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Whale Meat Is a Tough Sell in Norway

Norway is one of only three countries that still hunt whales commercially. Many Norwegians see it as a relic of earlier times—when it was frozen and served as a sort of mystery meat—but some young chefs are incorporating it into their menus.
September 18, 2014, 3:44pm
Photo courtesy of Marius Tvethaug.

You come to Norway for the landscapes. You come to take in the majestic fjords, the waterfalls jutting out of cliff sides, and the breathtaking glaciers looming above some of the brightest blue waters you've ever seen.

Nobody comes here for the whale meat.

On my recent visit—a quick three-day hiking trip in the Hardangerfjord combined with a couple days exploring the wonders of Oslo—I had planned on trying reindeer, which I knew to be a culinary delicacy here. I also visited the fish markets, famed because of the region's clear, crisp waters. But walking among the stalls of fresh salmon, oysters, and pale pink, toothpaste-like tubes of caviar at the Bergen fish market, I was just a little bit surprised to see slabs of whale lining the fishmonger's block. "Free Willy!" a charcutier crassly called out as he offered a thick slab of whale sausage.

The fish market in Bergen, with whale meat. Photo by Katherine Sacks.

To most Westerners, the idea of eating whale is totally taboo, partly because whaling is illegal in much of the world—but that's not the case in Norway. Just as they've done for thousands of years, Norwegians hunt the minke whale, a relatively small baleen whale, which is not listed as endangered and, according to the International Whaling Commission, is abundantly thriving in the waters here.

"The Norwegian people have a tradition of whaling going back to the Middle Ages, and even before that, back to the Stone Age," says Jan Erik Ringstad, the curator of Norway's whaling museum. "But we also have records of medieval laws regulating coastal whaling in the high Middle Ages."

Around 150 years ago, many countries had a hand in the whaling industry, but Ringstad notes that America actually owned the lion's share of the whaling business. But thanks to an intrepid Norwegian whaler named Svend Foyn, who developed an improved harpoon system in the late 1800s, Norway emerged as one of the leaders in whaling. That, along with better shipping technology,and unrestricted catching, led to rampant over-whaling over the course of the past century. In response, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a worldwide ban on commercial whaling in 1986.

A view of Bergen Port. Photo by Katherine Sacks.

Today Norway is one of only two countries, along with Iceland, that objects to the international ban and continues to practice commercial whaling. (Japan also whales under the pretense of scientific research, but this practice was recently the focus of IWC's annual meeting.) In Norway, authorities consider whaling a part of a balanced ecosystem: A catch quota is set each year, and modern harpoon and hunting methods are used to hunt 500 to 1,000 minke through coastal whaling. The Norwegian whaling season just closed in August (it runs April 1 to August 31) and 2014 was the best season since whaling resumed in the country in 1993.

But while it might be culturally and historically important, whale meat only makes up a small fraction of the Norwegian diet, and the country has been unable to quickly move the 700 tons of minke whale harvested this year. For some Norwegians, whaling is simply a thing of the past; they remember the whaling heyday of the 60s and 70s, when poor-quality, frozen whale was often served in school cafeterias and military rations.

A dish of grilled whale with asparagus and mushrooms. Photo courtesy of Marius Tvethaug.

Lars Jon Amundsen operates Solsiden Restaurant, one of the most successful seasonal seafood restaurants in Oslo, but won't serve whale anymore. "We would serve whale for dinner as a kid, so I grew up with it. It's part of the culture," he says. "I'm not against it, but I don't serve it. I made a decision many years ago. We do offend some people by selling whale, so we decided to take it off that menu."

Geography is also part of the problem. "Most of the catching is done in the northern part of Norway and most of the people live in Southern part," says Aage Eriksen, manager of Hopen Fisk, one of Norway's biggest whaling companies. "The transport of fresh meat is not so simple and it's difficult to get it out to the part of Norway where there are the most people." For a country with just over 5 million residents, northern Norway is only home to about 500,000, a bit larger than Malta. The rest of Norway—as well as visitors unfamiliar with the idea of eating whale—just aren't as interested.

Smoked whale. Photo courtesy of Marius Tvethaug.

Meanwhile, the whaling community is doing its part to encourage sales by creating a special label to help customers identify high-quality whale. And there are some supporters that think whale is catching on, especially among the young and culinary hip.

Marius Tvethaug, a former chef who currently manages the Frøya Sjømat fish market in Oslo's trendy food market Mathallen, sees an upward interest in whale meat among young Norwegians especially. "We try to find the traditional Norwegian way of using food. Right now, the new Nordic cuisine is spreading all over the world, and it becomes more popular to use it and people are aware that this is actually their own tradition," says Tvethaug, who has increased his whale sales to around 200 hundred kilos (about 440 lbs.) this year. "When we talk about the smoked whale, this is one of the oldest ways to keep food for a long time. And we've been catching whale since the Stone Age. I would say it's kind of back to the roots."

For older Norwegians, whale is seen as a kind of mystery meat relic of their childhood, but for young chefs like Tvethaug, it's delicious. "It's like big game, like deer or elk," he says. "It's a bit sweeter, similar to horse—but like big game it's very beefy in the taste, sweet and really tender."

Although Ringstad, the curator at the whaling museum, lives in one of today's whaling regions and grew up eating whale, he doesn't eat it very often these days. He's only purchased whale once in the past year—it's still sitting in his freezer—and yet he acknowledges the special taste of great whale meat. "You have to have fresh whale and you have to know exactly how to make it good," he says. "And then it's very tasty. You could never dream that you are eating whale."