Skrei, the Atlantic cod that spawns in Norway’s Arctic waters, is a sustainable delicacy that supports a way of life in the Lofoten Islands

It’s as the sky off Stø bruises to charcoal grey and the snow comes stinging across the Norwegian Sea that Kyrre Brun begins to enjoy himself. The fisherman had barely had a nibble inshore. Now, a mile or so off the Lofoten Islands – in February a stark monochrome world of white snow, black rock and frigid black sea – the cod have begun to bite. Three arm-length mottled-green fish lie on the sole of our RIB within ten minutes of a lure being dropped 140m to the seabed.

Over summer Kyrre runs nature and fishing trips as Stø Safari (www.stosafari.com). Yet the winter cod quota is what he lives for; the 50 tons of fish he is permitted to catch on a 2,000-hook line from his fishing boat, not the two rods and open inflatable he uses with tourists.

“Nothing compares to fishing,” Kyrre says with a twinkle, his wet hands scarlet from the biting cold. “And here we are so lucky – we have the gulf stream and the skrei. One follows the nutrients of the other.”

His rod arcs suddenly. “Ooopa! Heavy and fighting – this is definitely skrei.”

In the 17th century Norwegian pastor-poet Petter Dass wrote: “And should You, Lord, foreshorten your hand/ and close the skrei-cod and fish off from Land/ We would then be destitute.” We return to Stø harbour with six 4-5kg fish, for skrei season is back and the Lofoten Islands’ fishermen are blessed once more.

Cod has always ranked alongside bread as a staff of life in western Europe. Never mind its serving in batter since the industrial revolution, it was cod that took English fisherman to Iceland in the 1400s, and it was salted cod that fuelled the Spanish and Portuguese empires. So central is it to European narratives that the Basques, the great cod fishermen of medieval Europe, tell a folktale that a codfish gave them their language.

The trouble is that campaigning TV series by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as much as recurring wrangles over EU quotas have highlighted the speed at which stocks are diminishing. The one thing we all know about cod nowadays is that we shouldn’t really eat cod at all.

So, it is something of a surprise that the Norwegian Fishing Council has stepped up its promotion of skrei (pronounced ‘skray’). In broad terms, skrei is Atlantic cod that migrates from the Barings Sea to spawn in the cold nutrient-rich waters off the Lofoten Islands from late January to late April. Aged five to seven years, these are prime teenage fish: muscular, fighting-fit, their snow-white flesh threaded by filigrees of fat that melt upon cooking.

Norwegians have always prized it – a source of protein and vitamin D as much as comfort food in mid-winter. Now their fishing council, which registered skrei as a trademark in 2006, hopes the rest of us will catch on.

“I was very impressed,” says Michel Roux Jr, owner-chef of Le Gavroche, the London Michelin-starred restaurant which has served skrei since 2011. “It’s 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 because I think awareness is growing.”

It seems so. Direct Seafoods, the UK’s largest fish supplier which names Harrods among clients, says skrei sales rose from £12,000 in 2012 to £150,000 in 2013. Whole Foods Market reports its figures up by 888 per cent.

Behind this surge, suggests Mitch Tonks of Dartmouth’s award-winning restaurant The Seahorse, is not just superb quality, but “an absolute guarantee of sustainability”.

That sounds improbable given the usual apocalyptic scenarios for cod stocks. However, careful Norwegian husbandry – minimum price guarantees for fishermen and a strict ban on discards since 1987, enforced by the navy as much as a pricing system that provides little incentive for fishermen to exceed catch-quotas – means skrei are on the up in the north-east Atlantic. Current stocks are estimated at 3.5 million tons. This despite last year’s record quota of 1,000,000 tons, itself a 33 per cent rise on that for 2012 almost all of which was split equally between Norway and Russia. By way of comparison, in 2013, the total allowable catch of North Sea cod was 10,311 tons.

If fish management is so successful in Norway, it may be because skrei is more than a fish in the Lofoten Islands. It is a way of life.

