Cultural stockfish landscape at Værøy Lofoten - photo Per Nordmark

The Cultural and Culinary Traditions of Dried Cod/Stockfish

The culture around coastal fishing and outdoor dried cod form the basis for the intangible traditions in this article. The central elements are quality control, artisanal processing/soaking of stockfish, preparation, culinary site-specific folk traditions, art, and celebrations that have evolved through contact with the outside world since the Middle Ages. Contemporary knowledge and techniques associated with food processing and the preparation of stockfish have been passed down through generations and constitute an important part of cultural history. A well-prepared stockfish/lyefish meal is an annual tradition for many.

Written by Slow Food Bergen. Last updated 3. February 2024. Do you want to reuse the content? The contents are licensed for unlimited reuse

About the tradition and knowledge

The large fisheries for spawning cod have always taken place close to the coast in Norway, allowing for the use of small fishing boats. Coastal fishing, deeply rooted in tradition, utilized handlines, while today, nets and longlines are commonly used. The very best stockfish is made from line-caught cod. The fish is fresh, well-handled, and promptly delivered to processing facilities, where it is prepared and hung out for drying or used for other purposes. Cod is hung out for drying to become stockfish on flat wooden or high-rise drying racks outdoors for 2 -3 months.
The Norwegian Food Safety Authority has confirmed that food produced through traditional outdoor drying falls under the definition of food with traditional characteristics and attributes. Stockfish from Lofoten was also awarded a national protected trademark (BB) and a European quality label; a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) within the EU. This description of intangible traditional knowledge and cultural heritage is based on stockfish produced from this protected geographic origin.
Stockfish sorting by quality or grading (vraking) or rejection is a craft tradition dating back to Norwegian merchants in the 11th century. Later, the Hanseatic League laid the foundation for a Guild system that lasted in Bergen until the 1980s. The last trained quality sorter/gesell or vraker is still active, based in Bergen.
Today, all fishing, drying and quality sorting of stockfish takes place in Lofoten. Sorting and grading stockfish is still a specialized craft that is passed down through expert guidance, practice, and hands-on experience. The entire process is under pressure due to climate-, cost, and market changes. The grading is done according to an industrial standard with carefully defined quality criteria. Stockfish is initially sorted into "prima," "sekunda," "Tipo B," and "vrak" (waste) quality categories. Within each main category, there are further gradations, with the size and appearance of the fish playing a crucial role.
The central cultural element in the shared international part of the tradition is the processing/rehydration of quality-controlled stockfish. The preparation and the culinary and locally linked folk traditions in Norway, Europe, and the world have developed over time as a result of stockfish trade since the Middle Ages. A UNESCO ICH (Intangible Cultural Heritage) recognition of the cultural and culinary traditions surrounding stockfish, both in its home country and in regions where stockfish is consumed, would be of significant cultural value. It would help preserve the 1000-year-old Norwegian fishing and production traditions, as well as the interwoven culinary and cultural heritages of the stockfish eating communities around the world.
In the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries' cookbook from 1955, it is stated about the use of stockfish in Norway: "The common perception regarding the preparation of stockfish is that it can only be used for making Lyefish/lyefish. But this is a misunderstanding. You can make many different delicious dishes from stockfish soaked in clean water." Stockfish should then be soaked for 6-7 days in cold water that is changed twice a day or in running water. Skin and bones can be removed after 2 days. Round fish are filleted or cut into cutlets. Some people have experience in pounding stockfish to soften it and reduce soaking time, but such tradition-based knowledge is limited among the general population. The main problem is that rehydrated stockfish has a very short shelf life, only a few days. Therefore, stockfish must be consumed shortly after soaking in water unless it is frozen.
There are several traditional Norwegian recipes for using stockfish, from stews to stockfish cakes for frying. Fully rehydrated stockfish can also be purchased from the frozen section of major grocery stores. This eliminates the cumbersome soaking and filleting process. Norwegian chefs are increasingly using stockfish in their cooking today; adding their own touch to the stockfish meal with ingredients, inspiration and innovation from their own culinary culture and new ideas from around the world.
The fact that rehydrated stockfish has such a short shelf life has led to a need for preserving the finished product either by freezing or by using bacteriostatic treatment. This is where the addition of lye (lut) has its historical and natural justification. If rehydration is combined with the use of strong lye and possibly lime, the shelf life will increase dramatically. A vacuum-packed Lyefish/lyefish typically has a shelf life of up to 8 weeks in a regular refrigerated display. The fish flavour will, however, be significantly altered by the lye treatment.
