Sea.
Talk to locals in the Norwegian fishing port of Alesund, however, and you'll get a different story. From March to October every year, the petrol blue waters of the North Sea surrounding this town 235km north of Bergen are inundated with slippery, silvery cod which come here in their hundreds of thousands to breed in the shallows just a mile or so from the shore.
Much of this delicious, meaty fish ends up on the menu in Alesund's myriad restaurants, which are renowned for serving up some of Europe's most delicious seafood. Indeed, as the head chef at one of the town's most upscale restaurants, Maki, put it on my first night here: "I worked in Italy for many years but frankly the fish here is so much better than the Med."
As dish number three of my sevencourse tasting extravaganza arrived, I was beginning to concur. Mind you, the vino might have had something to with that. Each new course heralded the arrival of a different wine; having started with a delicious Riesling to accompany a plate of herring roe, with red onion and chive cream cheese, I was now about to tuck into cod cheek with Jerusalem artichoke and beetroot -- served with a lipsmacking Basque white that had beads of moisture trickling down the glass. With umpteen other seafood restaurants to choose from in Alesund, it would have been tempting to spend the whole weekend just eating. But the town is just as famous for its excellent fishing, and I was keen to have a go at catching my own supper.
Stein, my ruddy-faced skipper, picked me up outside my boutique hotel overlooking the harbour, and minutes later we were chugging our way out of the marina, past brightly coloured boats. Within 10 minutes we were pulling up at a reassuringly calm spot in sight of the town, where Stein shut off the engines and hopped down from the wheelhouse to give me a quick demo on the correct technique.
"Drop your line to about 50 metres," he said, pointing to the gauge on top of my rod. "That's where the cod like to hang out. Now jerk the rod up and down, and wait for a bite."
It all sounded far too simple. On every fishing programme I've ever watched (all right, on the only fishing programme I've ever watched), I was struck by how much patience and effort was required even to catch a tiddler.
Before coming here I'd envisaged hours of waiting while the fish made up their minds about whether to go for the bait. But cod, it seems, are far from shy -- at least the ones in Alesund -- and within half an hour I was reeling in a prize specimen that would make Rick Stein go weak at the knees.
As the tenacious fish thrashed about in the water below, the end of my rod flexed alarmingly under the strain. For a …