Outlaws in the Arctic: Fishing and Foraging at the Edge of the World

Outlaws in the Arctic: Fishing and Foraging at the Edge of the World

Our Print Editor-in-Chief Olivia Squire travels to the Lofoten Islands in Norway, where she experiences a bout of midsummer madness fuelled by aquavit and halibut at a gourmet hideaway.

This article appears in Volume 29: The Taste

remember once as a child walking to school in a snowstorm,
uncharacteristic of north
suburbia. I had an illicit packet of pear drops in my
pocket and, as I popped one into my mouth, the delicious
discordancy of the winter blast and the boom of summertime on my
tongue bloomed like a hot tear landing on ice. Although it might
seem utterly insignificant, the moment returns to me more than once
during my time on Moskenes, the most northerly inhabited island on
Norway’s Lofoten archipelago.

This is proper fairy-tale country – not the sanitised twittering
of a Disney drama, but rather the unbridled, noir-ish sting of a
Grimm fable. The weather is brutal, the living equally so, and the
Norse gods that rule over its humpbacked peaks are a far cry from
the velveteen, indolent deities of Roman or Greek myth. Yet amid
the canine-toothed mountaintops and silvered seas hides Holmen – a hotel, yes, but also a giant pear drop
clinging to the craggy coastline, a nugget of decadence against the
howl of the wild.

This is proper fairy-tale country – not the sanitised twittering
of a Disney drama, but rather the unbridled, noir-ish sting of a
Grimm fable. The weather is brutal, the living equally so, and the
Norse gods that rule over its humpbacked peaks are a far cry from
the velveteen, indolent deities of Roman or Greek myth. Yet amid
the canine-toothed mountaintops and silvered seas hides Holmen – a hotel, yes, but also a giant pear drop
clinging to the craggy coastline, a nugget of decadence against the
howl of the wild.

The modest building where we gather was once a fish factory,
erected in the 1900s by Rasmussen’s family, while the newer
surrounding cabins were constructed using the same techniques and
materials. Inside, sea-glass chandeliers, colossal fish skeletons
and hunting implements hang from the beamed ceilings, and
sheepskins from local producer Lofoten Wool drape across leather
sofas. We cluster along the long tables in front of the open
kitchen as Warner settles into his natural role as dinner party
host, introducing us to Outlaw – whose cooking is apparently akin
to “a bear wrapping tiny, exquisite Christmas presents” – and
presiding over the plates of halibut sushi, Lofoten lamb in seaweed
and langoustine, crab and dill-flecked barley that emerge. The
latter is so good it almost moves me to tears, my heightened
emotional state the only explanation I can muster for subsequently
drinking far too many aquavit espresso martinis – that, and the
fact that without the wagging finger of dusk there’s no boundary to
deter you from indulging late into the night.

Fortunately, my extravagance doesn’t translate into a hangover,
as the next morning kicks off with a cocktail masterclass from
Strangeway. While his laboratories in Copenhagen
and London
are stocked with sous vides, ultrasound baths and vacuum packs,
Strangeway explains how Lofoten is a lesson in simplicity and
flexibility: “you can’t get everything you want, so you have to
adapt and use what’s around you.” His Arctic distillations are
infused with the recurrent rhythms of local flavours that I’ll come
to recognise as the week progresses: juniper, blackcurrant,
aquavit. Strangeway’s session is followed up by a cooking
demonstration from Warner in which we learn how to make sorrel soup
and mackerel tataki before striking out into the mountains with
Rasmussen’s brother, Audun.

The weather has turned from golden to grim and we squeak and
slide over the wet rocks, accompanied by a tufted black cat that
follows us like an omen. Low-lying grey cloud presses its back
against the mountain peaks like a fellow feline as we pick our way
past murmuring waterfalls, tiny purple and white orchids and an
eerie rowing boat strung up on the lake, waiting to ferry someone
to the next world. We tread the mashed, mulchy ground beneath one
of the many stock fish racks that dot the islands, caught in the
ferocious stink of the swaying, lantern-esque cod carcasses that
hang like screaming bats from the rafters.

Wind-blasted and sodden, we return to see resident potter Gunvor
Tangrand wandering the decking in a tartan dressing gown, clay
smeared on her cheek and tangled in her hair, the Arctic Circle’s
answer to Kate Bush. After warming up with Outlaw’s debut dinner of
slices of raw scallop served in the shell, salt cod with crab sauce
and halibut with fennel bake, Tangrand and I wind up tipsily
heading into her potting shed for a midnight plate-spinning lesson,
clasping bowls of red wine and tripping over wires in an attempt to
find the power switch. I silently thank the Norse gods that she’s
in charge of ceramics rather than knife-making.

The next day I swap stone and clay for slate-tipped sea,
crashing into clusters of black mussels wrapped around the pillars
of the jetty while kayaking in the bay of the nearby village of
Sørvågen. Lunch is located on an isolated island that we reach by
RIB boat, bouncing across the current and scrambling over the spiky
shoreline to a makeshift campsite where our chefs are cooking hot
dogs over a fire, served airport junk-food style with pimped-up
prawn-and-dill mayonnaise and crispy onions. I feel the last
vestiges of my soft city lifestyle slipping away as I join British
knifemakers Alex Pole and Ed Hunt to hammer out my own “Viking
lady’s knife” in their temporary forge, striking the metal rod
until it curves like a duplicitous, flirtatious smile. I wrap the
blade in three pairs of hiking socks in order to get it home
without slicing open my suitcase.

