Food & Northern Lights in Norway

How do you catch a cod? Well, in Norway you need warm clothes, a boat and a polar night. The skrei – the migrating cod that spawn in the Barents Sea and swim down past Tromsø and the Lofoten Islands – start arriving off the Norway coast from January. Their long journey makes their flesh firm and tasty. Some grow to 180cm long and weigh as much as a person.

MB Havcruise, a small aluminium catamaran, was built for deep sea fishing and it’s never come back from a trip empty-handed. In the winter months, you can go on a food and Northern Lights in Norway holiday here, come aboard, don oilskins and travel out into Tromsø Sound. In the quiet company of snow-covered fells, and under dark blue skies, cast your rod over the side – and wait.

When a fish gets caught – halibut, pollack, catfish, haddock, or the fabled cod if you’re lucky – it gets boiled with potatoes and carrots right there on the boat. It will be the freshest fish you’ve ever had.
Norway’s culinary scene is like its aurora – seasonal, beautiful and sometimes just as strange.

Fishing under an aurora

Cod fishing, done in the depths of winter off the Lofoten Islands, was once dangerous, intense work. Today, along the coast, you can still see the old cod racks: lonely, skeletal structures, which once hung with thousands of drying cod carcasses.

Preserving fish allowed Norway to conquer the seas. Since Viking times stockfish – air-dried cod – provided sustenance for sailors for long voyages. Fish have always been the lifeblood to Norwegians, and even today make up the country’s second biggest industry. Salmon – usually smoked – and cod are two of Norway’s biggest exports. Cod heads get sent to Nigeria, salted cod to Portugal, cod tongues – a delicious delicacy – end up in Norwegian restaurants.

There’s something else you can catch whilst you’re out in the harbour on a dark night: the Northern Lights. Tromsø, the world’s most northerly city, is one of the best places to see them. They can sometimes even be photographed above town – but for your best chance, go on a cruise that takes you away from the city’s gentle glow, for dinner and a show.

“We take guests out to the sea, where there’s no light pollution at all, leaving the city behind,” says Amy Hope, managing director of our Norway holidays partner Activities Abroad, who works with MB Havcruise to deliver these fantastic gastronomic Norwegian holidays.

From boat to table

Tromsø looks good at night. Which is great since its polar night – when the sun doesn’t rise in winter – lasts from mid-November to mid-January. The city lights, from bulb lights strung across streets to the stained glass of Tromsdalen Church across the strait, shines against a blueish sky in the winter months.

Warmed by the Gulf Stream and ice-free, this is one of the country’s most important fishing ports, with over 3,500 fishing vessels calling in every year. The harbourside is packed with fishing boats. Overlooking them, it’s only fitting that there are a number of fantastic seafood restaurants, their interiors giving off a welcome glow.

Among them is Fiskekompaniet, found right on Tromsø’s waterside, between the Polar Museum and the Troll Museum. The menu is focused, not just on fish, but other local ingredients, from juniper berries to mushrooms. Food tours of northern Norway shouldn’t miss the tasting menu.

Seafood platters

One of my best experiences in Norway was gathering mussels in a fjord with a Norwegian friend and cooking them up at her home just an hour later. It’s bizarre to think that Norway’s abundant supplies of mussels, oysters and king crab rarely made it onto people’s plates until the 20th century – simply because there was such a ready availability of fish, which offer more nutrition and involved less shucking.

Nowadays, shellfish has its rightful place on the menus – especially in Fiskekompaniet, where platters of shellfish, steamed mussels and oysters Rockefeller sit alongside halibut, turbot or the catch of the day. Norwegian king crab in particular is in high demand worldwide, but you can sample it at source, and covered in sauce, in Tromsø’s harbour.

Reindeer stew

There’s more to northern Norway than fish. Venture inland from Tromsø and you’ll encounter the Sámi. Northern Norway is home to the majority of the country’s indigenous population, whose original livelihood – reindeer herding – is still practised among a dwindling number of members of the community.

Like much of Norwegian traditional life, reindeer herding follows the seasons – the Sámi move their herds from summer grazing to their winter homes. Reindeer meat is a part of a reindeer herder’s diet. When a reindeer is slaughtered, the whole animal is used – from the heart, which can be smoked or dried, to the skin, fat and antlers. The meat is lean, nutritious and beautifully tasty. Bidos, a Sámi reindeer stew, is made with slow-cooked meat and vegetables and served with bread.

