Authentic Lofoten

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

Hamnøya, Lofoten, 1900s

The ice-cold winds howl through the planks. The fishing nets and gear hanging in the adjacent room make the whole cabin humid. The stinking cod liver oil lamp provides a gloomy light. There is no escape from the pungent smell of cods hanging on the wooden racks everywhere outside. Through the window, the small harbour is packed with fishing rowing boats. As least, they are well protected here in this natural harbour close to the Moskstraumen, one of the strongest ocean currents, running between this island of Moskenesøya and the small island of Mosken at the western tip of the Lofoten Archipelago in northern Norway. Looking at the direction the king cod hung from the ceiling is pointing, the weather is not about to better anytime soon. With another eleven fishermen sharing the four-bedded 20-square-meter room, the snoring is non-stop and covers the lapping of the waves against the stilts and the loud squeals of seagulls. Today is going to be another day getting busy building a mock up fishing boat to pass time.

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Hamnøya, Lofoten, today

Things have changed fast in the Lofoten…

I am comfortably seated on the couch in one of the cosy Eliassen rorbuer, or fishermen’s cabins, where I am staying on Hamnøya to explore the southwestern tip of Norway’s most famous archipelago. On this small island, the Eliassen and Wolf-Nilsen families used to run their fishing companies until the early 2000s. They housed seasonal fishermen in basic rorbuer. These hard-working men were farmers from all over Norway, making some necessary cash in the winter season by fishing for cod migrating from the cold Barents Sea to their spawning grounds off the coast of the Lofoten Archipelago.

However, sometime in the 1960s, there were hardly any fish to be found during the season. The overfishing of catfish along the coast even put the kelp forest on the verge of disappearing, unbalancing the fragile coastal ecosystem. In the 1980s, the demand for cod plummeted while boats grew bigger, spending more time at sea. They could no longer anchor in the small and well-protected harbour of Hamnøya. It was time to reinvent oneself. With the rorbuer vacant most of the year, Mary Eliassen saw the potential of tourism during the summer season. She pioneered turning rorbuer intoaccommodation in Lofoten. After a very thorough Spring cleaning, she provided a very basic yet authentic hospitality in the fishermen’s cabins, sharing a slice of the local life with her guests such as when she would play the piano for them at her lovely house.

It is only around 2010 that the fishery operations closed down for good on the small island of Hamn (or Hamnøya in Norwegian). Its installations were logically bought back by the hospitality industry and turned into a resort. The former residence of the Eliassens is now the reception. The processing plant where cod liver oil was produced hosts a seasonal bakery. At dinner, I am seating in the former store where everything could be bought from fishing hooks to tobacco and rubber boots, close to the Manor House that used to be the Wolf-Nilsen’s. On the menu of the Gadus restaurant: stockfish of course and local cod bottarga that has been shaved on my linguine. This is one of the other delicacies from Lofoten: the cod roe sacks are salted and hung outside to age for 10 to 15 weeks in the frigid arctic temperatures to produce a bottarga, lighter in flavour than most other dry cured roes (usually made of tuna or mullet). The Kaviar spread that comes in tubes and is a local’s favourite from breakfast to snacks also originates in Lofoten, but it is not delicate enough to make it to the Gadus, and sticks to our hiking backpacks to help us conquer the demanding peaks of the mountainous archipelago!

***

After all, things have not changed that much: seasonal workers from everywhere still flock in, but now during the summer season, and the same rorbuer are rented out as they have always been, but they have been upgraded and are now occupied by tourists from all over the world. More importantly, they are maintained and preserved. A touch of colour against the jagged peaks of the Lofoten Islands and their turquoise blue waters, they are truly part of the cultural landscape and pay tribute to these hardworking men and women who made Lofoten what it is today.

Å, the village at the end of the road, Lofoten

It started over a thousand years ago when the first rorbuer in Lofoten were established by the then king of Norway to secure tax revenue from this profitable fishing ground that has been exploited since the Viking Era by Norse and Sami fishermen. In the early nineteenth century, the then ruler of the country sold some of his lands to the ones who could afford it. Landowners such as the Ellingsen family in Å (or later the Eliassen and Wolf-Nilsen families in Hamnøya) established themselves, building seasonal housing for the fishermen to attract them for the yearly cod season from January until Easter. They could sell their fish exclusively to the landowner who would set the prices themselves, and then shipped it to Bergen where it would be sold to be sorted out by categories and exported, in the tradition of the Hanseatic league.

Life was rough as the passionate Agnes Orvos-Csenki, curator of the excellent Fishing Village Museum in Å explains. They would row out at sea to fish for cod in the morning, come back, gut the fish and let it hang, mend their nets and catch a few hours of sleep before starting over again, when the weather allowed. There was not much distraction. Apart from the accommodation, the boathouse where the small vessels were stored and fixed, the blacksmith and the cod liver oil processing plant were the main buildings. Church was in the neighbouring village, and liquor sold exclusively by the landowner. A few prostitutes would follow for the season, as well as a priest to try and keep things in balance. The bakery was also running. But the fishermen would not indulge one of the delicious traditional cinnamon rolls I am now tasting that are still warm straight out of the oven. They were saving up as much as they could, coming early in the season with their precious chests containing some bread from home, dried meat, coffee and potatoes and maybe a bit of booze smuggled under the nose of the landowner, cloths, their mittens and the warm Lofotrya woollen blankets if they could afford owning one. Wool was the best possible fabric: even wet, it would keep them warm at sea, on land and in the cabins, even in bed…

In the 1950’s up to 30,000 fishermen from all over would come to Lofoten for the season. One could stay dry crossing the small harbour of Å jumping from boat to boat. Today, it is mostly the locals who fish from the land while factory boats stay at sea and dock in the larger man-made harbour of Svolvaer. The rorbuer have been converted into museums, accommodation or restaurants. The stockfish remains the local specialty as shown by kilometres of hjeller, the wooden fish racks. The commodity is still handled the way it has been for over a millennium, simply dried by the frigid arctic airstreams and turned regularly before being exported all over the world or enjoyed in the local restaurants reviving traditional recipes.

Travel tips:

  • Make sure to visit the excellent Å Norwegian Fishing Village Museum to get a real feel for what life was like for the fishermen (and do taste the cinnamon rolls!).
  • The Brygga restaurant in Å overlooks the authentic rorbuer and focuses on local and seasonal food, such as the seaweed pastas. Simple yet authentic food.
  • If you visit during the season, make sure to try the Mølje. This very traditional meal consists of freshly cooked cod eggs, liver and fish with salt and a splash of salt and vinegar, and potatoes and flat bread on the side.
  • To explore the area from the water, make sure to go on a kayaking outing – it is also the only ethical way of approaching sea eagles, without supporting businesses feeding these wild birds of prey.
  • The Eliassen rorbuer is the place to stay, all the more that not-so-ethical hospitality conglomerates are taking over the Lofoten. Reine for instance has completely lost its authenticity and charm.
  • Motorboats were introduced in 1906 and changed the way of fishing. The traditional Nordland boats with their lines reminiscent of the Viking drakes are coming back these days as leisure boats.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

For more in Norway:

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