Local Food Knowledge — Air-Dried Fish and Meat

Tørrfisk – Air-dried cod of the Lofoten islands

Local knowledge does not just apply to edible plants, it also applies to techniques such as air-drying fish and meat. There was a time not that long ago when racks of air-dried cod could be seen along all the coasts of the Atlantic Fringe, from Portugal to Norway. 

Every year, between January and April, the Atlantic cod migrates to the nutrient-rich sea around Lofoten and Vesteralen off the coast of Norway in the arctic circle. And every year, since the 1100s, the fishers of this region have caught mature cod, brought it home, and hung it out to dry in the northern winds, the sun‘s reflection in the snow tanning the fish a rich golden colour. This natural process preserves the gutted and beheaded fish, reduces the water content and increases the protein content, 68-78% compared with 18% in fresh cod. When fully dried the solid flesh has a concentrated aroma, and is stick-like, known as stockfish. Once the stable of many coastal communities on the Atlantic fringe, cod need specific climatic conditions to dry completely in the open air. The people of northern Norway are the last to maintain this centuries old tradition.

One of the most sublime legendary dishes of the world is found in the Faroe Islands, the Atlantic archipelago centred between Iceland, Norway and Scotland, a seemingly simple preparation of lamb with potatoes and root vegetables. All it is not what it seems. Faroese lamb has a special quality that is enhanced by a process that produces a fifth element, the umami flavour that comes after bitter, salty, sour and sweet. Bent Christensen, Jonhard Mikkelsen, Poul F. Guttesen, Maria Canabal and Borghild Sjúrðaberg, who wrote the text for the book produced by KOKS restaurant in 2016, describe the process known as ræst.

‘Used on fish and meat, ræst achieves its glory with lamb. The wind, heat, altitude, cold, level of humidity and salinity as well as the microorganisms that are endemic to the island, make ræst taste unique. The meat can be milder or stronger, more or less acidic, redder, streakier, firmer or softer but it will above all, have a flavour that cannot be found in any other part of the world. It is the mark of the local cuisine.’

Ræst is not unique, it has a counterpart in culatello, the cured, dried pork salumi of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. Made with the muscular part of the hind leg, salted and aged for 12 months, the city of Zibello is famed for its culatello. In 1891 Gabriele d’Annunzio noted that ‘the square of land surrounding Zibello, where the air of the Po River is often humid and good for the mould that preserves this fatless cut of meat,’ produced the best culatello.

Cured air-dried beef, a product of the central Asian lands that raised the older breeds of cattle 5,000 years ago, had a sordid past and now has a specialised future. Associated with the Huns, who carried the cured meat on their war raids, it was the Seljuk Turks who brought the technique to Anatolia and established it in the Kayseri region where the weather was conducive to air-drying. They called it pastirma. Originally cured with a paste that included cumin, red pepper (paprika), garlic, cinnamon and vegetable oil, it is now made with various preparations to improve the flavour and quality. Numerous versions of pastirma are produced in the countries once ruled by the Ottoman Turks. The technique penetrated Europe where the Swiss continue to excel with their specialist production. It pre-dated colonialism in Africa and America, and is now a specialist product in south America, eastern, southern and western Africa. The gradual movement in some countries toward the hardier breeds of cattle would suggest that localised production of air-dried beef is on the sustainable agenda. 

These ancient food techniques were sustainable when the global population was a fraction of the modern total. Whether they can be sustainable in an urban centred future is the big question, it is difficult to imagine in this moment with our repeated failure to utilise the local knowledge of indigenous produce, food techniques, baking and cooking skills and community empowerment.