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The Gastronomer

Making Gravlax: No Longer an Underground Art

In a few days, salmon cures to a silky, refined texture and salty-sweet taste.
In a few days, salmon cures to a silky, refined texture and salty-sweet taste. (By Mette Randem For The Washington Post)
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By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When Julia Child moved to my native Norway in 1959 after having spent time in Paris and other European cities, she was rather disappointed at first. The capital, Oslo, was by no means a bustling metropolis, and trying to live the good life, Paris-style, was nearly impossible. The austere social democracy was a stark contrast to French flamboyance, and at one point she complained that she had had some of the worst food ever.

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But she soon realized that the soul of Scandinavian cooking was not to be found in restaurants and cafes. She started learning about local food from Norwegian neighbors and friends; she found the right place to shop for fish; she went fishing; she started to experiment with traditional recipes.

Her most treasured discovery was gravlax (sometimes also spelled "gravadlax" or "gravlaks"), a dish she introduced to America and subsequently featured in many of her cookbooks. Child's gravlax (the version most of us know) is a salt-and-sugar-cured salmon. The cure takes three or four days; it can be accomplished by anyone with a refrigerator and access to the fresh fish. Although this easy-to-make, mild and velvety dish travels well -- I have had gravlax in Rio, Cape Town, Bangkok and Madrid -- it is not the original, but rather a rarefied relative.

Gravlax literally means "buried salmon," and that is how it was made in the hard old days. 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.

It is reasonable to suppose that the dish simply grew up, evolved to its modern form and conquered the world. But back in its place of origin, something very close to the first gravlax still exists. Rakfisk is its nearest modern-day relative. It hails from the mountain regions and is most often made with trout.

We tend to think of food in terms of being either "raw" or "cooked." As French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out, those antonyms are two of our guiding concepts to help us distinguish between edible and non-edible, wild and cultured. Rakfisk and gravlax cannot easily be categorized in such a way.

On a recent visit to the mountain resort town of Geilo while shooting a television episode of "New Scandinavian Cooking," I was allowed a closer look at the traditional way of fermenting fish by veteran cook and certified rakfisk producer Jahn Birger Furuseth. Furuseth uses only very fresh fish; he could tell me which lake they were from and which fisherman caught them.

Furuseth dry-salts the fish and stacks them in a bucket, as close together as possible. When the bucket is nearly full, he sets a weight on top. The bucket is placed in cold storage while a natural brine accumulates; after a few days, if the fish are not completely submerged in brine, he pours a salt brine over them. Then the fish are left to ferment for at least six weeks and up to six months.

The result is an acquired taste, smelly but delicious. I once served a three-month-old rakfisk to food writer Jeffrey Steingarten. At first he frowned and said it smelled a bit like rotten eggs, or as though someone had died. But he loved the taste, and soon after he wanted to know what the six-month rakfisk tasted like.

During the long weeks in the bucket, the fish undergoes fermentation. Enzymes from microorganisms transform the long protein molecules, and lactic acid bacteria break down the carbohydrates. That is similar to cheesemaking, and the result can be as odiferous as the Frenchest of cheeses, and with a soft texture; in extreme cases, the fish flesh is so soft you can spread it. As with cheese made with unpasteurized milk, some risk is involved, but also great rewards for those who know how to appreciate the outcome. (Norwegian food authorities warn against the dangers of botulism if the fish is not made according to strict hygienic standards: Mainly, it must be kept at temperatures below 40 degrees and have a salt content of at least 5 percent.)

Compared with the Camembert of rakfisk, modern-day gravlax is like a fresh cheese. Its preparation is simpler and much less risky. The technique is to rub the fish with a combination of salt and sugar, and usually some spices or herbs, most often dill. It is about drawing out moisture, adding flavor and lightly curing the flesh.

The most extreme modernized version can be made in minutes, not weeks or months, and it is delicious. Although this method will give you the desired salt-and-sweet flavor, it is (to stick with the cheese analogy) more like flavoring a store-bought cream cheese than a venture into cheesemaking.

What makes the normal three- to four-day gravlax so refined, and something much more than just tasty, is that it involves some of the same enzymatic processes as the production of rakfisk -- autolysis, for one -- that create that smooth, soft texture. It might be just the thing to serve if you want something uncomplicated and refined, sweet-smelling and tantalizingly orange-pinkish. But the link to the hard old days is still there, even without the danger and the smell of rotten eggs.

Andreas Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and host of the public television series "New Scandinavian Cooking With Andreas Viestad," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or food@washpost.com.


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