As a seasoned traveller, I always keep a pretty open mind about food. But on a recent trip to Iceland, I needed to find a particularly non-judgemental space in my head. I’m a Newfoundlander, don’t forget, so I do enjoy a good crispy cod tongue or an occasional sliver of seal meat. But, when I saw our provincial bird, the puffin, offered up on a Reykjavik menu, I’m not going to lie, it did make me squirm.
I really had to work up my palate for puffin so my day of taste-testing Iceland’s cultural dishes started off easy. I took a seat in Cafe Loki staring up at Reykjavik’s most famous church, Hallgrimskirkja. I passed on the eggs with herring and sheep-head jelly and ordered, instead, a bowl of Skyr, a thick, creamy, mild flavoured yogurt. High in protein and low in fat, the skyr kept me going for a long walk along the waterfront to a busy food market.
There was every kind of locally caught fish you’d want: cod, haddock, ling, salmon and it was fresh, frozen or dried. A man behind the seafood counter looked up at me, “Have you tried the shark? You haven’t been to Iceland until you’ve had the shark,” he said.
The shark he was referring to is called, Hakarl, fermented Greenland shark and it’s Iceland’s national dish. Greenland shark is actually poisonous to humans but Vikings developed a preservation technique that made it edible. They buried it in a shallow hole and covered it in rocks to force out the toxic liquid from the flesh. After about 3 months in the hole, it’s taken out and hung for several months.
The man behind the counter offered me a small plastic container filled with the cubes of shark. “It tastes like old cheese,” he said. It smelled like old socks. “How do Icelanders usually eat it,” I asked. “One dice at a time... just a snack.. like candy... like M&Ms,” he said. I let it sit on my tongue a second or two and then chomped down into its rubbery texture. I can report that it did taste like old cheese and absolutely nothing like M&Ms. He looked down at his cooler for other Icelandic offerings. “Have you ever eaten rams' testicles?” he asked. It was time for me to move on.
I walked up to one of the more historic areas of Reykjavik’s downtown. At the corner of Austurstraeti and Posthusstraeti is a beautiful concrete building erected in 1917 that used to house Reykjavik’s old apothecary. Now, Hotel Apotek’s chic in-house restaurant and bar serve up tasty eats and potent drinks that are sure to cure what ails ya.
The seven-course Icelandic Gourmet menu starts off with a good stiff shot of Brennivin, a caraway shnapps made from fermented grain. Also known as “Black Death”, a swig of this local liquor was traditionally used to wash down a few bites of that rotting shark I scoffed down at the market. By the looks of the six food servings, I figured I might need a good bit of liquid courage to get through them all. There was local lamb and fish dishes of trout and perch but there were two I’d never eaten before - minke whale and smoked puffin.
Just to give you some context, I spend a fair bit of time on the Bonavista Peninsula where we do a lot of whale watching. Minke whales are usually the first ones we spy in season. Puffins are out there on the water too, flapping their little wings as fast as they can go. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of both but the thought of how they taste never entered my mind. That is, until I saw them on that menu in Iceland.
I wanted to banish any sense of judgement I might have held and sample foods that I could possibly enjoy. I mean, that’s what I want for visitors who find themselves in our little rugged corner of the world. I want to see them face and eyes into a plate full of cod tongues, or licking sticky molasses off a forkful of touton, or tucking into a nouveau meal of seal by one of our talented local chefs. So if *they* try seal here, shouldn’t *I* try whale there? To be honest, I’m still struggling with that one.
At Apotek, the young food aficionados are chefs Asgeir Logi Olafsson and Carlos Jimenez and they’re profiling traditional Icelandic fare with a modern flair. I was lucky enough to get an interview with them right in their kitchen as they prepared both whale and puffin for me to try.
“The puffin is a seasonal bird. The hunting season is 2-3 months over the summer,” explains Olafsson who grew up in Iceland. “We don’t shoot them, we net them.”
