Meet the Children Getting Paid Thousands to Cut Tongues Out of Fish

Meet the Children Getting Paid Thousands to Cut Tongues Out of Fish

For as long as the people in the Norwegian coastal village of Ballstad can remember, children have been responsible for processing the tongues of skrei cod—a local seafood delicacy that can sell for as much as 60 krone a kilo.
March 21, 2017, 3:01pm

This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2017.

Trygve Pettersen proudly places his local newspaper in front of me. Trygve earns 1,000 krone an hour! it exclaims.

Pettersen is a bit of a legend in the small fishing village of Ballstad, Norway. He's become famous for his deft hand in cutting out the tongues of the skrei, a type of Arctic cod. And he's making serious cash from it, aged just 16 years old.

"I started doing the tongue-cutting aged seven," he says. "My dad is a fisherman and one day he was delivering the fish and he was teaching me how to cut the tongues. That day I think I cut about two kilos and at the time I was like, 'Wow, that's so much!' but now I can cut about 80 kilos. The most I've ever made in a day was 4,500 krone [£450]."

I pick my jaw back up off the floor. This teenager is earning thousands of pounds for just a few weeks of work.

A local newspaper in the Norwegian coastal village of Ballstad proclaims Tryve Pettersen's skrei tongue-cutting abilities. All photos by the author.

In fact, Pettersen has made so much money over the years that he's saved up enough to go on a dream trip to America for a year.

"I'll start in New York, then head to Kentucky to be an exchange student, then I'll go to Hawaii—and I'm paying for it all myself," he tells me excitedly.

Teach a boy to fish, watch him rack up his air miles, apparently.


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Ballstad, on the northern coast of Norway, is a friendly, close-knit community built around fish—in particular, the skrei, which is in season from January to April each year. Generation after generation of Norwegians has fished the surrounding Barents Sea to catch the cod, which makes the thousand-kilometre journey every year to spawn in the water around the village.

Ballstad harbour, Norway.

Over the season, fishermen haul in around 1.5 million of these fish and the villagers make sure that everything from the tongue to the tail is used. The pearlescent white flesh takes pride of place in the traditional Norwegian dish skreimølje, alongside a little boiled roe and liver. The skrei is also processed to make crude cod liver oil, which Norway exports to those lacking in Vitamin D across the world. And all around Ballstad, thousands of skrei and their heads hang on wooden racks, naturally sea-salted and air-dried as tørrfisk or "stockfish" to be eaten later in the year.

But nothing is in demand here as much as the tongues of the skrei.

Cutting the tongue from a skrei, a cod caught by Norwegian fishermen in the Barents Sea.

The skrei are air-dried as tørrfisk or "stockfish."

Tradition dictates that it's the children who must cut the tongues out of the fish. So, on any late afternoon in the season, once school gets out, you can find a gang of Tungeskjærerne ("tongue-cutters") from the age of six to 16, armed with a sharp knife and a giant hook, raking in the cash for this unusual delicacy.

Down at Ballstad harbour this particular Monday afternoon, I find five kids diving into crates, picking up the skrei heads, and giving their own facelifts to the fish. Eleven-year-old Johannes holds up a cod head that's close to the same size as his own, pierces it through its chin onto the hook, then expertly slices off the fleshy part from the fish's lower jaw.

"This is my second year doing this," he tells me. "On a good day, I can make up to 3,000 krone [£300.]"

Children cutting the fish tongues at Ballstad harbour.

In the time it takes for Johannes to tell me this, he has made his way through three skrei heads, spiking the tongues onto a totem pole of fish flesh.

"Last year, I bought a small motor boat to go racing in," Johannes adds. "I want to grow up to become a fisherman."

Fifteen-year-old Kristina, meanwhile, is saving her tongue-cutting money.

"I've been doing this for six or seven years now. I spend a bit of the money, but mostly I'm just saving for when I get older—it's nice to have some savings," she tells me. "The most I've ever made in a day was 6,000 krone [£600]."

Kristina's huge sales are thanks in part to her cod tongue dealership, which she set up on Facebook.

"I just put up on Facebook when I've got some, and I sell them to local people," she explains. "They tell me how many they want, then I go and drop them off."

By hustling and selling the tongues this way, Kristina can charge around 60 krone a kilo, while other kids who sell direct to the fisheries make more like 30 krone a kilo.

Kaspar, an 11-year-old tongue-cutter.

