After introducing London to the bizarre wonders of the king crab, Pascal Proyart is turning his attention to skrei, the Norwegian seasonal cod. Tom Vaughan joined him on a boat in Norway's Lofoten Islands
Pascal Proyart once plucked a 15kg king crab from the Norwegian sea. A salty general of the ocean bed, all barnacled pinchers and arachnid menace, legs the width of your wrist and a good 15 years old, it's the kind of creature you'd think would need three grown men, 20 yards of rope and a harpoon gun in the face to despatch. With such wild variety out in west Scandinavian waters it's easy to see why Proyart, head chef at London's One-O-One restaurant in Knightsbridge, has for the past four years teamed up with the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) to investigate bringing the pick of its produce over to England.
A decade ago he was the first British chef to introduce king crab to the British dining public, importing from a contact he made while in Belgium. The news came to the attention of the folk at NSC and they dined at One-O-One four years ago, spoke with Proyart and asked if he'd like to work with them in their promotion of Norwegian produce.
The result has seen Proyart on countless trips to the land of fjords and A-Ha, sourcing superior king crab and white halibut for his kitchen. About two and a half years ago one product, a staple of the Norwegian diet, came to his attention: skrei. Back then, supply chains struggled to get the fish to London within a few days, diminishing the quality drastically. But things have changed, and before securing the fish's place in his London kitchen, Proyart flew a handful of companions to north Norway to see exactly why he'd pined so much for this particular product.
The Lofoten Islands are a beautiful, desolate archipelago of white mountains and unforgiving coastlines, the depths of which play annual host to skrei. These large, seasonal fish are Atlantic cod which, from January to April, return to spawn from the hunting grounds of the Barents Sea to the secure straits and nestled bays of the islands, where life began for them. North-east Atlantic cod don't mature to spawning age until seven years old and can migrate at a speed of up to 20km a day back to the coast, eating much less than in the remainder of the year. The result is large, lean fish, their meat a much firmer texture from the workout of the migratory route.
The skrei industry has been the livelihood of coastal towns through the ages. Once upon a time an armada nearing 32,000 fishermen would cut through the icy blue waters to the Lofoten Islands, layered and poised aboard traditional sjarks, like their fathers and grandfathers before them. It's said that in 1896 the island harbours were so chock-full with little boats it was possible to walk from one side to the other just by hopping decks. With biceps the size of harbour buoys, the men would haul in handlines, longlines, gill nets and Danish seines, dragging huge dark fish from the water.
Nowadays the number of fishermen is closer to 4,000, mainly on larger, more modern vessels than the small sjark. But still there isn't a trawler in sight. Despite the modernisation, the rules and regulations concerning catch sizes have, if anything, made large hauls less rather than more common. As early as 1753 certain types of fishing gear were prohibited and from 1875 strict laws regulated the fisheries. Nowadays not a single boat can make headway for skrei waters until the authorities' stipulated time and not one single piece of fishing gear can remain in the water once the day's curfew ends.
The sheer efficiency and respect for the sea is what first enamoured Proyart to Norwegian produce. "The very passion of the Norwegians for seafood is astounding," he says. "The fisheries over there are so much more important than over here - it's part of their livelihood, part of their life. If they fuck it up the whole economy over there can collapse."
Little villages nestled on the mountainous banks of the Lofoten Islands survive entirely from the proceeds of this industry. "You can see how much they rely on it," says Proyart. "The mum is working, the dad is working and the kids are working in the fishery. It's crazy. When you see the fisheries over there you see family affairs. The focus and the heart is in it because it's their life."
In the production factory of Myhre on the islands, an 11-year-old girl is perched beside her father, permitted to work a certain number of hours a season outside school for pocket money, cutting skrei tongues from decapitated heads with little flicks of a thin wrist. She's a strange sight out of context, gloved and cagouled, silhouetted against the blood splatters, but the next generation has been introduced to the industry in such a way for hundreds of years.
It's not hard to see why the Norwegians and, in turn, Proyart are so passionate about skrei. It is, to all extents and purposes, cod at its very best: lean, firm and tasty. "It keeps its shape really well," says Proyart. "It flakes fantastically well and is this lovely translucent white. The taste is not too different from ordinary cod but the texture and the appearance on the plate are much, much better. It looks stunning. Even the skin is different much thinner than normal cod and dappled almost like a leopard."
The difference with skrei is, as with all produce, seasonality. "Like lamb, which is at its best in spring and early summer, this is at its best now," says Proyart. "I think if people ate skrei and then cod they'd maybe wonder if it was the same fish."
Aboard our small fishing boat, Proyart served a skrei fillet carpaccio with mango, garlic, chillis, lemon, lime, rocket and olive oil, the tight nature of the flesh easily discernible from the sometimes woolly meat of ordinary cod. Pan-fried as a whole fillet it stood up rigid and taut to the heat, before flaking like a stack of dominos at the smallest touch of fork. Fresh and served with butter and capers, it was as good a piece of cod as you're likely to taste.