Lyefish is one of Norway's oldest traditional dishes, both as a festive meal and as a culinary identity marker for the whole country. Lyefish is the most common use of stockfish in Norway. According to the Norwegian Seafood Council, 54% of the population eats Lyefish, but it is most commonly consumed by older consumers aged 40 and above. The season runs from October to December, and the most important markets are in Northern Norway and Central Norway.
There are different opinions about the best raw material for lyefish. The debate often revolves around whether it should be in the form of fillets or cutlets of round fish, how gelatinous it should be, white or yellow shades, or in the choice of ingredients that are part of the meal. What makes Norwegian traditions unique is that a specific part of the fish, namely the lyed necks (fermented stockfish necks) were considered the very best lyefish in almost the entire country. In many old Norwegian cookbooks, the use of stockfish necks is emphasized as the best choice for lyefish. The stockfish drying process, which sees the fish weight reduced by up to 70%, does not dry the entire fish evenly. The fish is hung by the tail, thus leaving the neck lowest and therefore being the last part of the fish to dry. This allows for a fermentation process where the cold-adapted bacteria mature the fish in a way similar to the maturing process for some cheese. The slower drying provides time for a longer fermentation to take place in the neck part. This inevitably alters the texture and the flavour; features which are enhanced by the lye treatment; hence the quest for lyefish necks amongst lyefish aficionados.
According to stockfish producer Hartvig A. Sverdrup in Reine in Lofoten, the tradition in the 1980s was that people in Eastern Norway wanted regular lyefish from round stockfish, while people from Western Norway preferred stockfish (skin)necks, and those from Southern Norway wanted the necks with backbones. Locally at Reine some connoisseurs until recently preferred the normally rejected vrakfish/Tipo B, i.e. the more strongly fermented fish for lyefish. It can be debated whether the choice of well-matured fermented stockfish for lyefish is economically or qualitatively justified, or perhaps a bit of both, steeped in strong lye.
Homemade lyefish was a common household activity in the past. Handcrafting traditional lyefish is a simple but time-consuming process, taking 7 to 12 days. Some prefer firm lyefish flesh after lye treatment, while others test the lyefish by poking a finger through the fish meat, and when it goes through easily, the lyefish is ready. Norwegian lyefish traditions are however undergoing significant changes. Fewer people make lyefish for their own use. The use of fish necks has become less common, and Tipo B or worse quality stockfish is no longer used for lyefish, neither by the industry nor by home producers. Potash lye is only made and used by those specifically interested in the traditional craft of home production.
The homemade lyefish is made using mild birch (potash) lye during the rehydration process; it gets a golden colour and a firm consistency with a strong fish flavour. Industrial lye treatment with strong caustic soda produces a looser, more gelatinous lyefish, which is viewed by most consumers as the Norwegian lyefish best known today. Over the last decades, this has been the type of lyefish produced most widely and it remains the kind most frequently requested by lyefish enthusiasts and restaurants. It contains much more water, however, than the product created using traditional potash.
Furthermore, the Norwegian industrial lyefish production technology is also changing. Several companies outside Lofoten produce a more industrialised lyefish filet without skin and bones, at the expense of traditional products made from round fish. Many consumers want the most straightforward preparation of food possible. Therefore, skinless and boneless lyefish has become popular. In the same industrial process, lyefish can be made whiter, and a less fermented fish flavour can be achieved. Additionally, it has now become more common to dry cod fillets without skin and bones, instead of drying traditional round codfish or split fish with bones. Drying boneless cod fillets takes much less time, with outdoor drying being completed in 1.5-2 months, while fillets inside drying cabinets in just 1.5 weeks. The cod fillets do not have time to be coloured and fermented by weather and wind. Moreover, they need much less rehydration time than round fish. The fillets also have a shorter lye treatment time, so customers get a very quickly prepared, firmer, whiter, almost odourless and tasteless lyefish that does not fall apart. For many consumers, this may be advantageous.
Lyefish becomes cheaper, home preparation becomes easier, lyefish looks fresher and is without skin and bones. The meal itself may feel more satisfying for many, especially the younger generation when it is not the lyefish itself, but the many accompaniments that are in the focus. However, for a dedicated lyefish lover, this might be an undesirable meal.