Kaspar, 11, is clearly the joker in this crew. "I've been doing this for thirty thousand years," he quips. "I love doing it because it's fun, you get to hang out with your friends and you can make loads of money. I'm saving up to get a computer."

For as far back as the villagers can remember, the children have been responsible for the trade in cod tongues.

"The grown-ups just aren't allowed to come down here and do it," says Johannes. "This is our job, it's our tradition."

Pettersen's older brother, Bjarne, 28, was a tongue-cutter when he was a child.

Eleven-year-old Johannes.

"It's always been the kids who do it, I guess as it can take a lot of time to do it and the adults are focusing on the rest of the fish, so the heads were just given to the kids who were hanging around the docks," he says. "It's a great tradition mainly because you learn the value of money. We were never given pocket money when we were younger—if we wanted something, we had to earn the money to buy it."

In a way, Ballstad's tongue-cutting tradition teaches kids to become mini entrepreneurs. The young villagers I meet seem hard-working and ambitious—all useful attributes to enter the adult world armed with. And at a time when the UK is figuring out what Brexit looks like, Norway—a country that has had two referendums on joining the EU and voted "No" each time—is safeguarding the future of one of its two most important industries (the other being oil), as well as training up a younger generation.

But not all the kids who cut tongues in Ballstad end up in the fishing industry. Local chef Roy Berglund sidestepped becoming a master of the seas to become a master in the kitchen instead.

"When I went to chef school, it was funny, I could filet a fish better than the teacher, because I had had been working with knives since I was six," he tells me.

While at first it can seem a bit disconcerting to see an nine-year-old waving around a glinting blade, Berglund says it's "a good thing for the children to work with knives as they learn to respect them."

Raw skrei tongues.

Today Berglund has picked up a bag of cod tongues from his personal supplier (the enterprising Kristina) for us to cook in his mountain-view kitchen.

"Cod tongues have always been a popular thing to eat in the north of Norway," he explains. "It's part of our culture and most families will eat them for a midweek dinner once or twice a week, served up with some potatoes and some sour cream. Or some people poach them and peel the sweet meat out of them."

The raw skrei tongues look a bit like chunks of chicken breast. And although they're called tongues, it's technically the chin and jowls of the skrei too, which consist of both white meat and fatty skin.

Chef Roy Berglund coats the tongues in flour.

"This is the jelly part here," Berglund says, pulling on a white flap. "Some people chop the skin off because they don't like the consistency of it, but I think it's great."

The most common way to cook the tongues, he tells me, is by coating them in a mixture of flour, salt, and pepper, then cooking them in butter with sliced onions. He tosses the tongues into the pan and slowly browns them for about 10 minutes, then plates up with a squeeze of lemon and a new-Nordic touch of some micro-herbs.

Tongues cooked in butter with sliced onions.

I'm surprised at how appetising the tongues look and happily dig in. Their consistency is definitely a little more chewy than I expected, but the meat is sweet and the skin has been rendered away to a jelly-like substance.

Berglund also coats several tongues in panko crumbs, then deep-fries them. These are even more delicious—little crunchy morsels that burst with sea-fresh juiciness in each bite.

Tongues coated in panko crumbs and deep-fried.

"It's funny," says Berglund. "Cod cheeks have become highly desirable, when they used to be just thrown away, but I think that's only just because they've had more publicity. Cod tongues are just as delicious, but they're only known as a delicacy in the north and west of our country at the moment."

There are several chefs in Norway who are beginning to change this. At Bardus Bistro near Tromso, the tongues are served with pea puree and remoulade. At Maki in west Norway, they're given a Japanese-inspired makeover and in Oslo, Bacchus serves them as part of their new-Nordic tasting menu. In the UK, skrei fish are sold in upmarket stores like Whole Foods, Selfridges, and Harrods or served by chefs including Michel Roux Jr. and Monica Galetti. The tongues of the skrei, however, have yet to make an appearance on British dining tables.

Not that that's an issue for the Tungeskjærerne of Ballstad. The kids are clearly turning over a very healthy profit just doing business locally. But like all good entrepreneurs, that doesn't mean they haven't got one eye on the competition.

"Sometimes, you might see in the paper another kid in another village has broken a record for cod tongue-cutting," says Pettersen. "But I think if they had a competition here, I'd definitely win," Pettersen.

And I know who I'd put all my money on, too.