Exploring a fjord sounds adventurous. The very idea of a deep waterway sandwiched by crazily steep cliffs makes you dizzy. There’s also the chance of crossing paths with a Viking.
But visiting a Norwegian fjord – spoiler alert – is easier than you think. Land in Norway’s second city Bergen, gateway to the fjords. Find your way to the waterfront at the heart of this storybook city, board a catamaran near the famous Bergen Fish Market and in a couple hours you are on a sundeck sipping Aquavit shooting the breeze.
Far from being monotonous, the over 1,000 fjords of Norway are spectacularly varied. The longest and deepest is Sognefjord, reaching over 200km and 1,300m below sea level. Nærøyfjord is one of the narrowest fjords in Europe, and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The fjords were formed when the ocean flooded the U-shaped valleys cut by glaciers during a succession of ice ages that covered northern Europe in a thick blanket of ice. Further away from the ocean, freshwater from melting glaciers and lakes feed the fjords.
On the open deck of a ferry cruising the Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord in early April it’s pretty windy and chilly with temperatures in single digits. With its midnight blue water and calm surface, the pristine fjord landscape is a deeply peaceful and quiet spot on earth. In this environment, the rainbow trout finds an ideal home.
Unlike the Atlantic salmon which is native to these waters, the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) was introduced to Norway. In the wild, the anadromous trout starts life in the cold water of a fjord as the mature female fish swims upstream following a homing instinct to spawn in freshwater.
Like the wild fish, farmed trout starts life in the fjord in hatcheries in freshwater tanks. The term “fjord trout” is a kind of controlled designation of origin (AOC) to differentiate Norwegian trout. Think of it as a clever industrial label for farmed Norwegian trout – since the word “fjord” is regarded as being synonymous with Norway.
From egg to hatching takes 10 days. When they grow to about 100 to 120g, a process that takes seven to eight months, they are transferred to ocean farms to mature to market size of 2 to 5kg (fish do grow differently), a journey of two to three years.
At the farm
The fjord trout, despite its name, lives out its life in a coastal ocean farm. Farms are regulated designated areas located in waters with good current flows. A typical farm, like the one we visited, has five to six circular cages housing about 200,000 fish each. The pens are 157m in circumference and 50m deep – that’s about 11 storeys deep. What this means is that there’s no overcrowding here; the trouts have plenty of space to do their thing.
“Maximum fish volume in a pen is 2.5% to ensure the fish at all times have plenty of space to move and the water quality is good enough,” explains Jon Eric Steenslid, Southeast Asian director of the Norwegian Seafood Council. With a 97% water space to trout ratio, the fish can play water polo if they wish.
Feed is dispersed via pressure channels that blow out evenly. Technicians monitor the feeding at computer screens. Just by looking at the behaviour of the fish they know what is going on. Slow moving fish for instance means well fed and happy fish. Feed stations are centrally controlled and all farms are online. Sea temperatures, currents and oxygen levels are monitored all the time.
After every production cycle, the farm has to rest for two months to allow the natural conditions to return. During this time tests are conducted on the sea bottom for environmental control and monitoring.
Packaging for export
During harvesting the net is raised and fish is sucked into a live fish carrier boat via a pump. To maximise freshness, the fish is kept alive all the way into the packaging and packing station.
Outside the factory are waiting pens where the fish can stay for a day or two to calm down before they are pumped into the packaging station. “Fish must be very relaxed and calm before going into the factory,” Steenslid says. “A stressed fish creates a bad, acidic product so we don’t want that.”
In the factory the fish receives a shot that instantly kills it. “Swift and humane killing of fish is very important and this is also regulated by law,” Steenslid explains.
That florid red
Trout’s colour however has nothing to do with quality. Salmon and trout differ because they are two different species of the salmonid family. But is that extreme red real?
“There are cases of people colouring the fish after it has come on the market. They can inject dye to make the fish look nicer and that’s cheating,” says Steenslid.
The fjord trout “eats” its colour. In the wild, trout feeds on shellfish, mollusks and other fish that are sources of the carotenoid astaxanthin. In crabs, crayfish and prawns, astaxanthin is what causes them to turn red upon cooking and it is this pigment that contributes to the florid red of trout.
Fish, like other animals, cannot make astaxanthin and must get it from their diet. Synthetic astaxanthin is therefore added to trout feed. “We cannot extract it from natural sources because that’s not sustainable,” explains Steenslid. “But the manufactured astaxanthin has exactly the same chemical composition.”
While research has established that consumers are willing to pay more for a vividly coloured product, Steenslid says there are industry limitations on how much astaxanthin can be added to the feed. “The objective is just to make it as close to the natural diet of the fish as possible.”
This is because it’s not just about colour; astaxanthin is one of the strongest antioxidants in nature and it is critical for the fish’s health as this phytonutrient boosts growth, immune function and resistance to disease.
What about antibiotics use?