Machine-made indoor lyefish production represents a complete break with a thousand-year tradition and craftsmanship. Indoor drying can be seen as a threat to both cultural landscapes and traditional handcrafted stockfish production. The classic Norwegian lyefish made from whole round stockfish or split stockfish is gradually disappearing in favour of filleted dried tasteless loins and new industrial mechanized indoor drying of stockfish. With this, we may lose important parts of our own food culture if we do not take action to protect our national food traditions, as well as the cultural heritage related to outdoor drying, and the intangible knowledge that traditional production companies manage on behalf of us all through the international PGI (Product of Geographic Indication) Regulations.
Lyefish has no identifiable regional origin. However, the accompaniments are regionally influenced and vary greatly between places. The preparation and consumption of lyefish also vary. Lyefish is usually prepared in an oven in a roasting pan or briefly boiled in salted water or cooked in its own liquid. Lyefish should always be served piping hot. According to our national "food queen" Ingrid Espelid, all guests had to be seated at their places before lyefish was served. Never the other way around.
What makes the best lyefish meal? The best lyefish meal should focus on the good qualities of the fish itself, and the other ingredients should be modest and balanced. What is needed. Plenty of good lyefish (3/4 kg per person), Mandel potatoes (i.e. a small soft potato from 18th C.), pea stew, and a little butter or mustard sauce; are more than enough accompaniments to compose the very best Norwegian lyefish meal. Lyefish has a distinct texture, taste, and smell that are completely different from water soaked and boiled stockfish. Good lyefish should have a firm texture, a mild lye flavour, and a prominent fish taste. Here, the raw materials and the lye process are crucial. Lyefish has its own flavour quality that can be enjoyed excellently on its own, or at least with minimal interference from other ingredients.
The areas in Europe and in Norway that eat stockfish today, share the use of various types of minerals and bicarbonate of soda as part of the rehydration process, ranging from baking soda to a hydrated lime solution. However, the fish processors remove the taste of lye through the water soaking process, while extending the shelf life of the stockfish product. Therefore, stockfish meals in other countries will differ significantly from lyefish meals in Norway. The local ingredients following the stockfish will also be very different from Norwegian culinary traditions. However, a stockfish meal in Croatia, Italy, Germany, Nigeria, or France can equally be highly appreciated in terms of its specific treated flavour, ingredients and its own cultural and culinary context. It should therefore be of mutual interest to develop a common recognition of our shared cultural and culinary stockfish traditions as a common UNESCO Intangible Cultural heritage for humanity.
In recent decades, we have seen in Norway the growth of a number of social Lyefish/lyefish member associations, such as the Norwegian Royal Lyefish Club in Oslo, which convey the history of the food, organises lyefish meals, and social trips and experiences for members. The Norwegian Lyefish Association in Lier is another found on Wikipedia. The Norwegian Lyefish Lovers Association is on Facebook. The Uranienborg Lyefish Club is even listed in the Norwegian company register. Norway has numerous lyefish associations, some listed in official registers and some more informal social varieties. In addition, the Norwegian autumn lyefish event has become an annual social gathering for many organisations, authorities and businesses. The social and culinary value of the lyefish meal has become an intangible cultural heritage in itself. There are many popular traditions associated with the dining table, the identity markings and whether it is arranged at home or in a restaurant or banquet hall. The host provides the good story about the meal, the fish, the lye process, and the chef's eminent role in serving a culinary world heritage to the delight of family or guests, who applauds the organisers with songs and speeches.
In addition to the culinary aspect, there is a rich cultural treasure trove of myths, art, music, and literature inspired by the history of stockfish, both in Norway and further afield. The King Cod with its deformed head is both a reality and a myth that has found artistic expression in the form of stories, illustrations, and sculptures. There are countless artworks featuring stockfish as a motif, from the drying process to still lives or as a dish. In older paintings, we often find stockfish as a weapon for those fighting to preserve the religious importance of the fast. In Calabria, Southern Italy, for example, we find stockfish referred to as "mammola," which means sword in Italian. The stockfish is celebrated with festivals and festivities in many countries, often linked to religious traditions, and seasonal or historic events. Stockfish as the Christmas evening meal is very common practice in countries around the Adriatic Sea.
Many books have been written about stockfish both in Norway and in countries that consume stockfish. The unique stockfish traditions are explained in a historical and cultural context, wrapped in myths and legends. Petter Dass is a well-known Norwegian author from the 16th century who speaks warmly about stockfish in "Nordlands Trompet." In modern times, numerous books have been published about the history of stockfish, and also travel books related to local stockfish specialities with recipes in many languages.
The cultural diversity and forms of expression associated with stockfish are closely linked to authentic production, craftsmanship in quality assessment, local preparation processes, and food culture. Art and cultural activities are closely integrated with knowledge of stockfish and the local food culture.