Islanders have relied on skrei at least since the Vikings commercialised dried salt cod, explains Espen Klaevik-Pettersen, a local fisherman before he became project manager of the Norwegian Seafood Council. “If it weren’t for the migration of skrei these villages simply wouldn’t be here. My grandfather would make grace before eating and say very simply: ‘We thank God for the skrei and that it comes to us.’”

You can understand how skrei, a name that roughly translates as ‘wanderer’ with an added sense of rapid movement en masse, might seem a divine gift. For most of the year, this shoulder of Norway roughly 100 miles within the Arctic Circle – a bleakly beautiful archipelago of vertical mountains and rust-red clapperboard villages – is quiet. Then in the depths of winter hundreds of thousands of cod appear offshore literally overnight.

Even if children no longer run through villages to announce the bonanza (Twitter or Facebook is probably more efficient); even if the number of Norwegian fishermen has fallen from 150,000 in the early 1900s, when you could walk across Lofoten harbours on boats, to around 12,000, whole villages still spring into action.

There’s a rush on when I visit Gunnar Klo processing plant in Myre, the islands’ principal fishing harbour. Caked in snow from the fishing grounds, a boat is tied to the wharf and forklift trucks whiz vats slopping with whole fish to conveyor belts at brutal speed. The reason is that fish sold as skrei is not just migratory cod. To receive a Norwegian Fishing Council Skrei tag in its fins, it must go from line (nets are strictly forbidden) to delivery crate within 12 hours without a blemish.

Small wonder staff numbers double to cope with the 100,000kg of fish that are landed daily in skrei season. Men chop, women fillet (men struggle to chat and fillet simultaneously, apparently) and local children are permitted hours after school to slice tongues from cod heads. Scratching his neck with a bloodied knife beside a huge tray of decapitated heads, 15-year-old Tobias says that on a good day after school he makes around NOK2,000 (£228) from tongues; around NOK100,000 (£11,387) a season. The money will pay for a motorbike but he aims to be a fishing boat captain.

And so skrei culture passes to the next generation.

“My father was a skrei fisherman, my mother worked in the filleting hall and I was cutting tongues from the age of 5,” recalls Stø-born production manager Jan-Roger Knutsen. The youngest employee this year is about 6, he adds. Workers have to be tough; to not mind the cold (there’s no heating despite freezing temperatures) and gore. But despite 18-hour shifts and a market depressed by economic woes in Spain and Portugal, both leading buyers, the skrei season remains fantastic. “This is when the money is made, so we work hard. Afterwards we sleep, eat and drink, and the women go back home to look after the kids. It’s a part of our culture.”

It’s soon evident that it’s not only those directly involved in the fishing industry that take skrei seriously in Myre. When the first fish of the season arrive, Arne Antonsen walks to the docks. “I put my knife into the fillet and if it doesn’t tremble I won’t eat it; it has to be that fresh.” From fish that meets such exacting standards, his wife Rigmor prepares a meal for friends to celebrate the new season. “You cannot eat skrei alone,” he explains simply.

Steaming on the dining table when I arrive in his home is mølje; literally, a ‘mixture’ of skrei that could make an expat Norwegian weep with homesickness. Like nose-to-tail consumption of premium quality meat, there is almost no part of skrei that a good Norse chef will not prepare. Liver goes into a stew eaten with new potatoes. Roe is lightly fried, as are those tongues (simultaneously crisp and gelatinous in case you’re wondering).

Norwegians tuck with gusto into skrei cheeks and loins. They throw down skrei lips with shots of fiery aquavit. Head to small harbours and alongside fillets drying in the cold Arctic wind you will find skrei heads destined for African soups.

Mølje is Lofoten comfort cuisine – the flakes of its pure-white fillets as melt-in-the-mouth delicate as its fishy offal is tangy. You cannot find better, fresher fish than this, Arne says as Rigmor refills plates.

There’s a moment’s reverential pause. Not far away fishermen will be setting new lines in the 50-fathom seas where the skrei run. More boats will be bound for harbour, sailing low in the water beneath the weight of their catch. Then we dig in.