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Global Foodservice: Norway’s delicacy

The country’s best kept secret, skrei, migrates to southern markets

By Jason Holland
March 05, 2012

While it’s true that European consumers have become more adventurous in their willingness to try exotic seafoods over the last two decades, they remain conservative in their eating and buying habits. However, Norway, the world’s No. 2 seafood exporter behind China, has a trick up its sleeve — the seasonal delicacy known as “skrei.”

Skrei is Norwegian Arctic cod, but it’s a special run of this wandering ocean stock that’s renowned for its lean meat and distinct, delicious taste. It’s also reported to have the highest nutritional value of all cod.

Every year between January and April the Norwegian coastline comes alive for the much anticipated skrei (pronounced “sk-rey”) season, when millions of large, mature fish undertake their annual journey from the Barents Sea back to their spawning grounds that surround Norway’s Lofoten islands. The name “skrei” comes from an old Norse word that means “to move forward or migrate.”

The fish is around five years old when it reaches adulthood and is ready to make this journey. The largest and oldest cod, mainly females, reach the spawning grounds first; the males arrive later and dominate in numbers.

The Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC), the marketing body for Norway’s seafood industry, has high hopes for skrei in European foodservice, particularly as cod is regarded as one of the most exclusive whitefish species by European chefs. There’s also an illustrious history of Norwegian cod being served in Europe’s high-end restaurants.

Karin Olsen, the NSC’s whitefish marketing manager, says skrei markets have been created in Spain, Belgium, Germany and France. In the latter, leading chefs like Michel Roth at The Ritz and Mikael Feval at the Restaurant Antoine, both in Paris, declare themselves “big fans” of skrei, but Olsen points out that the fish can be found on many menus throughout the country.

The next market that the NSC is pitching skrei to is the United Kingdom and the first shipment was due to arrive earlier this year. In something of a coup for the Norwegians, its arrival was preceded by a glowing endorsement from one of the country’s most respected chefs, Michel Roux Jr., who trialed the fish at his two-Michelin-star London restaurant Le Gavroche last year.

“I was very impressed,” says Roux. “In fact I’m sorry we found out about it so late in the 2011 season as it is fantastic: glistening, beautiful cod that’s the freshest I’ve seen for a long time. It breaks into beautiful translucent flakes, which is always a sign of quality. I’ll indicate that it’s skrei on the menu this year as I think awareness is growing. If the quality is there, the name always sticks.”

It should also be noted that it’s not just the skrei meat that is a rare culinary delicacy; the trimmings such as the liver, roe and tongue are also highly prized by skilled chefs.


Market interest

Leading U.K. fresh fish supplier Direct Seafoods is excited by the interest being shown in skrei. It will be offering the fish to its customers as one of its seasonal specials and expects to deliver the fish to chefs within 24 hours of harvest.

Laky Zervudachi, Direct Seafoods’ director of sustainability, has been working with the Norwegian fishermen and “understands how exceptional” the fish is.

“It has something more to it than just your basic cod; it’s not a commodity and what we want to do is highlight its true quality,” he says.

Zervudachi says chefs should put skrei on their menus so customers know where the fish is coming from and also that it’s something quite special.

“Then you can market it at its true value,” says Zervudachi. “We get excellent supplies of Norwegian cod all year round but it’s going to be fantastic to say, ‘We can make this dish even better,’ and that ‘We’re not just buying cod; we’re buying something that is special and a little bit more exciting.’”

He also points out that skrei is only marginally more expensive than normal cod.

In February, skrei fillets of 2 to 3 kilograms had a U.K. wholesale price of around $15.53 per kilogram, while cod fillets of the same size were between $14.26 and $15.05 per kilogram.

Interested chefs should note it’s not real skrei unless it is firstly of Norwegian origin; and secondly, bears the “SKREI” brand mark — developed as part of a skrei quality standard that was launched in 2006. This standard is similar to the European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).

Norwegian Arctic cod can only be marked with the SKREI branding if it is caught fully grown during the winter season, and from the traditional spawning grounds along the northern Norwegian coastline.

The standard states that skrei must be packaged within 12 hours of harvest and must be stored on ice at a temperature between 0 and 4 degrees Celsius (32 to 39.2 degrees F). Whole, fresh skrei is required to have the SKREI brand fastened to the forward dorsal fin and packaged in a branded box. Fillets are also available but the fish should be filleted when fresh.

“All skrei should be tagged; if it’s not tagged, it’s not skrei,” says Olsen, who pointed out that only a small amount of the seasonal cod becomes skrei. A lot goes to market as clipfish, stockfish and salted fish.


Natural, sustainable star

Norway co-manages the largest and most sustainable cod stock in the world, which is in the Barents Sea. In line with the healthy stocks in these waters, the quota shared by Norway and Russia increased 8 percent this year to 751,000 metric tons, of which 339,857 metric tons is the Norwegian share.

Norway has developed a rich heritage of harvesting skrei over hundreds of years, but to ensure fishing is sustainably managed, no cod are caught before they have had the opportunity to reproduce.

The country’s fishing authorities are intent on protecting future skrei stocks, so only after a certain date — that varies every year — are fishermen allowed to go after this much prized bounty.

“The migration is very important to those communities on the coastline,” says Olsen. “With millions of cod making this move it’s a huge fishery, but the fishery only comprises 600 small boats of one or two crew that go out in the morning and return in the evening.”

The peak harvests are in February and March and Olsen concedes that the fishery is a challenge due to the poor weather that prevails at that time of the year. 

The sustainability messages stand up to the closest scrutiny but the long-term success of skrei in European and indeed U.K. foodservice will hinge on a number of issues, not least is the inevitable confusion that many chefs will have about the difference between cod and skrei.

However, chefs who have tried and like the product such as Pascal Proyart at One-O-One Restaurant in London, recognized as the 6th best restaurant in Britain by The Sunday Times’ Food List 2011, believe a shrewd starting point will be communicating the seasonality and the freshness of this lean, super cod. 

“After four months the lean skrei is gone and the fatter cod is back. It is after all, messages such as these that can get chefs and end consumers excited,” says Proyart. 

And if skrei does eventually prove to be a success, particularly in the U.K. market, the NSC has hinted that this will be a launch pad to rolling out other new products in the future and growing the £266 million (EUR 319.2 million/$410.2 million) that Norwegian seafood exports earned from British consumers in 2011. 

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London
March 2012 - SeaFood Business

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