Most skrei weigh about 2kg, headed and gutted, so a restaurant could serve 10 or 12 portions of fillet per fish. And, at about £15 per kg, they're barely more expensive than standard cod. You'd be able to serve 12 from a £30 expenditure. That's £2.50 per portion cost price, before you make use of the tail and other by-products.
In fact, in Norway, every bit of the fish is used. The tongues are delicious sautéd with tomato. The livers can be cooked with their own juices - "it is like health food," says a wrinkled Norwegian aboard our boat - although Proyart is interested in blanching them and making a pâté if he can get enough across, while the heads are dried and form the basis of a strong export market to Africa.
The trouble is, at present, the lack of supply into England. This, says Pascal Tiernan, managing director of James Knight fishmongers, is partly because of an ignorance about skrei, and cod in general. "People in London have never heard of the word skrei so you've immediately got an uphill struggle in trying to educate them," he says.
In fact the attitude to cod in general in convoluted at best. The consensus among some diners is that eating cod is tantamount to snacking on a panda burger, such is the furore surrounding North Sea cod. Actually, explains Geir Dahle, a scientist at Norway's Institute of Marine Research, which is responsible for providing advice to Norwegian authorities on aquaculture and the ecosystems of the Barents Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the North Sea and the Norwegian coastal zone, ongoing shrewd management of Norwegian waters means that cod numbers remain healthy.
"Because there are perceived problems in the North Sea, on the Canadian coast and with Baltic cod, the problem is widespread," says Dahle. "We need to close these three shores and carry on fishing sustainably the areas with large stocks."
One issue put to Dahle is the pragmatism of catching spawning stocks, as skrei are such by their very nature. "You could say that about catching salmon," he replies. "The only reason they are in the river is to spawn. The easiest time to catch fish is when they school, and they school at spawning time. For me, as a biologist, it's ironic that fishermen should catch fish when they're spawning, but it's been like that for 200, 300, 500 years. So long as it's done responsibly it's not a problem."
Proyart agrees. "They've been fished for 1,000 years and there are still enormous numbers spawning. The Norwegians are so efficient. Look at their king crab: they could catch them all year round as there are millions down there, but they only open the season for four months to be cautious."
Slow-poached skrei with foie gras and pork belly, green pea veloute
50g onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic
10g smoked Alsace bacon trimming
50g green lettuce, roughly chopped
200ml whipping cream
200ml fish stock
360g frozen or fresh peas
1/2 bay leaf
1 spring of thyme
2tbs chopped parsley
4 x 125g skrei fillets, skin on
2 x 50g slices foie gras
80g braised pork belly
1 banana shallot, sliced
1 Baby Gem, finely sliced
30g cooked baby carrot, sliced
Salt and pepper
Sweat the onion, three garlic cloves and bacon in 20g butter for three minutes until soft. Add the lettuce and cook for a further two minutes, then add the cream and fish stock.
Bring to the boil, add 300g peas, cook it for one minute then add 200ml milk and blend until smooth. Pass through a fine chinois to achieve a silky and fine texture. Season and set aside.
Add two garlic cloves, bay leaf, thyme, one tablespoon of parsley and 20g butter to a high-sided frying pan and cook for one minute.
Season skrei fillets and add to the pan with 500ml milk. Bring it to a gentle simmer then remove from the heat and let the skrei cook naturally for five to six minutes in the hot milk. Meanwhile, fry the sliced foie gras and pork belly in a pan with the oil until well caramelised, remove and cut into small pieces.
For the fricassée, melt 20g butter in a pan, sweat the shallot and garlic until soft, then add the Baby Gem and cook for a further two minutes. Add the remaining peas and cooked carrot, warm together and taste for seasoning. Finish with 20g fresh butter and one tablespoon chopped parsley.
At service time, warm up the velouté, add 50ml cold milk and 10g of butter, froth with a small blender and season. To serve, place the fricassée of pea in a deep plate, remove the back skin of the skrei, sprinkle with sea salt and crushed white peppercorn and place on top, then sprinkle around the foie gras and pork belly.
Pour over the hot pea velouté.
Proyart spreads the word on Norwegian seafood
In the current culinary climate of locally sourced, seasonal produce, where does Proyart's affinity for Norwegian seafood fit in?
"I come from a small Brittany fishing village, and when I started working with Norwegian seafood people wanted to know why I wasn't using French produce," he says. "But I still am. Plus I use only sea bass that has been line-caught in Cornwall and my veg all comes mainly from England.
"But I think we should still explore and see what's out there. I don't necessarily think we should only eat what's from England. If we want to eat some fish at the moment, sourcing from other countries is the only way forward."
Once skrei is settled as a permanent fixture on One-O-One's menu during the first four months of the year, Proyart has his eye on yet more Norwegian seafood. Red fish, a Norwegian native similar to sea bream, and dirt cheap at £8 per kg, and wolffish, a monkfish-like product, are two immediately in his crosshairs.
"They have so much respect for the sea and for fishing out there that I take huge pleasure in using these fish," he explains. "And I want the public to know just how good it is."