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As the world awaits the grand opening of Under in the first half of 2019, Europe's first underwater restaurant, on the coast of Lindesnes, Norway’s southernmost tip, the restaurant's Danish head chef Nicolai Ellitsgaard Pedersen is setting out his mission while preparing to work in a semi-submerged environment at 5.5 metres below sea level.
“One of my ambitions is to increase awareness among Norwegians and the rest of the world, to help them realise what they have and the incredibly beautiful creatures that make their home along the coastline of the southern part of Norway,” proclaims the 32-year-old, who’s previously worked at restaurants such as Måltid and Henne Kirkeby Kro, both in Denmark.
As much as the shoreline provides local handpicked oysters, Båly Harbor fish, and krill from the other side of the restaurant’s panoramic window though, Under should not be mistaken for a seafood-only restaurant. Its concept is more linked to sustainable seasonality blending the sea with the ‘fruits’ of the surrounding rural landscape.
Still, it is Under’s submersion that has attracted attention and marine research will be important to the restaurant’s core. Working hard on exploring the nautical landscape of Lindesnes ahead of the opening, Pedersen made thought-provoking findings and rediscovered three forgotten underwater delicacies that he is now attempting to reinstate in Norway’s larder.
The story of the sea truffle [in the picture above the article], real name Vertebra Lanosa, also known as Polysiphonia Lanosa, begins back in 2014 with the visit of a chef friend from the Faroe Islands, who came into the restaurant where Pedersen was head chef at the time. “She brought this little plastic bag”, he explains. “When I opened the small bag I got a punch in the face – truffle smell, I tasted it and it tasted just like truffle, a bit more bitter, but I loved it!”
After six months of searching on the shore, and after ending up with everything from Red Hornweed to other red algae, he finally managed to find it.
“They’re 7-8 cm long, attached to the ‘branches’ of seaweed, mainly Knotted Wrack, known as Norwegian Kelp. Sometimes and more rarely you can find them on the Bladder Wrack as well. [They] never grow on rocks. Where I live the season is in the summertime, from June. I use this seaweed fresh and dried – fresh it lasts just a couple of days, and then it starts to lose its powerful truffle taste. Dried and in an airtight container, it can last for years! I have some from 2015 in a vacuum bag, and it’s just as I dried it yesterday.”
“It’s from the same family as the (red) King crab, but the 10-15cm wide carapace of the Lithodes Maja (stone crab) means it is half its size. “It’s covered with large spikes, which makes it hard to prepare. It looks similar to King Crab, but occurs only in the colder waters of Europe” says Pedersen.
If the hassle of cleaning does not put one off, ordering might and while King crab triumphs on the blackboards, it is one crab that the southern part of Norway does not have, yet the sweet but less meaty Stone crabs, which live in these waters, are thrown back by the fishermen.
“It must be that not many people know about it, and therefore don’t buy or order it, so it isn’t easy to persuade the fishermen to take care of the Lithodes Maja and deliver them alive,” says Pedersen.
The Rugos Squat Lobster – which Pedersen first tasted and heard about in October 2017 – and the stone crab share a similar story of a fortunate bycatch, when one day instead of the desired langoustines, a fisherman’s traps were full of undesirable lobsters. Most had already been thrown back when Pedersen arrived, but he “got the chance to test around 10, and they were so good damn tasty!” he says.
Rugos Squat Lobsters can be easily caught, are therefore cheap, and look a lot like crayfish. The meat, mostly from the tail, has a sweet and firm texture, and a distinctive taste. They are usually found on rocky or sandy substrate from Northern Norway to the Mediterranean.
“This is the only one of 240 squat lobsters from the Munida type that lives in the shallow waters of Norway. The other members of this species are only reported deeper than 50 meters,” says Pedersen. “Squat Lobsters are best from October to May. When they start to change their carapace around April, the quality is bad; then they’re just like a jellyfish in texture.”
So why aren’t they popular to eat on the Nordic coast yet? The story is a familiar one: nobody buys them, out of lack of awareness, but as Pedersen also points out, “Rugos Lobsters have long, white tipped and thin claws and it takes forever to get the meat out of the claws!” Even though they appear on more menus than Stone Crabs, again sourcing requires persistence, and there are financial and logistical implications.
“I told the fisherman that he should tell all the other langoustine and lobster fishermen that if they get any more - keep them alive and I will use them at the restaurant!” says Pedersen. “But it’s difficult to make a good agreement with the fishermen since they see no value in it, only I do! I started a good dialogue with some hobby fishermen from the area of the restaurant, [who] will give it a shot after summer. The main problem is that I need to buy everything since no one else wants to.”
Waiting for Under opening
While finding others interested in sharing the catch might sound like a solution, Pedersen has already experienced difficulties. “I’m trying to push the local fishmonger to buy some as well, but from his point of view it will be a loss, since it’s difficult to turn the consumer to try something new,” he says. Pedersen has concentrated his efforts into working closely with smaller fishing boats that help him obtain stone crabs. To take the whole bycatch of Rugos Lobsters and to find a solution to keeping a live catch of all other crustaceans, he has also begun working with a company to develop a new type of holding for wild catch shellfish, where water is pumped from a depth of 120 meters into big pools.
To witness his efforts and try all these interesting species we will have to wait until spring 2019 however, when Under will open its doors.