Whale, shark and puffin, on or off the menu?

Whale jerky, dried raw Greenland shark, and Puffin were all available as dinner and snacks in Iceland

The Game meat of the day at our Hotel in Illulisaat, Greenland was Fin Whale (which is classified endangered, Level 3 by the IUCN), the local supermarket in Reykjavik had unidentified Whale Jerky for sale next to the Mentos mints at the counter, and the Greenland shark museum dried putrid shark for a few months in a tin roofed shack out the back, giving out samples to the brave. Welcome to the tastes of the northern arctic licking countries. Born out of necessity and steeped in culture, the varieties of meats and cetaceans up for sale was quite impressive and not for the faint or green hearted.

A couple of experiences on this bizarre and remote food trail are worth noting. The first was my trip to the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum, Iceland which just so happened to be with world expert in Greenland sharks, Jeffrey Gallant. His favourite animal in the world is the shark, which is preserved for eating in the traditional Icelandic way at the Bjarnarhofn family farm. So, it was fitting and insightful to visit this museum located in the middle of a lava field, on the coast, under a giant mountain with the man who has dedicated his life’s work to researching and protecting these incredible animals of the deep. 

Visiting the drying shed at Bjarnarhofn, shadows of shark meat can be seen hung below the shed roof

Iceland has a strong history with the Greenland shark. Originally much of their trade with the outside world came from exporting Greenland shark liver oil (for lamps and lighting and other fancy oily things). At somepoint around then, someone stumbled across some putrid shark rotting in the sand and managed to, perhaps out of desperation, try the manky meat and decide after a few bouts of stomach pain that it was worth adding to porridge and all other meals as a tasty addition, soon to be tradition.

I admire those foremothers and fathers who experimented with such things (who first found blue cheese? “I know, we’ll add some wire and some fungi to make it taste better!” he exclaimed, in French). Who uncovered the rotting Greenland Shark flesh on a sandy beach and decided that after a few months you can eat it? Good question. The shark was a hit. Over eaten, over hunted for oil and then almost disappearing, now it is a delicacy. The museum we visited gets up to 60 sharks per year from bycatch of a fishery from Nuuk, Greenland. This means that the fishery is not intending to catch the sharks and if they do, they are not going to waste, as there is the small delicacy market.  That made us feel a bit better about the whole thing. The shark is cut up on cold winter days into fleshy watery squares, then nailed to the wood in the shed and hung for about 3 months until a hard casing forms around the outside. Once these slabs are cut up, the texture of hákarl is rubbery and soft, a little like silken tofu.

Slabs of shark meat drying in the shed

Our host at the musuem shared his observations on the segment of society that’s visited his family farm and museum, noting that in the past few years awareness about shark conservation has increased. Ten years ago, he said, people would ask if sharks are whales. Nowadays they want to know if they are sustainably fished or harvested. This is promising, but a little too late for most of the sharks who are finned and culled recklessly around the world.

Typical Þjóðhátið festival get up; puffins nest in the hills behind

The second cultural experience I had was a festival in the westman islands, Þjóðhátið. The Vestmannaeyja is also home to 10 million puffins roosting a summer. That weekend it felt like it was home to 10 million teenagers nesting per summer.  Puffin meat is an Icelandic delicacy but the little bird was off the menu in the stalls at Þjóðhátið this year, due to overhunting and fierce competition between rabbits and puffins in the grasslands, the former out competing the later. Poor lil puffins. They are a year or so into a hunting ban, and like the carabou in Labrador, it is starting to be missed by locals (although here it did not seem to be such a staple of the diet and food was clearly available as a substitute for the lacking puffin meat). The ceasefire seemed appropriate at the festival that usually sells the roasted bird, given that the puffins were nesting in the hills overlooking the stage. I wondered whether the remaining puffins would survive the explosions of the incredible fireworks displays and the anctics of the drunken youth of the island. I certainly saw more drunk teens dressed in woollen Icelandic knit wear sweaters under orange fishermen’s pants, roaming the puffin clad hills than I saw rabbits.

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