Gravlax: Salmon From a Grave

Does not sound very appealing does it? But what to do if you are a medieval Scandinavian fisherman and you land a really big catch of salmon? Right there at the river mouth, as they leave the ocean to embark on their long journey up the river to spawn.

You have no refrigerator, no freezer or a supermarket to take the access of your hands. Rigor mortis will start almost immediately after the catch has been landed and bacteria and fish enzymes will soon render the catch worthless and smelling like kitchen cleaner.

Fermenting your fish is an option, but if you were in a remote part of the region, you would not have a lot a salt, and perhaps no barrels. Solution?

You clean the fish and use only a small amount of salt to preserve the fish. Stuff it with pine needles for flavor, wrap it in birch bark, and bury it right there, where you caught it. Just above the high tide mark.

The relative cold of the earth, the airlessness, small amount of salt and carbohydrates from the bark cause a lactic fermentation that makes the fish’s surface acidic.

This, combined with the fish enzymes and bacteria, would have caused the flesh to become buttery in texture and develop a sharp, sour cheesy smell. Thus, what they produced was “sour” or fermented fish.

Thankfully the process of preserving fresh salmon as gravlax evolved over time to a point where today the fresh fish is lightly cured (thus no longer fermented) with a mixture of sugar and salt. Also, the pine needles have been replaced by fresh dill, and of course, the fish is no longer buried in the sand, but stored in your refrigerator.

Gravlax cured with dill

The most difficult part of making your own gravlax here in Namibia would be to obtain good quality fresh salmon, as this is not a fish indigenous to our coast. You want to use salmon: you need an oily, fatty fish. Besides it is good for you.

Because fish are cold–blooded, and they have to live in cold temperatures (close to 0° C) their cell membranes and energy stores (fat) have to remain fluid under very cold temperatures. They do not solidify as animal fats do.

The human body cannot really manufacture these omega-3 fatty acids from other fatty acids, so we need to get these from our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for the development of our brains and retinas, strengthen our central nervous system, and by limiting inflammatory responses, protect against heart attacks and certain types of cancer.

Finally, because the omega-3 fatty acids reduce the body’s readiness to form blood clots, it also reduces incidences of strokes.

Thankfully the kind folks at SeaSource provide fresh Norwegian salmon here locally in Windhoek. Contact them direct on their webpage:, or via their Facebook page, or via e-mail:

Just in case you wondered about the title: grav in Swedish mean “grave” or “to bury”, and lax means salmon. Thus, get some salt and get some sugar. This is one funeral you are going to enjoy.


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