Arctic attraction: Fish the Italians have hooked

The Lofoten Islands, high up in the Arctic Circle The Italian connection dates back centuries

Norway's Lofoten islands are famous for their wild terrain and jaw-dropping views of the Midnight Sun and Northern Lights. But they also have an unexpected link with warmer climes.

An 18-hour train ride to the end of the line fetched me up inside Norway's Arctic Circle, with a tantalising view of spiky, glacial peaks, far across the sea. I was looking at the Lofoten islands.

There was even a bus. Since 2007, King Olaf's Road has linked Norway's mainland with the archipelago, as a necklace of bridges, tunnels and spectacular views.

Journey's end was an international youth hostel where the north wind whipped around the nearby rorbuer, or fishing cabins.

Muffling myself against a chilly morning, I found my fellow hostellers were much more appropriately dressed for the Arctic.

Many had travelled there on the outside deck of the Hurtigruten Ferry, which calls at the Lofotens on its journey to the far north of Norway, and the Russian Border at Kirkenes.

I had been hoping to head to the frontier region, too, but had to admit I was inadequately prepared for wild camping.

The Lofotens, warmed by the Gulf Stream, seemed a much better option.

A map of Norway's Lofoten Islands

But even so, that day I was wearing every scrap of fabric in my rucksack, even the grey blanket doled out to overnight train passengers.

Italian connection

By some miracle, in a place of hardly any commerce and eye-watering Norwegian prices, there was a junk shop.

There, among the tired chairs and old plates, I found a cream tweed jacket of surprising smartness which I snapped up for an un-Norwegian price of just 20 kroner (just over $3 or £2).

To be honest, even if it had not fitted, I would have still bought it and tied it around me with string.

But it was perfect and impressively well cut. And then I saw the label: Made in Italy.

What an unusual souvenir from the Lofotens, I thought. And how did it happen to end up here?

Doubtless it had more than a little to do with cod's Italian connection.

Back in the hostel, there was a chatter of Italian students flirting with three French boys.

And I had noticed this hostel's "free food" shelves, where incomers with imagination can feast on outgoers' donated leftovers.

There was lots of Italian stuff - bags of pasta, tomato sauces, risotto, garlic, olive oil and Tuscan herbs.

The next day, a couple and two young lads arrived, all Italian.

One teenager had worked in a Roman pizza joint. So he made everyone pizza, from scratch.

And over my first cod-free supper in days, I asked why the Lofotens held such a fascination for Italians.

Cod drying in the sun The fish, dried naturally in the sun, have made the islands their fortune

The answer lay in the empty wooden frames I had seen all over the islands, and the odd white forms, with a pungent tang, which flapped about like kites outside the rorbuer.

Further down the archipelago, the fishing village of "A" welcomes visitors with an array of dried cod heads, huge jaws agape, and a museum dedicated to dried cod - they call it stockfish - which is the Lofoten's unique food product.

Signposts to the museum all seem to be in Italian. And although Lofoten exports its stockfish all over the world, the biggest importer by far is Italy.

Popular snack

It all began in 1432, when Pietro Querini, an Italian nobleman and Venetian merchant, was left stranded on an uninhabited Lofoten island.

He and his men spent months with the Norwegian fisherman here, observing the annual ritual of the islands, which continues today. Cod is fished from the Barents Sea in vast quantities from January to April. It is then dried entirely naturally in the wind and sun.

"As the fish contains little moisture or fat, they become dry as wood," Querini wrote.

It is in fact more palatable when soaked in water or flavoured with butter and spices, but even today Norwegians tuck into little packets of chewy stockfish as the rest of us dip into packets of crisps.

The long-lasting fish is a literal stock-in-trade, like a currency, dating back to Viking times.

Querini eventually returned to Italy with 50 barrels of stockfish and found a keen appetite for it.

These days, many thousands of tonnes are transported to Italy each year.

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They are graded into categories, the most coveted of all is known as Ragno, a piece of unblemished cod perhaps 60cm (2ft) long.

The trade has made the islands' fortune - that and the Italians visiting on the stockfish trail.

No wonder the cry goes up in the Lofotens: "God bless Italian housewives and their kitchens! Long live Italian cuisine!"

And each September it is answered, back in Italy, when the entire village of Badalucco, near Genoa, celebrates its "Festa del Paese" with feasting and a march in honour of stockfish, all to a rousing rendition of the Norwegian national anthem.

For a day and a night, the Arctic meets the Mediterranean in the passionate cry "Viva Lofoten!".

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