Continuing the theme of wild women, our evening entertainment
comes courtesy of comedian-slash-cultural entomologist Nicholls.
Having already been regaled with her stories of writing and
performing an opera to chart the evolving life cycles of the moth
versus the bat, as I snuggle up with a juniper-wood negroni I’m not
surprised to hear her tales veer hilariously between bomb-sniffing
bees, serenading mosquitoes and the time Alistair McGowan
impersonated David Attenborough at her festival. At its core,
though, her argument is about listening to the insect world as a
way to revive our animal instincts and improve the connection
between humanity and nature – a theme that reverberates through the
retreat’s intuitive, improvisational approach to eating and the
evening’s menu of salted duck legs, Lofoten summer-berry pudding
and goat’s cheese from the local Aalan Gård farm.

This relationship between man and environment isn’t always so
cosy, though, as I’m reminded the next morning when we board a boat
and head back onto the maelstrom, the strongest current on the open
sea, to try our hand at fishing. Initially I feel chipper as our
skipper, Lars, teaches us how to haul up our catch using long
spools of fishing line, but before long the dip and swell takes its
toll. In the space of 15 minutes Johan goes from dexterously
wielding three cameras to hunkering down in a pile of coats and
staring out greenishly from his anorak, while I have to fix my gaze
on the horizon to stop myself from joining the newly christened
“barfing Bridget”. Deciding to leave the fishing to the
professionals, I beat a wobbly retreat to the kitchen, where Outlaw
treats us to a masterclass in making a delectable cod stew.

Our final night coincides with Midsummer’s Eve, the celebrations
beginning with a performance by a Norwegian string quartet in the
humble room above the kitchen. As the wind and the mountains beat
against the windows and the strings soar, I feel like I’m on a
train carriage rattling through the sky, insulated from the world
outside alongside my fellow passengers. In Norway the tradition is
to mark midsummer with a bonfire, so we troop outside and huddle
around the flames in a scoop of rock drinking mugs of aquavit,
caraway, raspberry and Lofoten tea. Tangrand has already singed off
half her fringe nishing off her ceramics in a raku firing over the
blaze – she’ll later fall into the water attempting to retrieve a
bird’s feather that she tells me represents a guardian angel’s
visit – and as Rasmussen’s teenage daughter threads together a
wildflower crown, Nicholls reads out her poetic homage to “the
24-hour dawn chorus everywhere, an ecosystem teeming in

Following Outlaw’s final feast of cured salmon, seafood risotto
and grilled monkfish, the evening ends as all good dinner parties
should – anarchically – with half our group following Rasmussen’s
daughter in the midsummer ritual of jumping off the jetty into the
sea. It’s a fitting conclusion to a week of immersing ourselves in
the marrow of the moment, a madcap, marauding community at the edge
of the world.

It’s the thrill of this juxtaposition that strikes me repeatedly
during my four nights here for the Kitchen on the Edge of the
World, a food-centric retreat bringing Michelin-quality chefs into
the wilderness. While the cooking is, obviously, outstanding, it’s
the clash of luxe and low-key – zhuzhed-up hot dogs conjured over
the camp fire, shots of potent aquavit downed on a bone-white
beach, the nightly return to the kitchen for five-star feasts –
that make it a truly visceral experience which drinks down the
perilous landscape to the last drop.

The concept was concocted by Ingunn Rasmussen, the owner of
Holmen, and chef Valentine Warner, a mercurial, impish figure with
the tongue of a poet and a penchant for deftly wielding both a
fishing rod and a metaphor. After happening upon Warner’s
television series Valentine Warner Eats Scandinavia – in which he
forages, fishes and flame-cooks with Scandi kitchen legends
including Magnus Nilsson, Niklas Ekstedt and the team at Noma
Rasmussen rang him with an enigmatic “I think you’ll like what I’m
doing here” and an invitation to visit. The result is an
imaginative antidote to modern living and, in Warner’s words, “an
opportunity to get out of digital mayhem”.

Rather than polished-and-planned, silver-service dining, the
emphasis is on submitting to the elements and recalling an
ancestral way of eating in tune with the natural environment, even
if that environment is unpredictable and extreme. More than once I
interrupt Warner marching determinedly off to replenish our stocks
of halibut or whiskered wolffish. Meals are punctuated with
hands-on expeditions hiking, kayaking, fishing and even
knife-forging. In short, those not secretly harbouring a Viking
heart need not apply. Warner confides to me: “We’re for the curious
and the adventurous. Years ago you could wrap luxury up in a
mahogany box with a golden key, but I just don’t think that’s where
we are anymore.”

There are three Kitchen on the Edge of the World events per
year, coinciding with the equinoxes in March
and September
as well as summer solstice. I’m heading into the eternal dawn and
dusk of midsummer, in which alongside Rasmussen and Warner I’m to
join famed fish chef Nathan Outlaw, cocktail wizard Nick Strangeway
and Bridget Nicholls, the founder of the insect festival Pestival.
Previous guest chefs and speakers include Gill Meller of River
Cottage, author Matt Haig and Mark Hix, whose cod sperm on toast
has already transitioned into local legend.

I pass glassy lakes reflecting upside-down skies, twisting
bridges presumably built by brutalist trolls and mustard-mossed
rocks wrinkled like a manatee’s back until I reach Holmen, a cubist
scattering of tilted, lopsided dwellings and a jagged, silver
“weather house” along the shore. After hefting my suitcase across
the crags into my cabin – an adorable, dandelion-floored,
Toblerone-chunk of a dwelling with long stripes of window, from
which I’ll listen to the gulls cry and spy on the kitchen team
fishing at night – I join the rest of our party on the main deck to
nibble cured trout on rye bread and sip “adult Ribena”,
Strangeway’s mischievous combination of gin, blackcurrant liqueur
and blackcurrant leaf.

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