From The Guardian
Arctic diver Roddie Sloan was about to abandon his beloved urchins to study engineering, but then he got a call that would change his life...
Our urchin diver is a Scotsman who came to Norway
for the love of a woman, and stayed for the cold, pristine waters of
his new region of Steigen. If it lives in the north Atlantic and I want
to cook it, Roddie will find it and it will arrive at Fäviken neatly
arranged in a little box, whether it's edible or not."
Magnus Nilsson, chef, Fäviken, Sweden
Stronglyocentrotus droebachiensis. Photograph: Howard Sooley
A small icy open boat 300km inside the Arctic
Circle: diver Pawel grins as he hands me a holy grail and for a second I
forget the biting wind.
The interior of the spiky sea urchin he is
holding out is an astonishing tangerine like a Chinese lantern, bathed
in low brilliant light.
What I have in my hand is Stronglyocentrotus droebachiensis
the mythical Norwegian Green, talked about in hushed whispers by chefs.
I lift out a delicate coral "tongue" – more accurately, its gonads –
and let the umami flavours wash over me: the texture is of wobbly
custard; the taste clean, like the smell of the Arctic sea, only
I close my eyes and quietly drift with the water.
plenty of time and urchins while we wait for Roddie Sloan to reappear
from the freezing sea.
Sloan had known this was a good day to
fish, he says, because the sea eagle had told him.
"Like most fishermen I
have superstitions," he says.
"If I don't see an eagle, I know it will
be a bad day."
And winter days here – if you can call barely four hours
of dim light a day – can be very bad.
He tells me of a five-hour battle
through 4m waves to get his tiny boat the final kilometre home. Luckily,
today the fjords are calm, the sun is shining and as we fill the boat
with urchins and clams, Roddie Sloan and Pawel "The Fish" Laskowski are
Roddie Sloan in Nordksot, Norway. Photograph: Howard Sooley for Observer Food Monthly
Just a few years ago, Sloan was ready to quit the sea.
millions he dreamed he'd make from diving had failed to materialise,
unlike his second son (he now has three).
Anxious about how to support
his family, Sloan hung up his wetsuit to study engineering.
came a phone call that would change his life.
"I remember the
day," he tells me later as I stoke the log fire in our borrowed white
wooden house on a tiny island in the fjord.
"It was a sunny Sunday, a
beautiful autumn afternoon, Lindis [his wife] is making dinner while I
am standing on the terrace. The phone rings. It's a chef wanting urchins
but I tell him he is too late. It isn't fair to my wife any more, it
"In my mind I already had autumn organised," he
"I was going to university. We spoke for about an hour, about
sea urchins and other foods from the sea, but he was a two-star and I
had been supplying Le Louis XV [Alain Ducasse's three-Michelin-star
palace in Monaco].
I was polite but I wasn't interested.
had finished, Lindis asked who it was," he says.
"Some Danish chef, I
told her, calling from Nimrod or Nana, I don't care. I am going back to
It was, of course, René Redzepi from Noma.
Sloan borrows a fishing boat to get his dinghy out to the sea urchin beds he has mapped in the closed season the previous year.
Once picked he will not return to the same bed for five years.
Photograph: Howard Sooley for Observer Food Monthly
pressure from Lindis – a super-smart Norwegian gender specialist and
government adviser – Sloan succumbed but tripled his price: "If you
don't want to do something, you hike the cost," he says. "But I didn't
want Lindis to be angry."
It was a fragile start to a
"With René," he says, "the price doesn't much
matter, it is about the product. This was an extremely new experience
But Sloan was intent on leaving the sea. "I still wanted to
study, so he was my only client."
A few weeks later, Redzepi turned up.
"He was wearing trainers to go
to sea," Sloan laughs.
"He had a new hat, he had duty-free, but was in
all the wrong clothes. We kitted him and took him out for four hours.
The season was finished, it was minus 22. We talked about changing
nappies, about family, philosophy and sea urchins.
"I realised I
really like this guy," he says. "I am a loyal dog – once I have made up
my mind, it takes a lot to get rid of me. I tell him we will change the
price, he tells me he wants 50kg a week."
Next, he ate his green
urchins at Noma: "It was a dish of 'frozen pebbles and sea urchins' – an
amazing taste sensation, suddenly I saw what he saw."
Sloan, a Scottish
economic exile from Dumfries, transplanted to Nordskot
, an Arctic
hamlet of 80 people, had found another new home.
"Noma has become 'my
kitchen' in a way," he says.
"I can drop in for tea, coffee, maybe curl
up under a table."
Through Redzepi and his MAD [food] symposium in Copenhagen
was a reluctant but compelling speaker at the second event in 2012), he
has found validation and a viable market with many of Europe's top
chefs now clamouring to buy from him.
Sloan with some of his catch. Photograph: Howard Sooley
Fäviken's Magnus Nilsson again: "We met the first time in Copenhagen …
I looked into a pair of glistening blue eyes and heard the words, 'I am
Roddie the urchin diver, you are my closest chef [they're more than
600km apart by road], we need to work together.'
We soon found a
logistical solution that was manageable for us both in terms of money
and quality, which involves a couple of ferries, a firm of removal men
and a monthly bribe of a box of beer.
The produce arrives every Tuesday
at Fäviken and it includes the best sea urchins I have ever seen
This season – late September to January – Sloan will also be supplying UK restaurants
including St John.
For now at least, wild talk of further education is on hold.
Roddie Sloan about his relationship with his adopted community, the
Arctic sea, and its produce, and his voice becomes quieter.
We make tea
and talk about Nordskot's oldest inhabitant, 81-year-old Finn Ediassen,
who started fishing aged eight and taught Sloan "all I know about ropes
He tells me how this community nestled at the foot of an
austere mountain range at the top of the world had carved a precarious
living fishing and whaling but now there was no work; how they had
indulged his obsession with the urchins and clams they still only think
of as bait.
The midday sun goes down on northern Norway, three or four hours of winter daylight fade.
Photograph: Howard Sooley for Observer Food Monthly
The fire crackles.
The Arctic light dips. Sloan's
eyes shine as tells me of his pride in how they have taken him in,
recognising a kindred wild spirit bewitched by the sea.
But it is
when he talks about being a warden for his beloved urchins that Sloan
The green is one of 700 species, 500m years old, he says.
"The quality starts in the sea – how you pick it up with your hand, how
many you have in the net. How you handle it, how you fish it.
have changed my life, these beautiful creatures," he says.
doesn't understand it. For her, they are still something my Aunty Jean
brought back from her holidays. But they have given me a community,
friendships, food. They have given me a place, a proper life."
the while, a few urchins shyly shift and move as we talk. As daylight
finally fades, I watch entranced as they dance on spikes across the
"They are very precious to me," Sloan says softly.
I am sitting drinking smoky scotch when Roddie Sloan calls from his
home in the village. "Look outside," he says, simply. "Northern
So I stand on the terrace of my Arctic explorer's island cottage and
watch as the sea and sky come alive.
I see electric greens shoot and
pulse over the forbidding horizon as though orchestrated to an unheard
I watch the sky and fjord turn the intense colour of limes and
the stark icy mountains take on an unearthly mauve.
And for the next
three hours as I drink whisky and watch, I almost envy Roddie Sloan his
hermit life, the few hours of daylight, the many hours spent diving in
the icy water.
But then I remember the forecast is for more storms, more
snow and minus 15 and I shudder and return to the fire.