Highly skilled practitioners

Coastal fishermen are the frontline producers and the cornerstone of quality stockfish production. They catch the cod near the coast, following sustainable practices and quotas, and handle the fish according to quality regulations set by fisheries authorities and food safety agencies. Without these coastal fishermen, their small boats, proper fish handling, and timely deliveries to processing plants, it would be difficult to produce high-quality stockfish outdoors. There are also a few coastal fishermen or home producers in remote areas, who dry their own stockfish for resale, but their numbers are sadly dwindling in coastal Norway.
The next step in the lyefish process belongs to the professionals found in the receiving and processing plants, which are often also stockfish producers. The cod that will be dried outdoors must be quickly washed, bound together two and two, and then expertly hung on drying racks (hjell). Proper drying must be monitored over time, making sure the fish hangs freely and correctly to avoid issues that could affect quality. After-drying now occurs indoors in climate-controlled storage facilities instead of in old drying lofts and sea houses.
Stockfish producers and their employees are responsible for overseeing the drying process in compliance with the quality requirements of the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) designation for stockfish from Lofoten. They closely monitor the weather and natural influences during the outdoor drying draws on a significant amount of traditional knowledge. It is known that outdoor drying has become challenging in our warmer climate, and indoor drying, which is more common in Iceland, is now being tested in Norway as well. High energy prices have, however, limited its development. Therefore, UNESCO recognition of stockfish traditions, based on the PGI designation could strengthen the role of the traditional historic outdoor drying on wooden racks (hjeller).
The vrakere/graders/quality controllers are the next link in the handmade production process of the air dried stockfish. Their task is to ensure the specific quality of all finished stockfish that are to be exported to countries with culinary stockfish traditions. The graders sort each individual fish meant for export into one of three categories: prima, sekunda, or Tipo B quality, based on sensory criteria such as smell, appearance, colour, length, etc., all according to specific quality regulations.
The next stage, the processing of stockfish as rehydrated or lye treated stockfish product for consumers, restaurants, etc., is carried out by skilled workers in large seafood companies or in smaller, specialized artisanal production companies or at fish shops. All these are normally to be found near the customers. Competence in handling and preparing stockfish still exists, but innovation in industrial production is changing both the craftsmanship and the final product, which is often mechanically processed and ending up being skinless and boneless.
In the past, it was more common to rehydrate and lye-treat the fish at home or in restaurants. This process requires time and space for soaking and lye treatment, which is seen as challenging today. Therefore, few restaurants or individuals practice the art of lye treatment, and of passing it on to the next generation. It is the chefs and cooks who now evaluate what is the best industrial product for the culinary uses of the lyefish delivered by seafood companies. Chefs also listen to their guests, so the stockfish that is commonly recognised in texture and taste will usually be the most popular to eat and being promoted. There seems, however, to be a general consumer trend back to prefer a much firmer lyefish today.
Stockfish traditions are also of great cultural significance to society. Visual artists, writers, and history communicators are a wide group of highly skilled actors who draw on stockfish stories and traditions within their unique creative fields. Stockfish is well integrated into our coastal culture, values and memories, and numerous museums across the country use all or parts of stockfish traditions in their exhibitions and education. We even have a unique stockfish museum at Å in Lofoten. Stockfish has also been used innovatively as a symbol of something uniquely and distinctly Norwegian. Stockfish history is well represented in books, music, visual arts, sculptures, and culinary art. The cultural diversity and forms of expression related to stockfish are closely linked to authentic production, traditional craftsmanship evaluation, local preparation processes, and food culture.
In the cultural field, numerous artists create art, share knowledge and unique expressions related to stockfish. Art about stockfish dates back in time, initially tied to religion and bible expressions in church art, or as trade symbols for the Hanse in Bergen or Lubeck. Later, artistic and cultural expressions developed more freely and extensively as long as there was a wish and need to express this part of our coastal culture. Many painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians have used or continue to use stockfish as a motif or as creative elements in their craft and art. Stockfish history and traditions have a significant influence and serve as great inspiration for performers in the culture sector.

