Chef Valentine Warner hopes to convert British diners to salt cod, but can we can handle it?

Salt cod is produced in the frozen north, treasured in the Mediterranean – and an acquired taste, as Gerard Gilbert discovers

Say 'salt cod' to most British people and they say 'no thanks'," remarks Valentine Warner as we tuck into a warming stew of salt cod, potatoes and tomatoes that the television chef had prepared earlier. The dish is a perfect riposte to the rain pelting down outside the large plate-glass window, smothering the otherwise spectacular view in low cloud. "I used to live on the Golborne Road in Notting Hill, a very Portuguese area," says Warner. "You'd eat three salt-cod cakes with your coffee each morning."

We're not in Notting Hill now, or even in Portugal for that matter, but above the Arctic Circle on Norway's Lofoten Islands – the ancestral spawning grounds of Norwegian cod, the most cod-rich waters in Norway's already enviably teeming seas, and therefore the most cod-rich expanse in the world.

To be precise, we're in the picturesque little port of Nusfjord, now a tourist location but once home to a fishing fleet, with every available inch of dry land smothered in dead cod hanging on racks like clothes on an old-fashioned wash day. They were exported to the Mediterranean lands where they are most appreciated. The desiccated cod heads – and a sprinkling still hang around the town like totems to ward off evil spirits (or illegal fishing trawlers) – are exported to Nigeria, where they are considered a great delicacy.

Both Warner and I had been out fishing that morning, Warner landing a haddock while I managed to land a "gadus morhua" (Atlantic cod) itself – not a big one and scant kudos for my inner Ernest Hemingway because fishing for cod in these parts is probably easier than shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

Even without the assistance of sonar to pinpoint the presence and depth of shoals beneath our stainless-steel dory, and of my pilot Geir, a fisherman so experienced that he is a local celebrity known as Doctor Hook, you have to be very unlucky not to catch cod in these parts. Anyhow, the juvenile specimen and I eyeball each other for a few moments before I give Geir the nod, and he unhooks the youngster and throws it back into the chilly deep. Who knows, the fish's final destination may be Harry Ramsden's, the chippie chain sourcing part of its cod from Norwegian waters.

One of Warner's salt cod dishes One of Warner's salt cod dishes  

But surely Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has drummed into us that we shouldn't be fishing for cod in the first place – that stocks are perilously low and its continued consumption unsustainable, and that piscivores should be switching to alternatives such as pollack or gurnard. That may be true of Newfoundland and in the North Sea, but thanks to decades of tightly controlled fishing quotas and other enlightened policies, the Norwegian cod is thriving.

For example, while the EU only agreed a few months ago to abandon the disgracefully wasteful practice of chucking less valuable fish back in the sea, Norway banned so-called "discards" back in 1987. And now scientists believe that the Norwegian glut is growing even bigger as melting of the Arctic ice spawns a massive surge in cod stocks because it opens up large areas of shallower water. Every cloud has a silver lining.

As Warner prepares to cook his haddock (with morel mushrooms and bacon) for the benefit of his new TV show, Valentine Warner Eats Scandinavia, I slip off back to the "hotel", a collection of sparsely furnished fishermen's huts, to chat with our informative host, Yngvar, about what really interests me about cod – the dried or salted version of the fish known to the Portuguese as bacalhau, and to Italians as baccala. So favoured is salt cod over the fresh cod in these countries, that none of the languages has an indigenous word for the unsalted variety.

Old-fashioned food: Warner loves salt cod's practicality Old-fashioned food: Warner loves salt cod's practicality  

In his book, Cod ("a biography of the fish that changed the world"), Mark Kurlansky tells how the Vikings first cured the gadus, using it as a rich supply of nourishment (the dried fish is 80 per cent protein) during their travels from Norway to Iceland, to Greenland and to Canada – the exact range of the Atlantic cod. But it was the Basques of north-eastern Spain and south-western France who, unlike the Vikings, possessed salt, and cod salted before drying lasts far longer.

The Basque cod-hunting grounds were off the coast of Newfoundland (some claim they made it to North America long before Columbus), and soon the widespread taste for salt cod was established on the Iberian peninsula. And when the Hanseatic League – a medieval trading bloc of north European states – started shipping Norwegian salt cod to Portugal, the Portuguese preferred that to their own, and a north-south trade was born. And it's a two-way trade. "This wonderful tomato dish we're eating," says Warner, "it's a hangover from trading with Portugal. Norway isn't famous for its tomatoes."

Back at the hotel, Yngvar is preparing a salt-cod feast. He'd been heard at 3am by a worried fellow guest clattering about in the light of the midnight sun sorting his "stockfish" (cod dried without salt; from the Dutch word for "pole", the cod is left to hang outside) from his "klipfish", which is dried after salting. He also deep fries some battered cod tongues (actually the throat), which is gelatinous and a local delicacy, and prepares a rich stew, not unlike the one Warner had cooked earlier.

I am delighted, having long savoured salt cod – much to the surprise of worried restaurateurs in Spain, who, adding together the facts that I am British and have just chosen "bacalao" from the menu, often return to my table to check that I know exactly what I have ordered. "I love its saltiness," agrees Warner. "It doesn't eat like fresh cod – it's a different textural experience. And as a cook I love its practicality… it's rock-hard, like body armour. It's such an old-fashioned food."

Given half a chance, you feel, this adaptable, long-lasting and highly nutritious food could become a new fashion, too.

Valentine Warner Eats Scandinavia begins on Good Food on Monday 16 September at 8pm

newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Lifeguards / Leisure Club Attendants - Seasonal Placement

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Qualified Lifeguards are required to join a fa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Exhibition Content Developer

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in South Kensington, this prestigi...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn