Mr. NordicLights’ father started his seafood-import business in 1923. This is the business he grew up in, and consequently took over when he was twenty-one years old.
Let me introduce you to Mr. NordicLights. On the hunt for the best taramasalata I had to go back to the roots of how this, once very expensive, dish became synonymous with the humble cuisine during Lenten, and more so, an everyday part of Greek life.
Mr. NordicLights, seafood specialist and owner of Nordic Lights Limited., took the time to speak to me about the history of tarama, a unique dish made from the eggs of certain fish. He is the best source for this article because his family was instrumental in making it accessible to all and sundry in Greece.
Mr. NordicLights oozes the energy of the sea, which brings to mind Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea. He is kind-faced and animated, serious and jovial, with the innate ability to break into deep chuckles at his own jokes.
Although Mr. Nordic Lights was never a sailor, he was most certainly a lover of fishing and fresh seafood.
The appreciation for fish eggs can be traced back to antiquity. Caviar and sturgeon from the Sea of Azov began reaching the tables of aristocratic and noble Byzantine Greeks in the 10th century, after the commencement of large-scale trading between the Byzantine Empire and Kievan Rus (The first East Slavic State, later Russia). Black caviar, the best quality of fish roe is an expensive delicacy. The consumption of caviar was a social indicator in Byzantine society. Black caviar was imported from Russia for the aristocrats, the notable and wealthy – monks of highest degree or of noble origin were also enthusiastic consumers of caviar
However, it was an unaffordable delicacy for most Greeks. Hence the consumption of the precious black eggs was limited to only the most special occasions. Before the 2nd world war, caviar was brought from Russia. The eggs were a rich red. At the start of the 2nd world war, imports were stopped altogether.
Humans are nothing if not capable of innovating, hence enter tarama- the salted and aged roe of cod or carp.
Mr. NordicLights father started his seafood-import business in 1923, the business he grew up in, and consequently took over when he was only twenty-one years old. His father went to Sweden to inspect and order a new type of fish eggs, cod roe. Cod roe is very small, and pale pink in colour. This pale Icelandic tarama had to be packed in a sugar and salt brine to be preserved for up to two years, so by the time it arrived in Athens it was a pale cream colour. This made most Greeks very suspicious, as they are wont to be when the expected shows up and it is a pale in comparison to the known.
“That roe was creamy, so then we had to put colour to redden it because nobody bought it. They had a lot of difficulties, but eventually it caught on,” explained Mr. NordicLights.
“We sold a lot of salted cod, my father was the main importer of the fish at the time. He went all the way to Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands, and even further asea to Newfoundland, Canada, this was in the 1930s to 1960s.”
This is long before the birth of the internet era, so how does a businessman in Athens find out about salted fish in North America, much less has the wherewithal to track it down and import it?
“We were lucky because my dad knew some orthodox Jews in New York City who was the first cousin of my mother. He (the cousin) lived in New York for several years before moving back to Greece. In fact, this cousin became one of the most famous patriarchs in Thessaloniki. Anyways, he wrote and told my dad about the opportunity, and my father being the adventurer he was left shortly after.
“To get to Newfoundland in 1930, he took the boat from Piraeus all the way to Marseilles, then he had to board a big boat to New York. From New York, he took a boat to Halifax, then onwards to Newfoundland.
“He rented a fishing boat when he got there. They had to catch, process, and bin the fish right off the fishing boat. So, it took over a month to catch the fish, process the fish, salt the fish, then bin the fish. Then he hired a vessel from there to Piraeus.”
“That trip took six months. In our family, we were eight children so obviously you cannot understand how we became 8 children when he was gone 6 month of the year. Make one child go for fish make another child go for fish,” Mr. NordicLight said with his signature chest-deep chuckle.
Back to tarama and how Mr. NordicLights change the way we eat tarama today.
“When my father died in 65 at the age of 65, I had to take over. I wanted the product to be pure, without additives, so we decided to sell unmodified tarama. I remember the first year I sold like 100 kilos, when before we used to sell 600 tonnes. But I was insistent and I kept going, I would beg the fish mongers to try it, ask cooks and chefs to try it and it eventually caught on. Now look, now everybody buys white tarama. I changed the face of tarama.
“Like I said, in 1965 when I was 21 years old, I took over the business. By 2004, I was getting old and tired. Dealing with permits and factory work, working from 6am to 10pm and even sleeping at the factory. So, I decided to retire from the large-scale business. That was a bit of a disaster.
“It was during that time that I decided to start NordicLights Gourmet Seafood Ltd., I wanted something on a smaller scale, something where I could bring the best to customers, without the headaches to me. I changed all the philosophy of my business to a smaller volume. I started talking to chefs, because if anybody knows fresh food it is chefs. They would ask for certain fresh things like “hey do you think you can find sea urchin, or can you find this or that?” and day after day my catalogue started expanding and now we have 250 different items.
“I was trying to keep it small scale but it was easy and very clever the way I was doing it. Why? Because now I have nothing in stock, I receive specified orders, I order it, pick it up and deliver to my customers. That is it. I am very strict on quality, professionalism and payments,” Mr. NordicLights ended on a serious note.
In business, even with friends and good relationships one must be strict in daily business dealings. Mr. NordicLights, by accident or destined to be, has managed to be an expert in the new food trend of bringing the best and purest products to his customers – always with transparency and sustainability as the key components of his business.
Chefs recognize his reputation for always having fresh fish and seafood. When it comes to supplies they are assured of the quality of his products.
NordicLights import fresh seafood and tarama from Norway, Denmark, and Scotland. And scallops and lobsters from Canada. They are currently expanding to suppliers from France, where they recently found a great supplier who is serving the best of the best to Paris restaurants. NordicLights also exports tarama to UK and U.S.A.
“I choose the best product. That is what my reputation is built on. From seaweed to everything else the sea has to offer, even sea cucumber when they are requested,” he said.
NordicLights was supposed to be his retirement moonlighting job. He started small and had no intention of expanding, but the business kept growing. Now his daughter is carrying on the business. Mr. NordicLights do not want to make big steps, he decided not to expand the business, but without his say-so the market itself is growing and driving growth on its own reputation. Listed amongst his customers are Athens Four Seasons Hotels, Michelin-star restaurants, and of course some of the best of the best Japanese restaurants. Chefs know Mr. NordicLights, personally and professionally, they can call and request whatever they want and they will be assured it will be delivered fresh and on impeccable time.
“Every enterprise and company is focussed on something. For me, I am focussed on fresh fish and seafood. I am not involved in local Greek seafood and fish, I do not get involved here because everybody is selling it so there is too much competition. I love that I stand for fresh imports. I love my good life, I do not need extra stress.
“I am very specialized in what I do. My philosophy is for fresh seafood. I personally feel like everyone should enjoy fresh seafood. It is powerful medicine. The market is very specified in their own items, everyone will be a specialist in their field. As long as you are a specialist there will always be a market for it. People want the best, always. No one chooses less than the best if they can afford it,” stated Mr. NordicLights.
NordicLight is the development of a business that started in 1923 and carries with it the complete expertise and experience in importing the best seafood primarily from the North Atlantic seas. With nearly a hundred years of relationships with the biggest fishermen and breeders, NordicLight is the best partner for the best restaurants, top chefs and chefs.
Read about Kelly at Hellenic Odyssey here.