Knowledge transfer

Coastal fishing is learned through practical experience doing fishing on boats, by tacit and direct transfer of knowledge from fishermen, - or through training and education at fishery colleges.
Fishing industry workers learn outdoor drying and how to monitor the drying process through in-house training and practical application and use of traditional knowledge passed down from older workers.
The vraking/grading of stockfish is based on the transfer of traditional knowledge through practical work in the stockfish industry. Grader training has shifted from a more formal apprenticeship to now relying on sufficient and relevant in-house practice.
Rehydrating and luting stockfish is done by skilled workers in the seafood industry or at speciality stores and fish shops. Here, knowledge about the treatment of stockfish is transferred from knowledge bearers to new practitioners of the trade. However, much of the skilled work is in the process of being taken over by new technology and mechanical processing of stockfish and Lyefish. The end product is changing from whole round stockfish to the production and preparation of skinless and boneless dried cod fillets.
Cooking stockfish gently is an important cultural and culinary tradition. Lyefish meals are prepared both at home and in restaurants, while dishes based on rehydrated frozen stockfish are mostly prepared at restaurants. Rehydrated stockfish is now used innovatively by chefs, who share knowledge through collaboration and exchange of culinary practices among food professionals. Lyefish meals are usually very traditional and site-specific in choice of ingredients. Chefs in different regions have a special responsibility for the choice of lyefish product and for the location-specific ingredients that go with the meal. Knowledge is transferred between generations through families, friends and restaurant chefs. A lyefish meal at home is frequently an event based on culinary heritage passed down from previous generations; with the type of lye fish used, accompaniments, and preparation methods linked to coastal origins of the family. Knowledge transfer for the use of local stockfish and lyefish traditions also takes place at educational institutions, industry associations, social clubs, and within the food industry itself.
For the cultural sector, stories about stockfish represent an important transfer of knowledge integrated with history and culinary heritage. There are various actors in social clubs, museums, and guides who share information about stockfish and its many culinary uses. This knowledge is either documented as stories or passed down in dialogue with older informants to younger communicators. Stories about stockfish and lyefish are important knowledge for home cooks, restaurant owners, guides and tourists. The history of the specific quality stockfish in the dish being served, is something many expect to experience and to learn, often via the medium of storytelling which itself is a cherished tradition for preserving, sharing and transferring knowledge.
Art and cultural activities are closely integrated with knowledge transfer of stockfish and the related food culture. They often share experiences giving stockfish a modern expression, in the arts, music, and storytelling or in the setting of the meal and the social expectations Artists and cultural workers inspire each other, learn from each other, or from experiences where they can express themselves using stockfish, or from the actual meal itself and its social context.