On a Norway food and Northern Lights trip you can enjoy a three-course Sámi meal – all dishes using fresh ingredients that haven’t come from more than a few miles away. In doing so, you are helping preserve a way of life that is becoming more and more difficult to conserve in Norway’s warming climate.

Seasonal sandwiches

“The fastest way to understand the Nordic region’s food culture is to eat an open sandwich topped with butter and hard cheese.”

So says food historian Professor Richard Tellström, of Stockholm University, in his introduction to The Nordic Cookbook. Meat and fish might be a massive part of Norwegian cuisine, but the simple sandwich gets to the heart of Norway’s gastronomic heritage: a heritage built on mixing preserved and fresh ingredients. In this case, cheese that’s stored for two years, served with fresh butter.

Just as the Northern Lights light up the skies in winter, Norwegian cuisine shines even through the depths of winter. The short growing season means that there’s a long tradition in Nordic countries of preserving, pickling and bottling. The migratory movements of fish and game through the calendar has shaped the culinary scene of the country.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Norway or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Sustainable menus

A food and Northern Lights holiday in Norway is the kind of trip where your food miles can be measured to the nearest metre, but there’s no escaping the fact that the traditional Norwegian diet is made up of meat and fish. Vegetarian and vegan ingredients like soy have to be imported.

In American waters, Atlantic cod populations have collapsed, but the fishing stocks of Arctic cod are one of the more stable fishing stocks in the world, though there is evidence that the cod are moving further north as a result of climate change and demand means that Norway is increasingly reliant on fish farms. Overfishing is a global problem and while Norwegian fisherman must stick to strict quotas agreed with the EU, these are routinely set above sustainable guidelines. Our trips support local small-scale fisheries.

As for reindeer, traditional reindeer herding is done on a small scale with very little waste, and the Norwegian state has had policies for sustainable reindeer husbandry since the early 1990s.

Food and Northern Lights tours of Norway make the most of traditional Norwegian recipes and ingredients. But one ingredient you should steer clear of is whale. Norwegians still hunt whales, which are eaten infrequently by Norwegians as a delicacy, but appear frequently on tourist menus. Find out more about responsible tourism in Norway.

What about dietary requirements?

Our holiday partners do their best to cater to all dietary requirements, though it’s usually best to give them some notice. There’s a non-traditional vegetarian version of bidos which omits the reindeer and non-fish alternatives available for individuals at Fiskekompaniet, as long as the restaurant is told in advance.

Getting to know Norway’s fisk

Torsketunger – cod’s tongue is tender and very tasty fried, served as a delicacy in Norwegian restaurants.

Gravlaks – literally ‘grave salmon’, this cured salmon dish is no longer buried, but cured with salt, sugar and dill.

Julesild – it’s a Christmas tradition to serve pickled herring, which spawn in Norwegian fjords and reach schools up to three billion fish strong.

Lutefisk – stockfish (cod) that has been soaked in lye is served with bacon lardons and a glass of aquavit at Christmas.

Plankefisk – is there a more rustic sight than a side of salmon, nailed to a plank of wood, tilted, as though on a makeshift deckchair, and allowed to slow roast next to a campfire?


You can visit Tromsø on a four-day break, which gives you enough time to enjoy its gastronomic heritage, go fishing, visit a Sámi community and three chances to see the Northern Lights. Going on a Northern Lights and gastronomy holiday in Norway can be done as a small group tour. That way, you have fishing buddies for your day trips at sea and can enjoy a convivial communal time spent in the Sámi community. Tromsø makes an excellent base for exploring the sea and the Troms region, so you’ll stay in one place and go on day excursions. Seeing the Northern Lights is never guaranteed, but the activities on this holiday will be done in the order that gives you the best chance for spotting them, given the weather for the duration of your stay.

Best time to go

Go between mid-November and the end of March for good chances to spot the Northern Lights. From November to February the days are extremely short in northern Norway – and for two months the sun doesn’t rise at all. From December to April, the cod are migrating and you might have a chance to catch one.

There will be snow on the surrounding fells, but it rarely gets very cold in Tromsø. The warming effect of the Gulf Stream means temperatures tend to stay around -4°C, even during the middle of winter; so you can catch a cod, not a cold.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Hasse Lossius] [Intro: Bjorn Are With Andreassen] [Norway's culinary scene: Piotr Musiol] [Mussels: Margo Brodowicz] [Sustainable menus: redcharlie] [Gravlaks: Stories] [Best time to go: Lightscape]