From preservation technique to delicacy
Gravlax, or “buried salmon,” is an iconic Nordic food with an interesting history
Gravlax is an iconic Nordic dish and one which is easily prepared at home. Nothing difficult, nothing too time consuming. An act of osmosis. Curing. Transformation. The result of a two-day culinary journey is a dish you will be proud to serve to all of your guests.
Yet, the delicacy we know today has a much different story than its beginning. Gravlax (gravlaks) first appears in documents from the 1300s, informing us of the preservation methods used during these times. During the Middle Ages, people ate many forms of saltwater and freshwater fish that we continue to enjoy today. Salmon held a special place, valued and desired. Unlike today, when we have greater access to fresh salmon, salmon was more of a prized possession. In fact, in a well-known story about the god Tor, who is referred to as the “big eater,” Tor has his fill of eight whole salmon (among other things) at a wedding banquet in Jotunheimen. This gives us an idea as to the value placed on salmon and that protecting the surplus of salmon was important, worth the risks. (Henry Notaker, Ganens Makt: Norsk Kokekunst Og Matkultur Gjennom Tusen Ar)
The art of fermentation spreads far back into time. Burying fish, or meat, in the ground is an ancient means of storing and preserving. Gravlax is made up of the Scandinavian words “grav” and “laks,” which literally translated means “buried salmon.” Fishermen in the middle ages would use this fermentation technique of burying the salmon in sand to keep it cold. A few days later, the salmon would ferment and more closely resemble its nearest modern-day relative, rakfisk—which hails from the mountainous regions of Norway and is most often made with trout.
“To store the abundance of summer for a long time without using much salt or other (at that time) expensive preservatives, the fish was wrapped in birch bark and buried in the ground, where a wet, cold environment and a lack of oxygen made it ferment but not rot. Made that way, it was more a culinary extreme sport than what we normally think of as ‘food’: Imagine an unpasteurized Camembert cheese in the form of a fish, made by a desperate Viking. It is not safe to eat fish that has been buried in the ground, although the slightly acidic birch bark would bring down the pH and thus present a certain barrier against spoilage. When a 15th-century Norwegian or Swede ate gravlax, considerable risk was involved; weighed against the certain dangers of starvation, it was worth it.” (Andreas Viestad, Making Gravlax: No longer an Underground Art)
Gravlax has evolved, much to the relief of many, and today is cured in a salt and sugar mixture under refrigeration. After two to three days, the result is a flavorful and smooth delicacy that has made a name for itself around the world. It was even Julia Child who became credited for introducing gravlax to America and subsequently featuring them in her cookbooks.
A popular accompaniment to homemade gravlax is mustard sauce. My Norwegian parents, who both grew up along the Norwegian coast and reside in Bergen, swear by their mustard sauce. After many years of eating gravlax and numerous sauces, they came across a restaurant with a sauce that far exceeded any they had tried before. Being the gregarious person my father-in-law is, he asked the chef for the recipe, which, surprisingly, he shared with him. To this day, they always serve their gravlax with this particular mustard sauce; a smooth, grainy, and subtly sweet sauce.
Gravlax becomes more than just an appetizer when served with traditional dill-stewed potatoes. A simple béchamel sauce enfolds cooked potatoes and chopped dill and creates a balance between the fragrant gravlax and the tangy mustard sauce.
Around 6 1/2 lbs. frozen or fresh whole salmon or trout
2 1/2 tbsps. sugar per lb. of fish
2 1/2 tbsps. salt per lb. of fish
20 black peppercorns, crushed
2-3 bunches of fresh dill, chopped
I recommend using a frozen fish, as this eliminates any trace of bacteria or parasites, but if using fresh fish, make sure it is as fresh as possible. If using a frozen fish, allow it to defrost in the refrigerator for about 12 hours before using it. Having it almost completely unfrozen (but not quite entirely) will make it easier to filet the fish.
Take the fish and filet it, so you have two large filets with the skins on. Remove the bones. I recommend also checking for bones later when the curing process is finished. You can use the remaining fish pieces to make a lovely meal.
Mix together the salt, sugar, and pepper (you will layer this, along with the dill, 4 times).
Put a layer of the salt mixture and some of the dill on the bottom of a roasting pan and place one of the filets, skin side down. Sprinkle the filet liberally with the salt mix and a lot of dill.
Apply the salt mixture and more dill to the other filet and place it, flesh side down, on top of the other filet. This way the skin is on the outside and the flesh is pressing against each other. Sprinkle the top of the filets with more of the salt mixture and dill. You will most likely have some of the salt and sugar mixture leftover. You can just discard this.
Cover the filets with a cutting board or wood plank and place a weight of any kind, about 2-5 lbs, on top.
Over the next two days, turn the fish over twice a day (every 12 hours), pouring the juices in the pan over the sides and top of the fish each time. (Do not be tempted to take the filets apart).
After two days, take apart the filets and pat them dry. Cover in aluminum foil for one more day to enhance the flavor. You can also freeze it now for later use if you desire.
When ready to serve, slice the filet in thin strips and serve with the mustard sauce and dill-stewed potatoes. The gravlax can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Using the leftover fish: Using only the filets of the fish means you will have a lot leftover. In a large stockpot, place the leftover pieces of fish, bones and all, and fill with 4 cups/1 liter water. Add 1 bay leaf, 2-3 tbsps. salt, and some pepper. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 10 minutes. Take out the edible pieces of fish and serve with boiled potatoes, sour cream, and flatbrød.
6 medium potatoes, peeled, boiled, and cut into cubes
3 tbsps. butter
2 tbsps. flour
2 cups milk
pinch of nutmeg (optional)
salt & pepper
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
Cut the boiled potatoes into cubes.
Warm the milk in a saucepan, set aside.
In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium to high heat. Add the flour and stir for about 2-3 minutes, letting the flour cook without it turning a dark color or burning. Slowly add the warmed milk and whisk constantly. Lower the heat and bring to a slow simmer. Add nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Continue whisking until the sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes.
Add the potato cubes into the sauce, until just warmed. Add the chopped dill.
Place in a serving dish and serve immediately.
3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 tbsps. whole grain honey mustard (ideally Grov Sennep by Idun)
2 tbsps. heavy cream
dash of orange juice
2 tsps. finely cut dill
Place everything in a small bowl and mix well. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Green Beans and Mushrooms with Dill Vinaigrette
From Outside Oslo (www.outside-oslo.com), courtesy of Daytona Strong
2 tbsps. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup walnut oil
1 tbsp. chopped fresh dill
1 lb. green beans
1 1/2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
8 oz. sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Stir together vinegar, mustard, and salt in a small bowl until the ingredients are combined and the salt has dissolved. Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the walnut oil and continue to whisk until emulsified. Gently stir in chopped dill. Refrigerate until ready to use. (Vinaigrette can be made several hours in advance.)
Steam green beans until tender. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet, then add mushrooms and sauté until cooked but still al dente; season with a little bit of salt.
Arrange green beans on a platter and top with mushrooms. Scatter sliced almonds over the vegetables and drizzle the vinaigrette on top.
Nevada Berg is a writer, photographer, and recipe developer living in Rollag, Norway, in the Numedal Valley. She shares the stories, traditions, and history behind Norwegian food, as well as inspiring dishes from local and seasonal ingredients, at www.northwildkitchen.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.