Historical background

The oldest documented food tradition involving the use of stockfish in Norway, can be found in Pietro Querini's historical account. He is known for being shipwrecked at Røst in northern Norway during the winter of 1432, and when returning to Venize he wrote a report of his travel. Querini described how stockfish was crushed or broken into pieces, smeared with butter, herbs and eaten in a manner similar to how we eat bread today. This tradition is not widely known among the general population, but is often practiced in places in Northern Norway where stockfish is a common and easily accessible product. In recent years, more stockfish snacks have appeared on the market in Norway, both made from dried cod and haddock fillets, but most of it is in fact imported from Iceland.
In the past, it was common to rehydrate stockfish, and today, it has become more popular again to use water-soaked stockfish in cooking. Pre-soaked frozen stockfish can now be purchased in some grocery stores, eliminating the need for the time-consuming water-soaking and filleting process. Some people have experience at softening stockfish by pounding it gently with a hammer to reduce rehydration time, but this tradition is not widely known. Ideally, a wooden club is used, and according to old cookbooks, the fish should be carefully pounded for up to an hour. This causes the fish meat to crack, allowing water to penetrate more easily and thus speeding up the soaking process. Some producers sell mechanically pounded stockfish pieces in buckets, which reduces rehydration time to as little as 5 days.
The main challenge with rehydrated stockfish is its very short shelf life. Even when stored at a temperature of 2-4°C, the durability can be as short as a couple of days. Therefore, stockfish must be consumed shortly after rehydration, and there are numerous Norwegian recipes for using the fish, from stews to stockfish cakes for frying.
The short durability of rehydrated stockfish led to a need for preserving the prepared fish product. This is where the addition of lye (lut) has its historical and natural justification in Norway. If rehydration is combined with the use of strong lye and some lime, the longevity increases dramatically, from 2 days to 14 days. Vacuum-packed Lyefish/lyefish can typically last up to 8 weeks in a regular refrigerated display. However, the taste and flavour of the stockfish changes significantly with lye treatment.
The traditional potash lye process usually takes 11 days. In earlier times, in some places, the stockfish was placed in a closed basket attached to the riverbank, both before and after lye treatment, to soak and rinse the fish. This eliminated the need to change the water daily. Preserving the traditional knowledge of lye treatment at home, through experience, is important. There is no exact procedure because soaking time, lye strength, and time in the lye can vary widely depending on the size and type of stockfish, its' quality, temperature, and most importantly, whether one desires a firm or a softer, gelatinous Lyefish.
In older times, Norwegians ate stockfish regularly during the winter and early spring. In Catholic times, lyefish was served during Advent until the first day of Christmas, and throughout the period from Christmas to Easter, including the fasting period until and including Easter Sunday when eating meat was not allowed. Today, Norwegians consume Lyefish mostly in the autumn and during the time leading up to Christmas. What do we know about the origin of this unique Norwegian food tradition? Many famous authors and food culture researchers have made lyefish into something mysterious and inexplicable. We've been told legends of Vikings creating the first lyefish at a campfire, stories of fires in fish drying racks after lightning strikes, where a piece of stockfish fell into an ash-filled puddle and emerged as lyefish after a few rainy days, like a phoenix, ready to be eaten to everyone's delight and blessing.
Perhaps the Norwegian "strong lye" lyefisk has a simpler origin, from the unappetizing "makkfisk" (fish infested with fly larvae), an unwanted but well-known "unlucky" product in our coastal cultural history. Drying fish was not easy everywhere, in changing times when a mild climate and fly maggots were sometimes hard to avoid. Makkfisk had partly to be shared with the livestock and partly to be washed and cleaned before it could be eaten by humans, and the only suitable cleaning agent was lye made from fireplace ashes. The term "lut" i.e lye, has the same Latin origin "lavare" as the Old Norse word "laugr," meaning to wash. It was therefore entirely natural to use the readily available everyday potash lye to wash the poor-quality stockfish, reduce the odour, and transform it into edible Lyefish. At the same time, "Lyefish" was preserved and ready for use for a slightly longer period. This nationwide Lyefish tradition was strong enough to survive after the Reformation in 1536 and remained more or less unchanged until the beginning of the 20th century.
Today, lyefish is often produced using machines. In some cases, it is dried indoors as fillets, which results in quicker lye treatment, with less smell and fish taste, a whiter colour, and being skinless and boneless. Such industrial processing, however, represents a complete break from a thousand-year-old tradition and a unique craftsmanship built up through the efforts of many generations. Indoor drying therefore poses a potential threat to both the cultural landscapes of Northern Norway and the traditional 1000-year-old outdoor stockfish production.
In historical times, most meals were eaten at home or involved communal feasting with relatives and neighbours at weddings and funerals. The social arena for meals expanded over time with the emergence of restaurants, canteens, social clubs, and societies where traditional foods became important as markers of identity at ethnic and social gatherings. Lyefish experienced a renaissance in the 1980s, inspired by the Norwegian-American communities with their lyefish associations and clubs that set trends for reviving both the cultural and historical aspects of lyefish. The new Norwegian lyefish associations provide a social and culturally inclusive framework for enjoying lyefish, but the actual preparation of the raw material and the meal itself is left to the catering industry and professional chefs. People are thus excluding themselves from the artisanal aspect, both in terms of raw material processing and meal preparation.
The positive aspect of lyefish associations is that they absorb important knowledge about the traditions and the history of lyefish, thus contributing to preserving and developing it as a national cultural and culinary treasure. The situation is much the same at home, as lyefish comes ready for use from the store, without skin and bones and without the rich history or information about the product. Therefore, it is important to keep the history of stockfish and lyefish craftmanship alive, to use it and convey it to all those who are no longer involved in the preparation of the raw material.

