Turning Trash Fish Into Treasure in Denmark

Cod, mackerel, and herring are so prevalent in Denmark that, over the centuries, they have become common fare. Since the 19th century, working class folks (and nearly everyone else today) have lunched on smørrebrød, or buttered rye bread, often layered with these fish—either pickled or smoked.

These ordinary fish are what many local fishermen even call “trash fish.” Until recently, they were certainly not what Danes go for when they’re thinking gourmet.

Fiskebar, a trendy fish restaurant in Copenhagen, is changing that perception. It’s creating a new demand by reinventing the way Danes look at these sustainable fish. And the Danes are eating it up.

“We had a wild night here. Set a record in the takings,” exclaims Aaron Kaczmark, Fiskebar’s sous chef, late one Friday night after closing. After six years of success, Fiskebar is still making waves.

Since the birth of New Nordic Cuisine—thanks to René Redzepi, the chef who put Denmark on the world food map with his world class restaurant, Noma—Danes are more eager than ever to know about their food and where it comes from. Fiskebar is the first fish-focused New Nordic-style restaurant to emphasize locally sourced, sustainability principals in Copenhagen.

One of Fiskebar’s signature dishes does magic with everyday mackerel, coaxing Københavnere to love this fish in new ways. Mackerel’s latest incarnation is prepared with a fine layer of lardo, melted over the top and served with daring twists on traditional accompaniments like pickled green tomatoes and hot mustard.

Fiskebar is not only turning the concept of the poor man’s fish into something of epicurean caliber, but unlike many other restaurants, its chefs work to use every part of the fish. Kaczmark explains that it wasn’t always this way: “In cooking school, I was taught that fish is the most waste of any product; by weight you get the most wastage,” he says. And chefs were taught to accept that fact.

saliboats in Copenahgen

Photograph by Priit Vesilind, NG Creative

Not anymore, although some of the solutions to fish waste are not always a good fit for the country. EU and local fishery regulators have the common goal to preserve fish populations, but the top-down approach, employing blanket protocols over such a nuanced trade, still leads to waste. According to locals, they do more harm than good.

Fishermen and small restaurant owners speak of broken measures that lead to bycatch, or the fish that must be dumped back dead in the water in order to comply with the law. There is debate over the minimum landing size required in order to legally bring fish to shore and the discarding of fish scooped up accidentally with a desired species, known as bycatch.

Today Fiskebar has found a creative solution to a bycatch issue with oysters. It recently began to serve the Crassostrea gigas oyster. It’s a Pacific oyster that the world knows and loves, but in that location, is an invasive species (see ‘Eating an Oyster is Like Kissing the Sea on the Lips‘.)

The fishermen hate them and call them the junk oyster. They are gnarled up and ugly, but they taste great. They come out of the water and to the restaurant on the same day. “There’s no middleman. It’s an honest exchange between us and the fisherman. I feel good about serving them. To my knowledge, we are the only place you can eat them, unless you get into the water yourself,” says Kaczmarek. At Fiskebar, fish is a high waste product no longer.

Danes are certainly getting hooked. This summer Fiskebar will open a second restaurant, called Musling, in Copenhagen’s city center. It’ll be a simpler approach compared to its more technical, gastronomic big sister, but with the same serious focus on sustainable fish.

Marguerite Richards is a writer, editor and marketer and a native Californian, although she’s lived in Europe and South America. Follow her adventures on Twitter.