Text by Toby Skinner
Photos Tom Robinson
Fishermen in Ålesund love to boast about their fishy paradise with big numbers. In early spring, they say, the mass of herring roe off the surrounding coast weighs three times that of Norway's human population. Those eggs draw a bounty of other fish, including the 500 tonnes of cod that swim into the fj ord around Ålesund (about the weight of 100 monster trucks, in case you were wondering). Given that mass of fish, they also say you can catch a 30kg cod here just by dangling a rod into the harbour and waiting for a bite.
This is all near-enough true, though the belief in hal - the idea that if a fisherman has plentiful sex the night before, he'll get lots of fish the next day - certainly seems apocryphal. (Tom the photographer is not my type, and I caught plenty of fish - but more of that later.)
Whatever. Ever since it started producing klipfish (dried, salted cod) in 1750, Ålesund has become the fishing capital in a country that's known for its sea life. The Vikings knew you could catch fish in the fj ords all year round - cod, haddock, halibut, pollock, mackerel, herring, ling, cusk, saithe and more - as well as trout in the nearby lakes and salmon in rivers such as Straumen, widely known as the world's shortest salmon river.
But the fishing industry is changing here, as it is across much of the world: big operations are hauling in monstrous catches while smaller-scale independent fishermen struggle with rising costs and falling prices for their wares. "Until at least the 1960s, you couldn't move for ships in the harbour," says Arve Eidsvik, 78, who runs the picture-perfect Eidsvik Skipshandler fishing shop with his daughter Solveig, showing me old photos of tightly-crammed fishing vessels. "Just about everyone in the town would be out in their boats - they'd raise a flag at a certain time and everyone would drop their nets. The fishermen would come back and deliver fish to the whole town." That still happens today, though on a smaller scale - if you head down to the harbour most afternoons, you'll find fishermen ready to part with prawns or cod hauled straight from the sea.
It's just that the numbers of the fishermen are dwindling, at least those wanting to feed the local population as opposed to the world. As Arve says, "There are fewer vessels, but they're getting bigger, more automated and more profitable; our customers have become tourists as much as local fishermen."
It's little surprise tourists come. The pretty harbour boasts a neat line of brightly-painted boats while the shop, which is packed to its wooden rafters with fishing tackle, wooden boats, shipping flags and old posters, looks as much like a fishing museum as a store. And the charming Arve is an erudite historian, even though Solveig complains about the clutter of old papers and press cuttings he refuses to throw away. He shows me books from 1931 recording how his father, grandfather and his father's uncle initially invested NOK8,000 in the shop, splitting the shares.
"In 1938, there were 640 boats fishing cod in Ålesund," says Arve, pointing to an old newspaper article. "Now there's barely 20." Arve started working in the family shop in 1955 just after he'd finished his military service and has been here all his adult life - he was never one of those fishermen.
He calls up Ottar Ekremsaeter, who fishes on a small boat with his uncle, 75-year-old Elias Bakkebø - not only are the pair one of the few regular fishing duos in Ålesund (most crews, and boats, are bigger), but Elias is said to be the oldest active fisherman in town.
After Ottar meets us at the fishing shop, we walk round the harbour; it's a cold day and it's too windy to fish. He explains why it's become harder for small-scale fishermen, even since the late 1990s. "Back then, you'd get NOK20 for 1kg of cod; now you're lucky to get half that, while the cost of fuel has tripled," he says. "Everything's more expensive; if you're a young person and thinking of getting into fishing, forget it." Indeed, for Ottar, fishing is only one of his jobs; many people in Ålesund have migrated towards the oil industry and he spends about a third of his time working on an oil platform. He also drives a taxi.
We head up the hill to meet his uncle at the Sjømanns Kvile, or Seaman's Rest, a subsidised block of flats for local fishermen, many of them of advancing age. There are wooden boats in many of the windows, and the porch is covered in old photos of sea captains and paintings of the harbour. We interrupt Elias as he's tucking into a lunch of cod roe and liver in his kitchen, as - rather incongruously - a rerun of a 1991 cross-country skiing event plays on the TV in the living room. Though there's a language barrier, he's a gracious host, offering us a plate of cod roe with rye crackers, which prove to be something of an acquired taste. However, when we ask if we can join Ottar and Elias on their boat later, it's a negative - it's too dangerous, they say, though we sense they don't want two credulous fishing virgins taking up space on their boat.
Nonetheless, while fishing on a small scale is inevitably declining, Ålesund on the whole is thriving. Some of Norway's biggest fish exporters are here and oil earnings mean the town is beautifully maintained, from its network of bridges and tunnels to its famous art nouveau buildings, built in a uniformly elegant style in 1904 after a fire ravaged the town.
Then, of course, there's tourism. Regularly voted Norway's most beautiful town, Ålesund is nirvana if you're a visitor who simply wants to get out on a boat and catch some fish, overlooked by rugged coastline and a vast, metallic-blue sky. The local tourism website says that you are "guaranteed to catch fish here", and there's not a lot you can't do, whether it's renting your own boat or taking a day trip to one of the salmon rivers.
We decide to test that out with two fishing trips in a day. For our first trip, we head out with Stein Magne Hoff, the captain of a stunning, traditional 15m fishing boat that was built in Lofoten in 1946. He takes visitors out on it as part of the Actin adventure sports company (they also do skiing, mountain biking and more).