Plan for preservation

Dried stockfish, which is based on fish from sustainable resources of migrating Northeast Atlantic cod, primarily caught by coastal fishermen and dried outdoors locally in Northern Norway. This is an environmentally friendly and sustainable form of fishing of the North-East Atlantic cod stock, with only a small percentage (4-5%) of the catch being transformed into stockfish. Sustainable use of aquatic resources is a crucial step towards environmental stewardship. It also positively contributes to the UN's 2030 Agenda and Goal 3, "One Health," aiming to ensure good health and well-being for all humans, regardless of age.
Preserving, promoting, and securing the cultural and culinary heritage of dried fish for future generations will require the involvement of various professionals, fishermen, businesses, organisations, institutions, and authorities. Skills and expertise are transferred throughout the value chain, from catching the fish to preparing and serving a product with a historical and cultural foundation that has shaped the entire nation. There is a significant need to protect dried fish traditions. Traditional outdoor drying of codfish may disappear in Northern Norway due to climate change and changes in the marine environment, which shift the cod migration, fishing and drying areas further northwards or indoors. For example, "råskjær," a stockfish made by splitting the cod in half for faster drying late in the season, was once the most common type of stockfish, but is now becoming an endangered traditional product.
Today, "råskjær" is mostly produced for private use or as a speciality. It requires a lot of manual labour, costs more, and the demand is dwindling, even though it is well-suited for lyefish. The producers of round fish in Lofoten are the ones currently upholding the stockfish traditions and resisting indoor drying and product simplification. Innovation exists in the processing of round fish as fully rehydrated or pre-lyed products for consumers. The Norwegian and EU-approved PGI quality label has become an active tool for the development and marketing of professionally processed and quality-assured outdoor-dried stockfish.
Knowledge about stockfish and Lyefish may disappear with the introduction of new technology. Production processes are being simplified to meet consumer demands for convenience, which has consequences for culinary craftsmanship. There is also a shortage of skilled graders/vrakere of stockfish today, and the industry is looking for ways to reduce the manual quality controlling of stockfish by developing new technology that can replace graders/vrakere. The industrial concentration in the seafood industry is also causing delivery problems. While there were once small businesses that could rehydrate or lye treat stockfish locally, today, they must use frozen finished products sent longer distances from larger or a few specialized companies. There are fewer people in the seafood industry who can process and rehydrate outdoor-dried round stockfish or "råskjær"/splitfish for traditional culinary uses and cooking. Regional markets in Norway are changing because of industrial changes in lyefish production. Simplified boneless and skinless products may challenge traditions if taste and smell are lost and accepted.
It has been expressed from a culinary perspective that if consumers do not learn to make good Lyefish at home, they may lose faith in their ability to do so. And ultimately, no one will want to make or eat it anymore.
A UNESCO ICH-Intangible Cultural Heritage designation for the stockfish traditions could revitalise the traditional, artisanal production and preparation of stockfish. Thus more local rehydration activities and traditional lyefish production could be revived due to increased demand from culinary artisans, restaurants, culinary schools, catering services, and more conscientious consumers. Such a designation would also elevate the status of the graders/vrakere profession and strengthening it. After all it is an artisanal craft that has been cherished and operated since early medieval times.
A common multilateral UNESCO recognition of the stockfish traditions in multiple countries would be of significance for humanity. It may be the best solution for the secure continuation of the comprehensive international knowledge base. In this context, an international working group/consortium has been established among relevant stakeholders, voluntary organisations, institutions, and local authorities in Norway, Italy, and Germany with the aim of preparing a joint multinational UNESCO application. The working group was established during and after an International Cultural Stockfish Heritage conference held from July 14 to 16 in Cittanova, Italy, this year. (For more information, see and
