King of the sea

King Oscar’s little Norwegian fishes have been royally endorsed for 114 years

Photo courtesy of King Oscar King Oscar’s various tinned products are sustainably fished in the fjords of Norway and adjacent North Sea.

Photo courtesy of King Oscar
King Oscar’s various tinned products are sustainably fished in the fjords of Norway and adjacent North Sea.

Gordon Wright
Sausalito, Calif.

King Oscar II is known as the founder of modern Norway—a math whiz and naval officer, renowned for his reserved nature, his intellectual rigor, and his sympathetic treatment of the Norwegian people. An international diplomat, he mediated in many global conflicts, including those in South Africa and Venezuela, and he was a great patron of both the arts and of Arctic exploration.

But just as important, from a sardine history standpoint, was King Oscar’s approval of a novel idea: in 1902 he allowed the Chr. Bjelland family “Special Royal Permission” to create a sardine brand in his likeness.

That’s right: 83 years before Nike created the Air Jordan line of shoes, Norway had its own celebrity product endorsement.

Since 1902, not much has changed in the production of King Oscar sardines. They’re still caught in the ice-cold fjords off the Norwegian coast and the North Sea by generations of local fishermen in small boats using a purse seine net. Still lightly smoked over oak. Still hand-packed, each and every one of them.

Of course, some things have changed with the little fish. Though still based in Bergen, the King Oscar brand is now part of a multinational fishing concern, and the flavors available have grown considerably, to include sardines packed in a variety of sauces, like Cracked Pepper or Mediterranean sauce. The company also cans anchovies, Skinless & Boneless sardines, and recently introduced canned mackerel to the United States.

King Oscar uses only Brisling sardines (though their Skinless & Boneless sardines are a different fish entirely). Brisling sardines are found only in the fjords of the western Norwegian coast, and—depending on the time of year—in the adjacent North Sea. Brisling sardines are the smallest, hardest to find, and highest-quality of the dozens of fish species that, once packed into a can, can be called sardines. King Oscar can pack up to 38 individual fish into the standard-sized sardine tin.

Photo courtesy of King Oscar

Photo courtesy of King Oscar

The company also touts a new “Wild Caught” banner on its label, which actually isn’t new after all, according to King Oscar USA president John Engle: “All King Oscar Brisling sardines are wild caught, but despite the new labeling, that’s always been the case. We’ve been ‘wild caught’ since 1902, but people are just now catching on to the importance of that distinction.”

Wild-caught fish are appealing because of concerns over farmed fish stock like tilapia and salmon, but with ocean fisheries at increasing risk due to overfishing, a sustainable fishery is as important as is farmed vs. wild caught.

In this regard, Norwegian sardines are among the best choices available. Brisling sardines, being so low on the food chain, are relentlessly sustainable, and the company comports to no fewer than six separate monitoring bodies—from the United Nations to the Norwegian Marine Stewardship Council—to ensure the sustainable nature of the fishery and the lives of the company’s fishing families.

The increasing savviness of American consumers actually helps the 114-year-old brand, according to Engle: “We’re non-GMO (genetically modified organism), and gluten-free to boot,” he noted. “But that really isn’t by design—it’s just the way things have been since King Oscar’s day.”

That heritage goes back to the original celebrity endorser himself: the liberator of Norway and the face of the brand in perpetuity, King Oscar himself.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.