It is not easy to catch a wild salmon. It is a cunning animal endowed with muscles from its incessant struggle in the water. It reaches the world in rivers and streams, and, early in the morning, sets out towards the sea where it remains until spawning. It is then when he decides to swim against the current back to the place of origin to deposit his eggs there. The fishermen stand on the banks with their baits and try to catch the specimens that rush to spawn in the springs. The Germans, in Finland, during World War II massacred them with hand grenades just like the rest of the fish. When they were not chased away with the noise of the saws and hammers while they were dedicated to building bridges over rivers. Curzio Malaparte, the cursed Tuscan, wrote in Kaputt, the sad and lyrical novel in which he tells of his experience as a war correspondent, the bloody battle declared to the salmon transmitted by Juho Nykänen who wondered how they could be so stupid and naive to treat them the same as if they were Jews. That rustic owner of the bazaar of Inari, near the lake, explained to Malaparte that he himself had told General Von Heunert, in command of the occupation forces in Karelia, that if instead of making war on the Russians they kept doing it to salmon, the Finns would end up defending them. Malaparte replied that it is easier to wage a war against salmon than against the Russians, and Nykänen denied. It is a mistake, he maintained, salmon are very brave and defeating them is difficult. “The day will come when German soldiers will be afraid even of salmon.” And, in effect, thus ended the war in Europe for the Third Reich, with the mistake of slaughtering salmon, Russian resistance and British tenacity.
That little man from the highest lands of Finland knew how to reason. His story I have never forgotten, it is part of that priceless cluster of dark anecdotes, at the same time luminous and even incredible, fruit of a great imagination, that are part of Kaputt. Nykänen, the character who recounts the vicissitudes of the irreducible Arctic salmon, emphasizes that in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg, unfit for the fair game of fishing, the Finnish salmon acted as knights and preferred exile rather than surrender to an adversary unworthy of them. “Do you know where our salmon emigrate?” I asked Malaparte, and the Italian journalist replied that it was Norway. No, Juho Nykänen clarified. “Do you think Norwegians are better than salmon? The Germans are there too ”. Apparently guided by their wonderful survival instincts, the salmon migrated to Russia, the Fisherman’s Island or Murmansk, hoping to return to Finland. He, Nykänen, was confident that they would do it after the German defeat and not with a red head. Kaputt, I say, is a great novel, a wonderful lesson in life and death.
When they do not go back in history, salmon do it on the most extraordinary legends. The literature around them has the same performance as their prized meat. The Irish think of a brighter future every time they taste the salmon in their rivers. Specifically, those of the Boyne, which runs through the counties of Louth and Meath, and where the young disciple of the local Finnegas, Fionn McCumhaill, touched with his thumb the inflamed back of the fish of knowledge for which everyone sighed, burned and burned. He put his finger to his mouth to try to ease the pain. From that moment, the wall between the present and the future was cleared. In Ireland they still wonder when Fionn will return.
In the lowlands of Scotland, salmon that go up the Clyde and Tweed rivers are simply baked in the oven soaked in butter. Ideal after drinking one of those islay malt with soft aromas of peat, lemon and black pepper. But of all the salmon preparations there is one that suits you especially well and comes from Scandinavia. More specifically, if you like, from Norway. It is the one that receives the name of gravet laks and that comes from the primitive method of preserving its salted meat. It consists of seasoning the fish with salt, sugar and pepper and covering it with dill, burying it for several weeks, so that the seasonings act on the salmon aided by the pressure of the earth. Naturally in an urban home burying salmon is complicated, so the practical thing is to bury it under a wooden board with some weight on top so that it feels pressured. It is reserved in the refrigerator. When serving it, it is accompanied by a mustard sauce.
But as you already know, most of the salmon that are marketed come from fish farms. Obviously, a farmed salmon has little to do with one caught in the river, but mass farming has made it possible to get much fatter specimens throughout the year. Salmon, in general terms, has ceased to be a luxury, going from the noble specimen that seduces during the fishing season to being a very democratic fish for its price.
Norway produces more than one million tonnes of farmed Atlantic salmon annually, four times the total meat production of the country as a whole, and an amount equivalent to 12 million servings of salmon per day. Thanks to its immense and growing investment in aquaculture, it is now the world’s leading producer of farmed salmon. This was surely not the return that the salmon from Malaparte wanted, who preferred exile to the Wehrmacht.