As coronavirus devastates the travel industry, whalers in Norway are reaping the rewards of a national staycation.
“For me whale meat is my childhood, my memories,” says Frode Revke, as he sorts through a pile of white Norwegian cheese.
“Even my mother’s spaghetti bolognese was whale meat. The first time I went to Italy I was so disappointed, it tasted of nothing!”
Frode runs Ost & Sant, a deli selling traditional food in the heart of Oslo. In an average year the place is heaving with foreign visitors. But 2020 has been a little different.
“This year it’s been Norwegians who’ve come around,” he says. “People who can’t travel or go to restaurants are staying home to cook, and that’s changing what we sell.”
And what’s selling is whale meat.
For the first time in years the industry is seeing a spike in demand. This summer, Norwegians who would usually have travelled to Italy and Spain have instead headed north to places in Norway like the Lofoten Islands.
There you’ll find sparkling fjords, jagged coastlines, and endless days of midnight sun. As well as a traditional type of food that’s illegal in most countries around the world.
By the mid-20th Century many species of whale had been driven close to extinction. And since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) announced a ban in 1986, only Norway, Iceland and Japan have continued the hunt on a large scale.
Aboriginal communities in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia also catch small numbers of whales, as does the Caribbean nation of St Vincent the Grenadines.
Norway cites cultural reasons for flouting the 1986 ban, and maintains that – despite its reputation – whaling is a sustainable industry. In the words of Alessandro Astroza, a senior adviser at the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, the issue has become “emotional”.
He questions why whale meat is vilified above other sources of protein. After all, minke whales, the main species that Norway catches, are free-range, not endangered, and produce none of the methane that the beef industry does.
But what does whale meat taste like? It is certainly distinctive. It’s traditionally served fresh or smoked, and many Norwegians use the same word to describe it – “tran”.
There’s no direct translation in to English, but the closest you can get is “that-cod-liver-oil-taste.” Combine that with a beef-like consistency, and an incredibly salty hit, and you’ve got whale.
If you don’t think that sounds particularly appetising, you’re not alone.
Demand for the meat has been falling in Norway for years, and in 2019 the country saw its lowest annual catch in 20 years. A total of 429 minkes were killed, out of the more than 100,000 that live in the Norwegian and Barents seas.
This year, that number has jumped, with almost 500 killed. According to local whalers, demand has outstripped supply for the first time in half a decade.
But why has demand risen? Oyvind Haram, from the Norwegian Seafood Federation, says it is more than just the impact of coronavirus.
Instead he says that a campaign to make whale meat more attractive to foodies is paying off.
“To get attention you have to start early,” he says. “[Such as] working on social media in January, months before the whale season starts.”
For Oyvind whale is a distinctly local product that boasts low food-miles, health benefits, and a sustainable and seasonable quota.
He’s spearheading a strategy that pushes this eco-friendly message to younger consumers along with fresh whale recipes.
Oyvind has also begun working with prominent Norwegian chefs.
Jonathan Romano is a former sushi chef who presents the Norwegian version of MasterChef. Growing up