Norway may have given up producing canned fish, but its cuisine is still pretty poor. At the Stavanger fish market you can, however, pick up some very tasty whale meatby Alex Renton / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
A short history of fish canning
I love museums of food—the more arcane, the better. My favourite is the Museum (and theme park) of Noodle Soup in Yokohama, with its working replicas of seven of the greatest ramen restaurants from around Japan, its galleries of porcelain soup bowls and—when I was there two years ago—an exhibition of the evolution of instant noodle packet design. I’ve long planned to visit the New York State Museum of Cheese, about which the New York Times recently wrote a story titled, “Is one museum honoring cheese really enough?” New York Times headline-writers do not do sarcasm, of course.
In June, I went to the Hermetikkmuseum in Stavanger, on Norway’s fjord-cracked western coast. This house of treasures has nothing to do with occult philosophy; rather, it’s devoted to the more exciting business of canning fish under pressure. It was the French who started commercially preserving fish in sealed metal, around 1830. But by the beginning of the 20th century, Stavanger was Europe’s major production centre, chiefly because of the vast quantities of brisling and sild—young herring—in the seas nearby. Jealous, and facing a shortage of fish, the French sought a legal ban on the Norwegians calling their product “sardines,” maintaining that the true sardine was the Mediterranean clupea pilchardus, which had been named after Sardinia.
The Norwegians gave in, and so from 1905 their product was known as “smoked brisling,” or herring, in Europe—though not outside. The business was unharmed. During the first world war, Norway could answer the demand for easily transported, high-protein food for the millions of men entrenched in Flanders; as a neutral country it sold to both Germans and Allies. By 1915, there were 128 canning factories in Norway, 48 of them in Stavanger. They produced 350m cans—37m kilos of fish—that year.
The Hermetikkmuseum was one of those factories. Its low halls still smell faintly of olive oil; in them you can see the benches where dozens of people worked at brining and threading the fish on to skewers. They were then smoked for an hour, decapitated with scissors and gently packed into the oil-filled cans. That was the most skilled job, exclusively done by women. The men soldered the tins together, by hand until after 1900, when the first of many stamping and sealing machines was introduced.
The most enchanting thing in the museum is the labels: a…