Eating Whales and Horses In Iceland
Bright green valley.
Two summers ago I accompanied my friend James "The Amazing" Randi on a speaking tour of northern Europe. We visited Scandinavia and the Baltics, and enjoyed a quick southerly jaunt to the Netherlands. Our final engagement was in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the middle of the Atlantic.
Reykjavik is a modest city, a little more populous than Fort Lauderdale. (Iceland is the size of Kentucky with roughly one tenth the population.) Its architecture is lovely but spare -- far sparer than that of any mainland European capitol. Iceland needn't rely on manmade monuments to impress, for the Icelandic landmass itself is more dramatic than anything made by human hands, and it monumentalizes concerns far grander and less temporal than our own. On the drive from the Keflavik airport to Reykjavik, you encounter a shallow but endlessly long ravine which is actually the point of departure for the Mid-Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates, which move apart at a rate of about a meter per year, pulling with them the two halves of the ocean as well as the continents of Europe and North America. Nearby, you find vast fields of rough volcanic rock, covered in low sulfuric mists ejected from boiling pools just below (and occasionally atop) the soil. Elsewhere, you drive over a ridge and come face-to-face with a bright green valley that seems all out of proportion to the ordinary rules of human sight-lines. Your eyes follow distant rivers for what seem like ten, twenty miles, until the rivers open up into far-distant marshlands and shallows. Never has your eye captured so much territory at a glance, and the astounding quantity of earth arrayed before you is made harder to contextualize because of the near total absence of trees, which would otherwise be a handy indicator of size. The soil of Iceland is too new to facilitate much vegetation, beyond the occasional shrub and the ubiquitous coating of pillowy moss.
Paradoxically, the land's newness creates the impression of incredible
age. Here and there along the coast, you may observe grassy rock islands
just offshore that stand at ludicrous angles to both the mainland and
the sea. I remember standing on a seaside cliff and appraising such an
island, and realizing that I was standing on a small crack in the earth.
I cast my gaze left, and saw the crack gradually widen until it became a
chasm, and I realized that the crack I was standing upon represented a
gradual sloughing-off of the land into the sea; the whole shoreline
before me had once been such a crack. A few hundred feet from where I
stood, the land on the far side of the chasm became a massive
rubble-heap, and beyond that another sheet of sloughed-off rock became a
fantastically steep hillside that terminated in a sudden, sheer drop to
the ocean. It stood several hundred feet tall at something like an
85-degree angle, looking remarkably like the Titanic sticking straight
up out of the water in the seconds before she broke in two. That's
more-or-less what's happening to the Icelandic shore. Rock is strong
stuff, but it loses all arguments with gravity. The Appalachians are
less pointy than the the Rockies because they're older, and the
comparably infant geology of Iceland makes the Rockies look tame. It's
the earth in violent revolt. Yet the violence moves millions of times
too slowly to be apprehended by the human eye, and its stillness is a
shocking testament to the hugeness of geologic time.
night in Reykjavik, some friendly local contacts brought Randi and I to a
fine dining establishment called Einar Ben. Einar Ben serves a uniquely
Icelandic kind of haute cuisine -- the sturdy foods of windswept salty
places; celeriac, raddish, crushed potato, and strange meats. Maybe
because of the country's intoxicating beauty, or maybe because of the
kindness of the locals or the assurances of the chef, or maybe because
I'm a miserable excuse for a human being, I decided to eat the two most
un-American things on the menu. I ate horse. And I ate whale.
whale was the appetizer. It was minke whale, served carpaccio style
with I-can't-remember-what-style greens. It was deep red and lightly
marinated, and I knew from the first bite that it was the best meat I'd
ever eaten. Imagine the flavor of the freshest grass-fed beef, highly
concentrated, almost pungent, inhabiting a hunk of meat possessing
roughly the consistency and texture of toro. That's minke.
whales are stupid," explained one of my hosts. "We only hunt them
around the island. A few hundred kills per year. And if you were a smart
mammal -- and I trust you are -- and if you found that you were hunted
and killed in one area but not in another, you would ignore that place."
I found this argument convincing, all the moreso because I was
sitting in a beautiful dining room with a glistening plate of the stuff
in front of me. I meant to pace myself, but couldn't. Whale was too
delicious. As I stuffed my face, I had the crazy thought: "It doesn't taste smart." Probably, neither do I.
the record: Minke is the second-smallest species of baleen whale. The
minke are not endangered. They inhabit all of the world's oceans, and
comprise a global population of several hundred thousand. Icelandic
whalers claim the minke must be hunted because they deplete the local
cod populations. This is probably a lie.
There is one Icelandic
whaling company which ignores minke, and hunts instead the larger, rarer
finback whale, primarily for export to Japan. The finbacks are
endangered. In 2009, Icelandic whalers killed 125.
I was a
little sad and a little relieved when the minke was gone. The horse
wasn't as interesting. After the gustatory transport of the whale,
nothing could be. The particular dish was "tenderloin of foal," and it
arrived pre-cut, with charred bitter greens and herbs of
I-don't-know-what provenance. It would have been excellent with apples
or cinnamon. It tasted like gamier pork.
After Randi's engagement
the following night, we set off to find midnight eats. Even in June,
when the sky never darkens, Reykjavik shuts down early. After half a
dozen inquiries with restaurants in the process of closing, we found
what was allegedly a Mexican restaurant that stayed open 'til 2 a.m.
They served enormous margaritas, and extraordinary spicy seafood soup.
The menu offered minke burritos. We ordered chicken flautas.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.