Kalix vendace roe from the brackish water of the Bothnian Bay has a Protected Designation of Origin, the same star-quality status as Champagne, Parma ham and Dijon mustard. Photographer Anna Öhlund joins the fishermen on their hunt for the gold of the Bothnian Bay.

Autumn mist veils the sea and September frost has settled on the marshlands. Holiday makers and migratory birds have packed up and gone south. In the Bothnian Bay archipelago fishermen go out to sea. From six in the morning until six in the evening, six days a week. This is when the slim, 20-centimetre-long vendace lay their eggs.

Heading out.

Familiarity and experience

Headlights appear along the village road. Professional fisherman Mats Innala steps out of the car and greets us cordially before taking a practised jump into his trawler. The boat engine comes to life and a tractor helps load empty crates onto the floor. Mats and his colleague Arne Luthström have worked as professional fishermen for 30 years. Always with the same partner. They know each other well by now and hardly need to talk to each other to communicate.

The morning preparations are completed in ten minutes and then both fishing boats go out to sea. It is still pitch black and Mats navigates the boat he has built himself with the help of GPS and sonar. The chart plotter on the screen with hundreds of lines might look like chaos to the untrained eye, but with 30 years of experience, these men can probably find their way among the islands blindfolded.

We enter Seskaröfjärden as dawn paints the sky pink. Suddenly the archipelago is impossibly beautiful.

Early mornings.

Sweden’s first food with PDO status

Three of Sweden’s four national rivers empty into the Bothnian Bay. The Kalix, Torne and Pite rivers provide plenty of fresh water, creating the largest brackish-water archipelago in the world with a salinity of only 0.3%. Mineral-rich fresh water is mixed with seawater to create a unique habitat.

The body cells of the vendace cannot maintain their internal salt balance at a higher salt concentration and it is only here, in the area between Haparanda and Piteå, that the vendace and the small plants and organisms they eat can survive. On the Finnish side of the Bothnian Bay, there are fewer large rivers and the seabed is rockier, making trawling more difficult. The thick ice of recent years and the low salinity of the sea have contributed to favourable conditions for the vendace. According to the Sea and Water Authority, the population is increasing even if around 1,300 tonnes are caught every season to produce the Caviar of Kalix – Kalix Löjrom – Sweden’s first food product to be awarded the Protected Designation of Origin status.

Teamwork.

An autumn archipelago

The boats approach each other side on and one end of the trawl is mounted on the other boat. The winch slowly feeds out the net as the boats move forward, slowly. Any snag or tangle could lead to costly downtime and repairs. The net lies in a large horseshoe shape between the boats to capture the vendace as the boats dance across the sea. Trawling is always done in teams of two with precise spacing, back and forth across the small bay for hours.

The archipelago is not very deep, and it takes years of experience to know all its shallows, rocks, stones and rubble. Sunlight glistens on the water; the clear autumn air and the swaying movements are gently lulling. There is time for plenty of coffee and talk about life.

— At least the weather is nice. A fortnight of a storm isn’t quite as much fun, says Mats. He laughs and scratches his stubble.

When the fishermen decide it is time to start taking in the net, hundreds of gulls start circulating above the stretched-out mass of fine-mesh yarn. They say it is the sign of a good catch. Mats and Arne don oilskins and rubber boots. Most of the work on deck is tough, fast and efficient. Ice-cold seawater mixed with tonnes of vendace gushes into the large crates inside the boat. No one wears gloves, they are just in the way, Mats explains.

There are virtually no by-catches; the right size mesh means that the net only catches vendace of the right size and only rarely are pike, perch or other fish lifted from the sea. Sometimes an old log on the seabed gets stuck in the bottom and in the worst case, it tears the net.

The right size mesh means that the net only catches vendace of the right size and only rarely are pike, perch or other fish lifted from the sea.
Fish facts

The vendace, Coregonus Albula, is a small salmonid. It grows to about 15 cm and can weigh up to 30 grams. It contains around 3–5 grams of roe and the size of the eggs varies during the fishing season: from 0.8 mm during week one to 1–1.3 mm during week five. The fishing season falls between September 20 and the end of October. Source: the Association of Coastal Fishermen in Norrbotten.

A protected food product

Kalix vendace roe has been trademarked since 2010 and is one of three food products in Sweden to be awarded PDO status by the EU. It means that “the product is produced, processed and prepared within a specific geographical area using methods characteristic to the region”. Only roe from vendace fished and processed in the municipalities Haparanda, Kalix, Luleå and Piteå can be called Kalix vendace roe.

This protection means that Kalix vendace roe has achieved the same high status as Champagne, Parma ham and Parmesan cheese. This has increased the roe’s exclusivity, quality and price. Demands and controls along the production chain are strict. Quality certification, facilities, purity, salinity, consistency, how the goods are handled in the cold chain, packaging – everything is carefully monitored by the Swedish National Food Agency and samples are taken daily and sent to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Back home after a day out.

Handicraft

When Mats and Arne are satisfied with today’s catch, we begin the journey back to their home port. The sun is setting and in the ‘garage’, the preparation room in Nikkala, some 40 people soon gather. Everything is prepared for the evening’s work: sorting, roe squeezing, salting and packing. The work is done very carefully, and nothing is left to chance.

They have no more than an hour to transport the catch from the quay to the processing room. Roe squeezing and preparation is done near the fishermen’s ports and the work is almost exclusively manual. The vendace is a tiny fish and a female carries about two tablespoons of roe, which means that the process of squeezing and preparing it is both time and skill consuming. The roe is only squeezed by hand as there are no machines in the world that could replace the dexterity of a roe-squeezer. That is why Kalix vendace roe is as difficult to get hold of as it is delicious. Kalix vendace roe can only be produced here, nowhere else in the world.

The roe is only squeezed by hand as there are no machines in the world that could replace the dexterity of a roe-squeezer.

Like fine Champagne

Kalix vendace roe is perhaps the most frequent ingredient on the Nobel Dinner menu. It is also a favourite among star chefs and is often chosen to represent pure, Swedish taste. The taste is mild and round with notes of smooth fish oil and salty water. Vendace roe has a significantly lower fat content than that of other Baltic fish, such as herring and salmon. Just like fine Champagne, Kalix vendace roe has unique mineral elements providing its character.

A good way of trying Kalix vendace roe is as a simple starter. On a piece of toast with a dollop of sour cream and chopped red onion. If you visit Swedish Lapland, you can expect this delicacy to be featured in all the best restaurants. So, give it a go! You will not be disappointed.

Try Kalix vendace roe as a simple starter. On a piece of toast with a dollop of sour cream and chopped red onion.
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