As our small propeller-powered plane begins its descent into Ilulissat I'm glued to the small porthole-shaped window mesmerised by the breathtaking views. Once we break through the stationary clouds and snow-capped mountains, the sea reveals itself for the first time. Frozen, motionless like a snapshot in time, the first signs of cracks are beginning to appear across its glistening surface. Trapped within it is a mass congregation of icebergs waiting for the waters to melt so they can continue on with their journeys.
An ariel view of the descent into Ilulissat - (Pictures by Andre Schoenherr and Conor Mills)
With a population of 4,500, Ilulissat is the third largest town in Greenland; it is also home to the northern hemispheres most active glacier and is believed by scientists to be the birthplace of the iceberg responsible for sinking the Titanic. The plan is to stay in and around Ilulissat for the next three days. While I'm here my base will be Hotel Arctic, the Arctic Circle's only 4-star hotel.
It is also home to Restaurant Ulo, one of Greenland's most prestigious restaurants. Born in Denmark, head-chef Jeppe Ejvind Nielsen has been living and working in Greenland since 2001 and over the past decade has established himself as the country's leading chef. His modern style of cooking combined with his dedication to Greenlandic produce has earned him huge acclaim throughout both Greenland and the wider Nordic region.
As I make my way down to the restaurant for dinner, it's hard not to stop and stare in wonderment at the view outside. Hotel Arctic sits on top of a small hill on the periphery of Ilulissat and offers unrivalled panoramas across the small town and the frozen seascape. As the sun disappears slowly behind the icebergs obstructing the horizon, I wonder to myself if the northern lights might make a guest appearance at some point tonight.
The first course is poached stingray, fished locally and served with wasabi nuts. It is clear from the meticulous attention to detail and presentation on the plate that Nielsen has a huge respect for his ingredients. The stingray is one of the freshest, purest pieces of fish I've ever eaten; it is meaty, delicate and full of flavour.
A meal at Restaurant Ulo - (Pictures by David Trood, Andre Schoenherr and Conor Mills)
For the main course I'm presented with a fillet of lightly smoked musk ox which has been poached and then quickly pan-fried, accompanied by a selection of musk ox infused sauces, Greenlandic herbs and root vegetables from the south of the island. The slow-cooked meat practically falls apart on the plate and is full of smoky, gamey flavours, while the array of sauces each adds an extra layer of depth and flavour to an already exceptional piece of meat.
We finish with Danish pears poached in red wine, topped with another Greenlandic herb, angelica. It has a strong earthy flavour and I'm told it is one of the most abundantly used herbs in Greenlandic cuisine. It is another perfectly judged dish and completes a spectacular meal. Each course is pure simplicity, there are no unnecessary ingredients, but what is most impressive is that each unique flavour, taste and texture stands out so clearly.
After the meal I speak to Jeppe about his cooking and ask him what it is that he thinks makes Greenlandic food unique. "In Greenland, there is no such thing as farming" he tells me, "everything is wild, it's all game. What makes Greenlandic food so special is the ingredients, not the recipes."
"My theory" he goes on, "is that the Inuit people of Greenland were too busy hunting and catching food to have time to experiment with recipes. Food was often eaten raw and frozen due to the conditions, the last thing on peoples minds were coming up with complex recipes."
Whether Jeppe's thoughts are true or not, to me it all makes perfect sense. Simplicity is not a choice here; it's a necessity, which would explain why Greenlanders perform it so competently.
I'm stopped short on the walk back to my room as I glance out of the window only to see the sky illuminated by the green luminosity of the northern lights, it's even more spectacular than I had imagined. A passing member of staff informs me that the Inuit Greenlanders believe it is the spirits of the dead playing football with the head of a walrus. It's an abstract image but I can't help thinking again how much the simplicity of it all somehow reiterates the innocence and honesty present in the cuisine and all aspects of life I've experienced so far.
The spirits of the dead playing football with the head of a walrus - (Picture by Andre Schoenherr)
Tomorrow night we're having a home-cooked meal with Inunnguaq Hegelund, an Ilulissat local and one of Greenland's youngest and most exciting new chefs. At only 26 he has already been named the nations top chef for the past two years and has since retired from the competition in order to give someone else a chance. He sounds like just the sort of person this country needs to help grow its reputation. I'm already looking forward to trying his food and hearing about his take on what the future holds for Greenlandic cuisine.
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