The History of Gravlax

4ba6d5cda954f3463bfe2fff4ecc34ae--les-sauces-poivreGravlax is a Nordic dish consisting of raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar, and dill. Gravlax is usually served as an appetizer, sliced thinly and accompanied by hovmästarsås (literally maitre d’s sauce, also known in Sweden as gravlaxsås and in Denmark as rævesovs, literally fox sauce), a dill and mustard sauce, either on bread, or with boiled potatoes.

History

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 desperate Vikings.

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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
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The word gravlax comes from the Scandinavian word gräva/grave (“to dig”; modern sense “to cure (fish)”) which goes back to the Proto-Germanic *grabą, *grabō (“hole in the ground; ditch, trench; grave”) and the Indo-European root *ghrebh- “to dig, to scratch, to scrape”, and lax/laks, “salmon”.

Gravlax is usually cured with sugar, salt and dill, but lemon juice, beetroot, aquvit or portwine can be added. The fish is often eaten on rye bread.

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Today fermentation is no longer used in the production process. Instead the salmon is “buried” in a dry marinade of salt, sugar, and dill, and cured for a few days. As the salmon cures, by the action of osmosis, the moisture turns the dry cure into a highly concentrated brine, which can be used in Scandinavian cooking as part of a sauce. This same gravlax-lead-694x1024method of curing can be employed for any fatty fish, but salmon is the most commonly used.

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.

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Salmon Burgers on Potato Patties / Grove Laksekarbonader på Potetlapper

A delicious salmon recipe found on rema.no
Salmon Burgers on Potato Patties / Grove Laksekarbonader på Potetlapper

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Green Peppers with Salmon Filling / Grønn Paprika med Laksefyll

A starter/lunch recipe found in “How To Eat Canned Salmon”
published by Alaska Packers’ Association in 1900

Green Peppers with Salmon Filling / Grønn Paprika med Laksefyll

The Alaska Packers’ Association (APA) was a San Francisco based manufacturer of Alaska canned salmon founded in 1891 and sold in 1982. As the largest salmon packer in Alaska, the member canneries of APA were active in local affairs, and had considerable political influence. The Alaska Packers’ Association is best known for operating the “Star Fleet,” the last fleet of commercial sailing vessels on the West Coast of North America, as late as 1927.

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Part of the fleet in Oakland Creek in March 1923

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Grilled Salmon Slices / Grillstekte Lakseskiver

A summer dinner recipe found in “Sommermat”
(Summer Food) Published by Hjemmets Kokebokklubb in
1979
Grilled Salmon Slices / Grillstekte Lakseskiver

This tour of citrus flavoured Scandinavian summer dinners is
rounded off by an outdoor grill in Norway where not surprisingly
salmon is cooked – Ted

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Salmon Curry / Laksekarri

A dinner recipe found in “How To Eat Canned Salmon”
publisert av Alaska Packers Association in 1900

Salmon Curry / Laksekarri

A curry dish with a surprisingly copious use of curry powder the age of the book taken under consideration. In other words, a rather hot curry seen with Western eyes – Ted

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Crisp Skinned Salmon with Fetta & Potato Mash / Sprøskinnet Laks med Feta og Potetmos

A lunch recipe found on “Winter Warmers Recipe Book”
a free E-book published by Lemnos

Crisp Skinned Salmon with Fetta & Potato Mash / Sprøskinnet Laks med Feta og Potetmos

Make creamy mashed potato really special by adding fetta
for extra flavour and texture.

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Salmon Steaks with Cucumber Sauce / Lakseskiver med Agurkesaus

A fish dinner recipe found in “The Flavor Maker’s Cookbook”
an E-book conversion of a printed book published
by Procter & Gamble in 1984

Salmon Steaks with Cucumber Sauce / Lakseskiver med Agurkesaus

Salmon, arctic char, and halibut are great for steaks done on the grill. Steaks come from larger fish, and larger fish tend to be fattier, and fat equals flavor, of course. When buying, request slices that are at least 1″ thick.

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Grilled Salmon with Horseradish Sauce / Grillet Laks med Pepperrotsaus

A lunch/dinner recipe found in “Sundt og Godt”
(Healthy and Delicious) published by Det Beste in 1988
Grilled Salmon with Horseradish Sauce / Grillet Laks med Pepperrotsaus

Your tears may start to flow when you grate the horseradish,
but the taste is impeccable with grilled salmon.