Slow Food Bergen and other partners believe that the key to preserving culinary, cultural, and social values will depend on formal international collaboration. It will strengthen the use of stockfish, its history, and the transfer of knowledge between generations, as well as ensure a good exchange of food culture and traditions between countries. The international working group, therefore, plans to continue its voluntary coordination and participation in the development of a joint UNESCO application, which is expected to be ready by 2024. The international working group, headed by Slow Food Bergen, will submit a proposal for a multinational UNESCO ICH application, which will be submitted through the Arts and Culture Norway, as the state party for signing and forwarding the documents to the UNESCO commission.
Stockfish traditions revolve around food culture, which is of great interest to the public. Slow Food Bergen has promoted lyefish and stockfish traditions successfully, both internationally and locally through various events and food festivals. We will use these initiatives, events and experiences in our outreach efforts. International stockfish traditions have a unique ability to generate interest, attention, and meaningful discussions that can easily be shared. There will be initiated systematic dissemination efforts by means of relevant and regular news updates on social media and public media channels.
Cookery is inherently a communal activity that strengthens social cohesion, generational learning, and capacity building. The nature-based character, history, and culinary use of stockfish can contribute to more social interaction and collaboration across cultures and generations. Our shared vision in international collaboration is that recognition as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO will strengthen the social and cultural functions associated with traditions and skills related to the preparation of stockfish, thus contributing to (i) positive societal development, (ii) intercultural dialogue, (iii) a sense of belonging to local communities, and (iv) the preservation and continuity of the tradition.
An application will emphasize that belonging to a shared cultural heritage is an important safeguard against discrimination and exclusion. Increased cultural diversity often create fragmented thinking and attitudes. Food unites all of us as human beings. Through the established international partnership, we can create a living heritage model and contribute to robust strategies for preserving intangible cultural heritage and cultural diversity related to our shared stockfish traditions.
The elements (i.e., craftsmanship and traditions) will be promoted in a culturally diverse context based on interwoven regional food identities along trade routes. Processing and preparation of stockfish contributed to a sense of community, provided good nutrition, and protected individual health through the consumption of fish protein and balanced fat compositions. We are aware that our modern lifestyle and the potential negative effects of globalization can endanger the food and distribution system related to stockfish. The knowledge and techniques related to fishing, preservation, food processing, and preparation of stockfish have been passed down through generations and constitute an important part of cultural heritage. Oral traditions, social practices, traditional craftsmanship, art, and festivals convey these elements over historical time and are still vibrant in Norway as well as in other countries in Europe, Africa, and on continents with immigrant communities.
The involved local-based voluntary organizations, especially those from Italy, are particularly engaged in the cultural field related to food traditions, ensuring the involvement of artists and cultural workers in the implementation. The combination of ancient Norwegian and international food traditions and innovation in food culture can revitalise stockfish as an international and national culinary treasure, creating cultural experiences and preservation of cultural heritage.

Can you contribute with content? Suggest photos or propose improvement of text

Questions and comments

Leave a Reply