Norway's rakfisk: Is this the world's smelliest fish?


Norway's five million people enjoy one of the highest standards of living, not just in Europe, but in the world. Could the secret of the country's success be connected to the local appetite for some exceedingly smelly fish?

Take a selection of over-ripe cheeses. Place them in the midst of a pile of dirty, wet soccer kit. Leave for a week. Now you have the nose-numbing smell of rakfisk, one of the great Norwegian delicacies.

I am in the small town of Fagernes, about three hours from Oslo. There is snow, spectacular scenery - and that odour, ever present, hangs in the air.

Rakfisk is trout sprinkled with salt and fermented in water for - depending on how smelly you like your fish - up to a year.

As the dark sets in and the weather turns cold, Norwegians flock to a festival here in Fagernes devoted to this most, well, captivating of foods.

"You eat it raw, and then swallow a glass of aquavit," says Havard Halvarsen, full-time local firefighter but also the so-called "Rakfisk General", in charge of running the festival.

All around us people are eating little cubes of the fish and knocking back quantities of drink.

"Some people like the aquavit more than the rakfisk," says Havard. "The drink can kill the smell." I try a few pieces. If you can avoid passing it under your nose, it is not bad - not unlike a slice of sushi that has been on rather a long bus journey.

Rakfisk is a product of very different, poverty-stricken times in Norway when, pre-refrigeration, fish was soaked in airtight barrels of water and salt in autumn. Then in the depths of winter, well and truly fermented, it is taken out and - no doubt with the senses knocked out by alcohol - eaten.

Image caption Rakfisk is sliced but not cooked

Only a generation ago, thousands of Norwegians were forced to leave their country in search of work, emigrating mainly to the US.

Now the population is expanding fast - more than 13% are immigrants, attracted by plentiful jobs, high wages and a comprehensive care system. People from Sweden, the old rival and not so long ago far richer than Norway, stream in to work.

Rakfisk is seen as signifying something important, a vital if rather smelly part of Norway's past. It is among the more expensive dishes you can buy. But then everything is expensive - a small glass of beer or a sandwich knock you back £9 ($14) each.

Norway does not often make it on to the global news agenda - and most seem to like it that way.

People here are still loath to mention by name Anders Breivik, the right-wing, racist extremist who gunned down and killed 77 men, women and children last year.

Instead, the shootings are referred to as "the July the 22nd incident". Norwegians find it very difficult to believe that in their peace-loving country one of their own was capable of such brutality and murder.

The growth since the early 1970s of one of the world's biggest oil and gas industries lies behind much of Norway's present-day wealth.

"But oil is not the only reason we are doing so well," says Anna our waitress, handing round trays of maturing rakfisk and, with her long blond hair and startlingly blue eyes, the image of Nordic well-being.

"We are a - how you say - prudent people." Her English, like that of most people here, is flawless. "We are not very showy, we do not like ostentation."

Norway has handled its oil wealth very carefully - all but a small percentage of money from the industry is invested in a special fund for the benefit of future generations.

Image caption Potato is a popular accompaniment

When everyone else was throwing around money they did not have, in the years leading up to the global financial crash, Norway kept its purse strings tightly bound.

"As long as we can ski in winter and go hiking in summer we are happy," says Anna. "And eat rakfisk," she adds with a carefree laugh.

I stand in the snow and queue for something to eat - I have had enough rakfisk. Now an elk burger is certainly something different and rather succulent to the taste.

But in the evening, it is more of that smelly fish. The hotel I am staying in is one of a number of venues hosting a rakfisk dinner where guests vote on the best - or perhaps the most nasally challenging - fish. There is a live TV link up to a compere in a bow tie surrounded by plates of rakfisk. It is like the Eurovision song contest.

"What score do you have for the best fish up there in the mountains Thor-Juergen?"

"Here are our points, Havard."

There is clapping, laughter. A man falls off his chair, perhaps overcome with aquavit. Or maybe it is the fumes from all that fish.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 GMT and some Thursdays at 11:00 GMT.

Listen online or download on the From Our Own Correspondent downloads page

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday - Friday - see World Service schedule.