The use of antibiotics in farming is a matter of concern around the world. For Norway however, that’s history. Since the late 80s, there has been a 99% reduction in antibiotics use in Norwegian ocean-farmed salmon and trout. The switch was made after the Norwegian Veterinary Institute succeeded in developing a vaccine against fish infections that has no side effects in humans. The vaccine is now injected into the young fish using an automated process.
“In Norway today, if fish is given antibiotics it has to be issued by a veterinary doctor and not the farmer. The fish doctor will have to come to examine the fish and make a diagnosis before antibiotics can be prescribed. It’s a very regulated affair,” says Steenslid.
“Any fish that has been treated is not allowed to be put on the market till it has been tested to make sure that there’s no trace of antibiotics left in the fish. That’s why we can say with 100% certainty that any fish that goes onto the market is antibiotic free.”
In a surprising reversal of global trends, Fjord trout has overtaken salmon as Malaysia’s favourite Norwegian seafood. Data released by the Norwegian Seafood Council shows that we have eaten our way to Norway’s top 10 trout export market – we come in at no. 8 – with export of trout to Malaysia increasing 32% last year. We now consume 60% trout and 40% salmon.
Trout is perceived as more premium than salmon, its intense red construed as a sign of better quality. Price-savvy Malaysians are also quick to note that trout gives better value as it is retailed at the same price as salmon. Elsewhere, trout is usually more expensive as supply is limited; Norway produces only 60,000 tonnes (1.7%) of trout compared to 1.2 million tonnes (38.7%) salmon, its largest category of seafood export.
We also prefer Norwegian origin – Norwegian trout and salmon accounts for over 95% of all trout and salmon in the market.
That comparison again
Because it looks so much like salmon, comparison – and confusion – is unavoidable. For many consumers it’s hard to tell the difference between salmon and trout but knowing the difference lets you take advantage of it.
To start with, trout is special because of its limited supply. Its stronger taste gives it a more characteristic flavour. In terms of nutrients they are very similar; both are very good sources of Omega 3. Because it’s fatty, it goes very well with the strong traditional Malaysian flavours like asam pedas.
“The difference is more in texture and flakiness of meat – salmon has bigger flakes while trout has more intricate and finer layering,” Steenslid says.
“When they are cooked, they taste similar. When you eat them raw side by side, perhaps you can discern the difference. Salmon tends to be more soft and creamy because of the fat marbling; with trout the fat is concentrated in the belly, giving trout a leaner, more minerally taste and firmer texture.”
“You can cook trout like salmon or cod," says Orjan Johannessen, 2015 Bocuse d’Or gold medalist and one half of a pair of famous twin chefs at family-run Bekkjarvik Gjestgiveri, a distinguished old guesthouse south of Bergen.
"It’s just the length of cooking we should adjust. You need to cook trout more carefully compared to salmon as it goes drier more quickly. To me, trout is more fatty, redder, firmer, and has finer flakes. Trout is very nice to roast on the skin and you eat the skin as well.
“Fat under the skin in trout is its identity. If you cook salmon on the pan without oil, it will stick; with trout, it releases the oil under its skin and you can cook it in its own fat. Raw, pickled, steamed, baked – it’s a fish with all opportunities,” says Johannessen.
While the most common way in Asia is to pan-fry it very hard, Johannessen’s advice is to panfry trout on the fatty side – whether you remove skin or not.
“Fry it on the skin for four to five minutes, then flip and fry another minute on the reverse before resting it for two minutes for a very juicy fish. The aim is to still have a juicy, pink core – for me this is very important.”
To take it further, Johannessen suggests poaching trout in the oven. “If you cook on very low temperatures you get fantastic consistency in a very evenly cooked piece of fish with great texture – but not so much taste. If you push the heat up, you get the protein to react; this will give you taste and at the same time the juice for a perfect finish. This can be achieved by cooking at 60 to 65°C oven temperature, with core meat temperature of 40 to 45°C.”
The future of fish
The aquaculture industry is only about 50 years old. Three generations from now farmed fish is going to be the norm, predicts Steenslid.
Signs that this is already happening is clear: today more then 50% of seafood consumed is farmed.
Yet, farmed fish is still getting a lot of bad press.
“This is coming from the fact that a lot of people think that anything wild is better than farmed. It also comes from a lot of environmentalists opposed to aquaculture and I think that’s a good thing as there has to be a balance,” says Steenslid.
“Some years ago in Norway when people were saying that farmed fish tasted terrible, we did a blind tasting and the result was that more people actually preferred the taste of farmed fish.
“More and more people want environmentally sustainable food sources and this has become important for us; more Norwegian fish farms are now going for agricultural sustainability certification. This demand is coming much more from the West than the East.”
With an economy driven by seafood, the fish eating culture in Norway is naturally rather sophisticated.
“We don’t buy whole fish but the fillet. We don’t have a tradition of steaming a whole fish or eating it off the bone,” Steenslid shares.
Today people see the importance of eating seafood but convenience trumps the benefits.
“That’s why product development is so important. The reason salmon and trout are so popular is because the product development is so advanced – you get skinless, boneless, a more meat piece of product that needs little or no processing at home.”