In Norway, children cut cod tongues out for serious money |  Arts & Culture

In Norway, children cut cod tongues out for serious money | Arts & Culture

Take a winter visit to Norway’s remote Lofoten Islands north of the Arctic Circle, and it’s impossible to miss the rows of headless fish carcasses hanging from wooden racks to dry. Follow the winding two-lane road from village to village and you will come to the quay at H. Sverdrup AS fish factory in a town called Reine. When I visited, a group of children with sharp knives and bloody smocks stood squeezed together to get warm. The school had just finished, and they were waiting for more cod heads to arrive.

The children are known as the tongue cutters, or tongue cutters. It was in early March 2020, in the middle of the fishing season, that Arctic cod known as cod migrate to the Norwegian coast to spawn. Cod tongue, tender and jelly-like, is a local delicacy. “The best meat of the fish,” said Jakob Arctander, a local fish exporter. “It has the consistency of filet mignon.”

The job gets it to sell scout cakes or run a lemonade stand to look like a children’s toy.


The fishing town of Reine on the Lofoten Islands. The archipelago was inhabited around the tenth century by Vikings, who were drawn by a large amount of cod.

Mark Katzman


Guilbert Gates

For as long as anyone can remember, the tongue cutters have been in charge of the local cod tongue trade, although the fish factories are giving up the money they would otherwise get from the tongues by donating the fish heads to children and teenagers. Tradition introduces young people to the fishing industry, and teaching them the value of entrepreneurship and hard work seems to mean more than earning an extra penny or two. “Fishing is the most important thing we have here,” said Arctander, who sometimes let his 6-year-old son stay up until midnight and cut his tongue. “Fishing will always be our main source of employment.”

The job gets it to sell scout cakes or run a lemonade stand to look like a children’s toy. Arctander knows the tongue-twisters who have earned more than $ 11,000 in a single season. “I have not thought of anything else in the world where children can make so much money,” he said.

Seagulls swarmed over their heads as a small fishing boat approached the quay. The draft was brought into the factory, and the sound of scraping metal signaled that the workers had fed the fish into a processor to cut off the heads. The corpses would be salted, frozen or dried as stockfish – unsalted fish that have been hung for months in the open to dry – and then exported for food. The heads were collected in large bins, to be moved outside for the children.

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A fisherman in Ballstad. Every winter, fish factories in Lofoten donate cod heads to local children, who remove and sell the tongues – a delicacy.

Mark Katzman


ONE hjell, or wooden A-frame, for stockfish – unsalted cod hung to dry outdoors for several months. The conservation method was developed by Vikings.

Christopher Wilson

Benedicte Trones

Benedicte Trones entered the special tongue-in-cheek workforce at the age of 12. The repeated labor pains hurt her arm at first, but she got used to it.

Christopher Wilson

August Johansen

10-year-old August Johansen has been cutting cod tongues for four years. He likes to spend his earnings on chocolate.

Christopher Wilson

The fact that children as young as 6 go straight from school to the harbor, where they spend hours in the stunning cold covered with fish entrails, with sharp knives in hand, can seem bizarre from today’s developed economies and increasingly virtual workplaces. But the rare nature of this work, proudly performed by children who feel a connection to tradition, is part of what makes the practice so fascinating. The task itself is to prick the head of a giant metal tip and then cut out the tongue. The heads were thrown in a trash can to be strapped up and dried for export to Nigeria, where they are a popular ingredient in traditional soups and stews. The tongues piled up on the tip until they reached the top and were then thrown into a bucket. The children’s needlework was so fast that it was hard to see the obvious steps. Heads were grabbed, pointed, sliced, thrown, grabbed, pointed, sliced, thrown until the large trash can was empty and a new batch of cod heads arrived. Despite strong winds and temperatures below freezing, a couple of the older tongue cutters, who work fast, were sweating. Snowdrifts were pink with blood, but they did not seem to mind.

Heads were grabbed, pointed, sliced, thrown, grabbed, pointed, sliced, thrown until the trash was empty.

cod heads

After processing, cod heads are dried for export, primarily to West Africa, where food has been a mainstay since it was introduced in the 1960s.

Mark Katzman

fish head on a tip

A worker places a fish head on a tip so that the tongue is pointed, cuts the tongue over, discards the head. This stack of pierced tongues is being assembled.

Mark Katzman

Hand holding a bucket

“Your clothes will smell great,” said Alexandra Møller, lifting a bucket full of cod tongues. Many children work after school and on weekends.

Mark Katzman

“My parents do not want me to tell anyone how much money I make,” said Alice Bendiksen, 14. “But it’s a lot.” Her two siblings also cut tongues, as did her parents and grandparents. Alice cut tongues almost every day and sometimes stayed at the factory until 6 p.m. 2. Her earnings went to new Apple AirPods, to listen to music while cutting, and a new phone – but she saved most of her money up. Alice and other children use a mobile app called MarineTraffic to see when fishing boats are on their way back to the dock.

“My parents do not want me to tell anyone how much money I make. But it is a lot.”


To the left, Markus Braekken, who cut his tongue once a week, said that one of the hard things about the job was cold hands. He learned the trade from his grandfather. At the top right, at home in Ballstad, Jørgen Botolfsen boasts of his earnings. On a good day, he earned more than $ 25 on cutting tongues; he bought himself a wheelchair. At the bottom right, Lill-Tove Frantzen roasts cod tongues at home in Ballstad. Some children do not enjoy the dish, but many get a taste for it as they get older.

Christopher Wilson; Mark Katzman (2)

Magnus Bendiksen

Magnus Bendiksen hopes to become a fisherman. “They learn by being in the fishing atmosphere,” says Hartvig Sverdrup, fish exporter, about such young people.

Maggie Katzman

At the end of each night, the cutters took their haul home to be washed, weighed, and vacuum-packed or block-frozen. Their customers, oddly enough, tend to be local – generally family, friends and restaurant owners. In the old days, children sold tongues from door to door. Now many use Facebook Marketplace. “The charm of it all is gone,” Steve Nilsen said with a sigh. His son, Martin, was a tongue cutter in the village of Ballstad.


Hjell is common in Lofoten in winter and spring. Stockfish, rarely seen in the United States, are popular in Europe and Africa.

Mark Katzman

Alida Sofie Wahl Hansen

Alida Sofie Wahl Hansen, who comes from a fishing family, cut her tongue during her second session. She planned to use her savings to buy a phone.

Mark Katzman

The most traditional way to cook the delicacy is to poach or fry the meat and serve it with potatoes and raw shaved carrots. But variations have developed: served with, for example, cod roe and celery root, or deep-fried with capers and tarragon. Jørgen Botolfsen, then 10, could not stand the taste of cod tongue, but he earned more than 5 dollars for every 2.2 pounds he sold. His mother, Anniken Marie Geirsdatter, earned enough money as a teenager – $ 32,000 in six years – for her to buy a car, pay for driving lessons and pay a down payment on a home. “I want Jørgen to learn that it’s not easy to make money – it’s hard work,” she said.

Because Jørgen was not old enough to drive to the quay himself, Geirsdatter sat in the car and observed him at work. He did not enjoy the supervision. “Mom,” he said, “you don’t have to see me cut all the time – I’m not a child anymore.”


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