We only have a few hours and it's a few weeks until the cod season starts in earnest, so our catches are limited to a few smaller fish, but just going out on the boat is great fun. Stein and his second-in-command, Bjorn Hessen, are clearly good friends, and are constantly laughing and telling increasingly scattergun anecdotes. As well as plenty of information about fishing, Bjorn shows us the fj ord-side windows he used to jump out of as a teenager to impress girls, and the old herring smokehouse from which they used to pinch fish.
The trips are about eating well, too. Stein and Bjorn have an old-fashioned cooking stove onboard and all the way they give us little morsels to eat while trying to tempt us towards their impressive stack of booze (it's 9am when we go out). There's fish cakes from yesterday's catch; reindeer sausages made from an animal that Bjorn hunted a few days earlier; and smoked salmon that Stein fished from a nearby river. Like most people we meet in Ålesund, they believe in eating fresh and local - and you can taste why.
Our second fishing trip of the day also has a foodie aspect, and is the one that tempted us to Ålesund in the first place. 62˚Nord, the town's leading travel company, offers packages where you can fish and then have your catch cooked by the best seafood chef in town at Maki, the restaurant in the stunning waterside Hotel Brosundet.
The 12-person M/S Legona is significantly smaller than Actin's hulking vessel, but she has a comfortable cabin stocked with drinks and enough zip to get further into the fj ord faster. We are issued with luminous, inflatable jumpsuits that make us look like Michelin men as we clamber onto the seating area at the top of the boat. Captain Tom Tøsse, another seaman with a twinkle in his eye, boasts of an uncanny ability to seek out fish, and he takes us deep into the fj ord as his younger assistant, Christoffer Rørvik, explains the science of fishing, his plans to move to Spitsbergen and how he trained as a sniper during his military service.
So, in a peaceful corner of the fj ord, as the rain abates and the wind drops, we drop our lines and the fish come. After about 10 minutes of jinking my line and constantly thinking I've got a catch when I haven't, something bites - something really big. Actually, it's not that big, but reeling a 4kg cod in for almost 100m is hard work on the forearms. In the end, I catch about three cod while Ann Kristin, our host from 62˚Nord, effortlessly pulls in about four (mostly bigger ones than mine), plus a couple of herring and a pollock. "I'm just always lucky," she shrugs, only slightly irritatingly.
One of the most fascinating parts of the trip is watching Rørvik gut the biggest cod onboard (it's Ann Kristin's, obviously). He takes out the guts, giving us an eyeful of bowels and intestines before moving on to the main event. Nonchalantly cutting out the cod's heart, he shows us the still-beating organ on his fingertip before plopping the tiny piece of flesh into his mouth and swallowing. "It's good luck," he tells us matter-of-factly.
Our final surprise is less macabre. Captain Tom tells us that he has a creel that's a secret in the area, and which contains the best giant prawns and crab in the whole fj ord. There's much fanfare as we reel it in - alas, its contents are four cans of Hansa Pilsner, chilled to a perfect temperature by the sea, which is about 6oC. Like most things when you're on a fishing boat surrounded by the Sunnmøre fj ords, it seems to taste better.
The final stage of our fishing journey is perhaps the most memorable. Ole Jonny Hjelmeseth - the seafood fanatic and venerated chef of Maki - comes to collect our fish straight from the boat and takes us directly to the kitchen to see what happens when seafood chef meets sea-fresh fish (most visitors don't get to do this bit, though you do get to eat the results).
A former steward at sea, Hjelmeseth opened his first Maki restaurant in 2001 in his hometown of Fosnavåg, a 90-minute drive up the coast - it was an instant hit and he opened the Ålesund Maki in 2007, hiring head chef Lars Petter Vikanes, who's worked at Switzerland's two-Michelin-starred Domaine de Châteauvieux and Noma in Copenhagen. Since then, Maki has become Ålesund's number one destination restaurant, and there's a growing sense - as one TripAdvisor reviewer notes - that Hjelmeseth would have at least one Michelin star if he were in London.
Hjelmeseth reckons the fish around here is the best in the world, and almost exclusively uses local seafood: "The water's too hot in the Mediterranean," he says. "The fish don't stay fresh as long and they don't keep their flavour."
He gets to work on one of our cods, swiping effortlessly to get two fillets ("they're not as big as I usually get," he complains), cutting away the bony half to leave just fleshy chunks. Then he neatly slices out the tongue and cuts into the cheek, taking out the bone.
The result, as we find out during our stunning five-course meal later is astonishing: our cod cheek is part of a celery and cod cheek soup, topped with melba toast and a smoked cod roe mayonnaise; and our cod fillet is pan-roasted with oxtail, root vegetables, apple and potato, the fish crispy on one side and dissolving on the other into heavenly fluff. It's almost unbelievable that something so refined came from the sea hours earlier - but it makes for the most civilised ending to a fishing trip we can think of.
Ålesund in a nutshell
The waterfront Hotel Brosundet used to be a fish-storage warehouse before it was made over by hip Oslo architects Snøhetta in 2007 as an understatedly cool 46-room boutique hotel, with a 47th room in the Molja lighthouse at the entrance to the harbour.
It boasts the best fish restaurant in town, Maki, and an elegant, cosy bar.
Aside from the excellent Maki at the Hotel Brosundet, XL Diner has views out to sea past the harbour and lighthouse, and specialises in excellent bacalao, dried and salted cod (or klipfish) served with potatoes and vegetables, a dish that is most popular in Portugal but almost always comes from this part of Norway.
Aside from the fishing, skiing and activities galore, you should climb the 418 steps to the Fjellstua lookout overlooking the town. You should also head to the nearby Geirangerfjord, a World Heritage spot that Lonely Planet has named Scandinavia's top travel spot - and which is often touted as Norway's most beautiful fjord.