Magazine article Geographical

For the Love of Cod: Between January and April, the Waters Surrounding Norway's Lofoten Islands Become the Spawning Ground for Millions of Cod. This Annual Event Has Attracted Fishermen to These Bountiful Seas for Centuries. Ken Chowder Discovers That the Humble Cod Is Responsible for a Lot More Than the Islands' Cuisine

Magazine article Geographical

For the Love of Cod: Between January and April, the Waters Surrounding Norway's Lofoten Islands Become the Spawning Ground for Millions of Cod. This Annual Event Has Attracted Fishermen to These Bountiful Seas for Centuries. Ken Chowder Discovers That the Humble Cod Is Responsible for a Lot More Than the Islands' Cuisine

Article excerpt

A visit to the Lofoten Islands isn't complete until you've been thoroughly informed about cod. The history, economy and even architecture of this imposing archipelago, which curves down from Norway's northern coast, are firmly rooted in the fishing industry.

The main islands--Austvagoy, Vestvagoy, Flakstadoy and Moskenesoy--are separated from the mainland by the Vestfjorden. This 160-kilometre-long fjord is the primary spawning area for the Norwegian Arctic cod, the world's last remaining large, healthy cod population, and from late January to April, tens of millions of cod spawn in the waters surrounding these rugged islands.

It was cod that first attracted humans to the islands some 6,000 years ago, after the great ice sheets and glaciers had retreated following the end of the Ice Age. And it's cod that has kept them there. Although the fishing industry has diminished considerably over the past 150 years, it's still the islands' main industry, employing around 40 per cent of their total workforce.

Hence it comes as little surprise that Lofoten islanders are passionate about cod. They've fought wars over fish; scaffold-like cod-drying racks can be seen on virtually every rocky knoll in every fishing village on the islands; and when the locals want a snack, they happily gnaw away at dried cod, otherwise known as stockfish.

Curious cabins

Even the cabins in which most visitors to the islands stay were built because of cod. Unique to Lofoten, the so-called rorbuer (literally, 'rower's dwellings') are small wooden fishermen's huts that typically stand on stilts at the sea's edge are painted either barn-red or mustard-yellow. Traditionally, the paint used was based on cod-liver oil. Some even resemble fish, thanks to their circular slate roof tiles, which recall fish scales.

The first rorbuer were built by King Oystein in Kabelvag on the island of Austvagoy in 1120. At the local museum in Kabelvag, I met Per Johansen, who showed me a femboring, a 14-metre fishing boat partly covered with birchbark and explained why the rorbuer were built. "At first, the men used their boats to sleep in," he says. "They would lie down and throw the sail over them. But the fishing season is in the middle of winter. Perhaps even fishermen can become cold, so the shacks were built for them. They were not palaces, as you will see."

He led me up a few steps, bristling with nettles, to a weathered grey rorbu built in 1797. It consisted of a single room containing four beds. Typically, Johansen explained, two crews would share such a rorbu--12 men, three to each bed. "Lofoten was the biggest cod-fishing place in the world. In 1895, 32,000 men came here to fish."

He showed me inside another cabin, which dates back to 1860. This one had an adjacent one-hole outhouse-a bit like an en-suite toilet. "This," Johansen says, "was pure luxury. They didn't have something like this in every place."

Life as a fisherman would have been hard work in the cold conditions. And even after hauling in a catch of cod, the fishermen would only eat what they couldn't sell: the cheeks, tongues, stomach, and liver of the cod and the coagulated fish blood.

During the 1960s, as fishing boats became more comfortable, the fishermen began to sleep on board, and many of the rorbuer were pulled down. More recently, they've enjoyed a renaissance, with new rorbuer being built specifically to house tourists.

Matchstick men

My next stop, Henningsvaer, is half an hour to the south of Kabelvag. It's a series of small islands interconnected by bridges; the main 'road' is a channel of water. The town styles itself the 'Venice of the North', and while this may be pushing it a little, its collection of waterside bars and restaurants and slightly bohemian air make it well worth a visit.

Between the cafes and craft and gift shops wafts the now-familiar smell of fishing boats: a mixture of tar, diesel oil and fish. …

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