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Salmon Chowder / Laksesuppe

A dinner recipe found in “How To Eat Canned Salmon”
published by Alaska Packers Association in 1900

Salmon Chowder / Laksesuppe

Fresh salmon is so cheap and plentyful in our shops here in Norway that eating canned ones seems strange to us. But a quick check showed that the net is crammed full of recipes for canned salmon so it obviously doesn’t seem that strange elsewhere. Besides, transporting fresh fish over larger distances back in 1900 was close to impossible so back then eating canned salmon probably seemed more sensible –Ted

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Salmon a la Reine / Laks a la Reine

A fish recipe found in “How To Eat Canned Salmon” published by Alaska Packers Association in 1900Salmon a la Reine / Laks a la Reine

Chafing-Dish_thumb2A chafing dish (from the French chauffer, “to make warm”) is a kind of portable grate raised on a tripod, originally heated with charcoal in a brazier, and used for foods that require gentle cooking, away from the “fierce” heat of direct flames. The chafing dish could be used at the table or provided with a cover for keeping food warm on a buffet. Double dishes that provide a protective water jacket are known as bains-marie and help keep delicate foods, such as fish, warm while preventing overcooking.

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Medieval Monday – Salmon Cakes / Laksekaker

A medieval fish patties recipe found on cookit.e2bn.org
Salmon Cakes / Laksekaker

These fish cakes are based on the osterhlaf (a seafood loaf). Salmon is mentioned by Ælfric (an English abbot, and prolific writer who lived around 955 to 1010) but other fish could be used. These are individual patties rather than one large loaf which is difficult to manage cooking on a modern cooker. The oatmeal gives them a light crunchy texture, quite different from fish cakes made with potato.

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Dill Cured Salmon / Dillgravad Lax

A classic Swedish starter recipe found on koket.nu
Dill Cured Salmon / Dillgravad Lax

Curing salmon and trout with dill is a Swedish speciality. It adds
a delightful freshness to the finished dish.

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Grilled Salmon Slices / GriIlede Lakseskiver

A grilled salmon recipe  found in “God Mat Fra Sjøen”
(Great Food From The Sea) published by Gyldendal in 1984

Grilled Salmon Slices / GriIlede Lakseskiver

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The salmon is an important creature in several strands of Celtic mythology and poetry, which often associated them with wisdom and venerability. In Irish mythology, a creature called the Salmon of Knot_SalmonKnowledge plays key role in the tale The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn. In the tale, the Salmon will grant powers of knowledge to whoever eats it, and is sought by poet Finn Eces for seven years. Finally Finn Eces catches the fish and gives it to his young pupil, Fionn mac Cumhaill, to prepare it for him. However, Fionn burns his thumb on the salmon’s juices, and he instinctively puts it in his mouth. In so doing, he inadvertently gains the Salmon’s wisdom. Elsewhere in Irish mythology, the salmon is also one of the incarnations of both Tuan mac Cairill and Fintan mac Bóchra.

Salmon also feature in Welsh mythology. In the prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, the Salmon of Llyn Llyw is the oldest animal in Britain, and the only creature who knows the location of Mabon ap Modron. After speaking to a string of other ancient animals who do not know his whereabouts, King Arthur’s men Cai and Bedwyr are led to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, who lets them ride its back to the walls of Mabon’s prison in Gloucester.

HoffmanLokisalmonIn Norse mythology, after Loki tricked the blind god Höðr into killing his brother Baldr, Loki jumped into a river and transformed himself into a salmon to escape punishment from the other gods. When they held out a net to trap him he attempted to leap over it but was caught by Thor who grabbed him by the tail with his hand, and this is why the salmon’s tail is tapered.

Salmon with Cucumber and Dill Sauce / Laks med Agurk og Dillsaus

A seafood lunch recipe found in “Sundt og Godt” (Wholesome and Delicious) published by Det Beste in 1988Salmon with Cucumber and Dill Sauce / Laks med Agurk og Dillsaus

Dill gives the sauce a warm, sweet taste. In combination with the cucumber it becomes an excellent accompaniment to the salmon.

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Rough Salmon Burgers / Grove Lakseburgere

A great campfire salmon recipe found at godfisk.no
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If you are out on a fishing trip, you can of course make these burgers from self caught trout, char or other fish. what ever you choose they will taste great.

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