Twenty-four hours after departing a chaotic and densely populated London Heathrow, I touch down in Greenland on what appears to be the only patch of land that isn't blanketed in white for as far as the eye can see. The reason I've come to this predominantly uninhabited and perilously cold country is to learn as much as possible about its mysterious and unique food culture.
With worldwide interest in Scandinavian food at an all-time high, Greenland and its eating habits remain largely enigmatic to the rest of the world. Over the next eight days my plan is to eat as much traditional food as I can manage and spend the rest of the time meeting and speaking with locals, chefs, fishermen and anyone else related to the food industry in an attempt to gain a better understanding of what it is that typifies Greenlandic cuisine.
The walk from the plane to the terminal at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland's largest commercial airport, is only a short distance, but there is a small problem, today's temperature is a treacherous -45. Even though I'm totally encapsulated beneath five thick layers of thermal clothing, I barley make it inside the building without freezing. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced, my eyelids are beginning to freeze shut within seconds and every hair in my nose is the same. The air is so cold it's painful to breathe and I find myself choking with each intake of the bitter arctic air. It's a struggle to comprehend how anyone could or would want to live in these conditions.
Despite its modest size and population, 550 to be precise, Kangerlussuaq appears to have plenty going on both inside and outside of the airport and I'm not waiting long after landing before my first encounter with Greenlandic food. Following a short but terrifying shuttle trip from the airport along some narrow and heavily frozen roads I find myself at Roklubben, a converted, rustic and simply decorated rowing cabin on the edge of Lake Ferguson. Here the specialties are fresh, seasonal Greenlandic produce and locally brewed beer. I take my seat at one of the long and narrow banquet-style tables and begin to relax only to be reminded that my connecting flight leaves in just over an hour. Still this is more than enough time to acquaint myself with some of the local fare. Shortly after being seated, Kim Ernst, the chef-proprietor appears from the kitchen to welcome us and introduce the first course. He brings out with him a beautiful platter of home-smoked halibut and salmon, Greenlandic prawns, whale carpaccio, nattak (endlessly chewy whale blubber) and dried reindeer salami.
It's an overwhelming introduction to the cuisine; my senses have never experienced so many new and exciting flavours and textures in such quick succession. The halibut is sweet, smooth and more intensely smoked than anything I've tasted before and the reindeer salami practically dissolves on your tongue like a wafer-thin slice of Iberico ham. Nattak, I'm reassured is a national favourite, Greenlanders appear to have an affiliation to it much like the Americans do with beef jerky, but I'm not entirely convinced. It has the texture of rubber and an intense almost rancid fish flavour.
Before I catch my breath, I swiftly presented with a generous fillet of perfectly roasted and locally hunted musk ox accompanied by beer-soaked potatoes from the most southerly tip of Greenland. The bitter arctic climate means that vegetation only grows in the south and even there very little manages to survive. I enquire about the musk ox and am told that despite it's name it is a relative of the goat, but the texture and flavour are closer akin to beef, albeit with a gamier taste, apparently it's also the most popular meat in the country.
Unfortunately there is no time for dessert, we've just had a call from the airport and apparently the plane is preparing to leave; if we miss it, the next flight isn't until tomorrow afternoon. We say our goodbyes and are herded back onto the mini bus. On the short return leg, the driver points out a small collection of wild musk ox standing motionless in the distance doing what they apparently do best, imitating large rocks. A bit closer a small herd of reindeer are grazing peacefully in the snow, it's a fitting end to a unique and exciting morning. I've only been here a short amount of time but already I get the distinct impression that the relationship between food and land is different here. Restaurants like NOMA have rejuvenated worldwide interest in the art of foraging but here it has never left. It's a necessity along with hunting and it's humbling to witness the way in which the raw wilderness, climate and food are all so closely interlinked.
Our next stop is Ilulissat, the third largest "city" in Greenland and home to the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere, I just hope we don't miss the plane.
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