Olafsson tells me the restaurant sources the birds directly from hunters and buys 500 to 1000 a year. The chefs only work with the breast of the tiny seabird which is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. “We cure it lightly and then we smoke it,” said Olafsson. “We serve it with berry gel, some dried rye bread, goat cheese and a little bit of dill oil.”
I couldn’t quite loose the visual of the cute and clumsy, orange beaked puffin as I bit into the dark flesh. It was tender with a bit of a fishy flavour. I managed a “Mmm, lovely” in between chews, not wanting to insult my hosts. The truth is, the fibrous texture threw me off. It was a relief, actually, to know that I wouldn’t be salivating over the sight of puffins at Cape Bonavista come summer.
Now, it was time to try whale.
“So you can see there’s no fat on it or no veins, it’s actually quite lean,” explains Jimenez as he points to a large raw slab of whale meat on the counter. “The texture is very firm and nice, most people think it’s beef. It’s very high in protein and iron, hence the colour.”
The meat did look a lot like beef but the colour was the deepest raspberry red. “The nicest, softest muscles are supposedly around the back of the blowhole,” said Jimenez.
When I heard the word ‘blowhole’, it brought me right back to a day on the water in Newfoundland snapping photos of whales as they breached. Was I now really going to eat one of these majestic creatures?
The chefs prepared the meat by searing it with just a little salt and pepper and served it thinly sliced with carmelized shallots, crispy artichokes and artichoke foam. I raised my fork and knife, landed them on a corner of the slab and sliced off a small morsel. I didn’t want to be stuck with a lengthy gnaw in case it made me gag.
Once in my mouth, I can honestly say it was the tenderest meat I’ve eaten with a delicious flavour as well, a little like moose meat. I asked chef Olafsson how often he would eat whale meat growing up in Iceland. “From time to time, maybe a couple of times a year.” The truth, I was told by locals, is that very few Icelanders eat whale regularly. It’s more often tourists. That left me feeling confused. I asked chef Jimenez how often he has to defend his choice to serve whale meat in his restaurant.
“Obviously we do hear it from time to time but not so much that it bothers us,” he said.
Jimenez spoke about a culinary movement worldwide for chefs to source food that is sustainable. “I would like for people to try to understand a little bit more. What is worse, for us to eat whale that is very difficult to hunt and can feed a lot of people or eating corn from the United States that is imported and can have some toxic things going on… we are not hunting 200 of these animals a year. It’s a sustainable hunt and that’s the best way to describe it.”
It struck me that it’s exactly the way many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, me included, describe the seal hunt. It’s sustainable. It is lean, nutrient rich protein that is available to us on our doorstep. So why is Newfoundland and Labrador so demonized while Iceland and other countries seem to be relatively untouched by the attacks from animal rights organizations? It’s a question that often occurs to me when I peruse menus in foreign places. I’ve sampled kangaroo in Australia and seen dog dishes in South Korea. They gobble up grilled guinea pigs in Ecuador and no one seems to care.
Of course, sustainability is the key. I’ll admit, I feel guilty about eating puffin in Iceland. I’ve since learned the population is vulnerable. Iceland is now limiting the number of birds hunters are allowed to net to protect them. As for seals, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, the population is quite healthy at some 7.5 million animals. I always remember an interview I did with Eldred Woodford of the Canadian Sealers Association. “Until the entire world agrees that we’re all going to stop eating animals, how can you judge some cultures and not others?” he asked. Personally, I’m willing to explore the idea of vegetarianism but globally, I think it’s completely unrealistic.
And so, as Woodford suggests, I’ll hold off on any judgement of Icelanders for eating whale and I hope others find a way to respect Newfoundland and Labrador's sustainable food choices and culture too. The world’s population is estimated to reach 9.1 billion by 2050 and population growth is faster than the global increase in food production. Those who might turn their noses up in disgust at the thought of eating seal meat now, might soon be willing, or even forced, to dig in.
Until next time,