Drop of Gold

“When we see the boats coming in, we start itching to get started,” says Anna Sigríður Jörundsdóttir. She indicates a boat sailing into the harbor, contrasting the blue waves and snowy landscape. True Westfjords’ cod liver oil plant in the 950-person community of Bolungarvík has a splendid view of the local harbor and mountain Óshyrna. “It’s the oldest fishing port in the country,” states Sigrún Sigurðardóttir, who runs True Westfjords with Anna and Birgitta Baldursdóttir. 

Rooted in Tradition

True Westfjords’ extra virgin cod liver oil, branded Dropi, is extracted from the liver with a modernized version of an ancient method, avoiding high temperatures to preserve the natural fatty acids, including Omega 3, and Vitamins A and D. “Farmers—who were also fishermen—used to put the liver in a box or a hole outside their house. Gradually it began breaking down and releasing its oil,” explains Birgitta. “My father-in-law, who was born in 1930 and lived on the other side of Ísafjarðardjúp, remembers how his grandfather used to scoop up fish liver oil and bottle it. Out at sea, the fishermen used to drink one or two cups of the oil … which they believed made them resistant to the cold, prevented them from falling ill and gave them incredible strength.” 

The tradition of consuming fish liver oil for its health benefits remains strong in Iceland; health authorities recommend it to counteract Vitamin D shortage—from which people in the far north often suffer—and the fatty acids help lower cholesterol and alleviate symptoms of arthritis. Today, fish liver oil is usually produced by melting the liver at a high temperature. In the process, some of the natural nutrients are lost, including the vitamins, which are added at a later stage. Birgitta, Anna and Sigrún concluded that it must be better to have the liver gently release the oil to preserve all the natural ingredients and offer it to consumers in a less processed state. 

Fresh and Sustainable

After studying business and learning about the ancient processing method for fish liver oil, the three women founded True Westfjords in 2012. After thorough testing by MATÍS (Icelandic Food and Biotech R&D, a government-owned, independent research company), they came up with a processing method which only involved heating the liver to 42°C (108°F), qualifying the oil as a raw food product. Experimental production at the plant in Bolungarvík followed. “Once the oil turned carrot in color and we panicked,” says Anna. However, it turned out that the unusual color was the result of the cod eating zooplankton, which is a great antioxidant. 

“What’s fascinating is that the oil is never quite the same. It depends on the season and what the cod are eating,” explains Birgitta. The color and taste vary, as does the composition of fatty acids and vitamins. “That’s why, when describing the content, we have to use averages,” elaborates Sigrún. “Sometimes it tastes like shellfish,” states Birgitta. At other times it has an aftertaste of seaweed. For the production, they only buy cod liver from local fishermen, using eco-friendly fishing lines. “There’s competition for the liver but we sense a lot of goodwill from the community,” says Sigrún. True Westfjords holds a certificate for sustainable fisheries. “The fishermen want to sell their liver to us. They like the way we treat it.” 

Image caption: The view from the window of True Westfjords’ plant in mid-February 2015: Bolungarvík harbor and mountain Óshyrna.

Words by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

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