Charlie Hammønd

You’ll be excused for thinking this is a cross between the author of the young Bond and the guy from Top Gear, or maybe the father of the fellow who invented the Hammond organ and forever changed the function of dry ice.

But it’s not. It’s the only way I found to ask people if I was on the right boat to Skjerjehamn. Now, the Welsh are partial to a few contiguous consonants, but all in all, the Norwegians take the cake. I spoke to several people working out there, including an Estonian lady up in Charlie Hammond, and a Vietnamese guy who was a 22 year veteran of Bergen, and when I buttonholed them on their linguistic skills, Norwegian was the Berlitz equivalent of writer’s block.

The Estland (Estonian) gal cracked me up particularly; following my inquisition, she explained Estonian was similar to Finnish, a language more painful than waterboarding, and she seemed to think that was easy when compared to Norwegian.

Despite the incessant rain, some of Bergen’s landmarks made me stop and wonder.

All resident foreigners without exception smiled politely when I asked about their Norwegian skills, and declined to answer. The second source of preoccupation is the Bergen weather, for which only a four letter word is appropriate—rain. The local joke is of a tourist who has been in town a week, and asks a youngster in the street if it ever stops raining.

“I don’t know,” the boy protests, “I’m only ten years old.”

The only greater challenge, but in this case, to the visitor and native alike, is the price of alcohol. A Norwegian friend told me he was once with a French colleague in a restaurant. The Frenchman, amazed at the price of wine, demanded to see the chef. Now in France, a restaurant chef is more powerful than the president, particularly if he delivers a top-notch Hollandaise sauce. The hapless Norwegian chef was berated by his French patron, as he feebly explained he didn’t set wine prices, the government did. In fact, the government owns the wine, which is almost Orwellian.

Apparently, the fact that the cost of an average wine bottle exceeds the Portuguese GDP has Christian roots. Now, I come from a country where even budgerigars are Catholic, so that’s an unlikely story. And with the oil revenue in Norway, and a per capita GDP of about one hundred grand, double the US and triple the EU, it’s not as if they need the money—I was told some years back in the Western Cape that Norway uses its aid program (NORAD, not to be confused with US NORAD, which has a rather different brief)  to avoid an inflationary cash surplus at home.

I think the motivation is to stop people drinking to excess, since the Norwegians are partial to a wee dram. A sliding scale might work, where four people in a restaurant would buy the first bottle at a reasonable price, the second at a premium, the third and following at  prices guaranteed to cause apoplexy in any person of the French persuasion.

The interpretation center at Charlie Hammond, circa latitude sixty. The sudden breaks in the rain provide bolts of sunshine, and brilliant colours. Such microbursts qualify as summer in Tromsø, and a few years ago the local mayor was apparently in the toilet and missed the summer.

Various boating enquiries were made, and drew blank stares and stern shakes of the head. When I said Charlie Hammond their faces lit up, bless ’em, and off we went again. The place is a couple of hours north of Bergen, and recently made the headlines when a local salmon magnate purchased a statue of Kong (aka King) Olav that had been commissioned for Olso.

The monument had been awarded to a sculptor after a contest, models were made, and an eight year period (presumably of much chipping at bits of rock) ensued. Regular visits by the awarding panel confirmed the great work was on track. Sadly, when the time came, Oslo rejected the work—on the QT, word is the queen disliked it—and it ended up perched on a hill overlooking Charlie Hammond. You be the judge (any difficulties with the language, just let me know).

A German chap we showed the picture to blanched when he saw the upraised right hand and said gravely “zis vould never be permitted in Germany.”

Charlie is one of the centers of the Norwegian salmon industry, now topping one million tonnes in annual production. The fjords are deep and still, and each cage holds two hundred thousand fish. These guys weigh eleven pounds by the time they’re slaughtered, which at current market prices means each cage holds about four million dollars. Wages in Norway are extremely high (so they can almost afford wine) and automation is the key to success.

Feed is delivered through a barge, itself automatically re-stocked. The silo hatches are remotely operated by the bulk carrier, which holds position through pinpoint satellite data, and can deliver in any weather, day or night. Pretty important, because the fish get through five tons of feed every day.

Everything you wanted to know about sex. Prior to ejaculation, Woody (pun intended) and the rest of the team contemplate their fate. Every sperm is a virgin.

The processing plant I visited packs only whole fish—the filleting, smoking, and other downstream operations are carried out in cheaper climes. The Norwegians take the whole thing very seriously, from hatcheries to environmental effects to biosecurity. I was blown away. Speaking of which, prior to visiting the slaughterhouse (which did have a little bit of ketchup here and there) six of us had to dress in white hurdy gurdy jumpsuits, clogs, and hairnets. I could share the picture but I’d have to kill you afterwards. I did have a deja vu of those sperms in the Woody Allen movie.

The whole production system is amazing, with this particular plant processing eighty to one hundred twenty tons—that’s twenty thousand fish a day. I bet when those gals get off work they enjoy a bit of vegetable soup.

I took a clam farmer from the Algarve along on the ride. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and it helped him understand how high end operations integrate vertically and make gazillions of kroner and buy wine.

He brought the warm Algarve sunshine with him yesterday as we flew out of Bergen. His face glued to the window, he drank in the stunning view of the fjords, the glaciers, and the snow, glittering amid shades of green on the first day of autumn. Like me, he’ll never forget Charlie Hammond.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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