Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Dining at Hotel Icefiord - Ilulissat, Greenland

Greenland is a wonderful place for culinary discovery and adventure. It has a very harsh environment with short summers and not much of a growing season. What food can't be obtained locally must be shipped in. Fresh fruit and vegetables are a delicacy and preserved food, including pickled vegetables, is the norm. The mammalian food they have available to them is unusual: whale and seal, available out the front door; and muskox and caribou, primarily from northeastern Greenland, but now with large herds south of Ilulissat outside of Kangerlussuaq. Greenland is one of only three countries in the world that still harvests whales (Iceland and Japan are the other two). Whale and seal hunting have been part of the Greenland way of life since people have inhabited the island. I was as excited to try the unusual food as I was to see the lonely landscapes and icebergs. 

Ilulissat is the third largest town in Greenland with about 5,000 inhabitants and 20,000 tourists a year. It is situated next to the Ilulissat Icefjord, a World Heritage Site, that empties into Disko Bay. The Hotel Icefiord is built on rocks at the edge of Disko Bay and our humble hotel room had a kingly view. 
Looking to the north into town. Hotel Icefiord is near the southern edge of town. 
Looking out our window at Disko Bay. 
About 2:00 a.m. from our window as the sun goes down (although it never went completely down). I posted this photo (and the next one) on Facebook and Judy commented that they are much darker than what we experienced. The original photo is not much lighter than this, it did seem to get darker for a bit as the sun hit this position in the sky. 
The sky then turned more of a diffuse orange. 
We arrived early afternoon and lunch consisted of four varieties of smoked meat presented to each of us on a wood tray. 
The dining room of the Hotel Icefiord. Note the seal skins on the wall. There was a polar bear rug on another wall. 
Platter of smoked meats. 
I was particularly excited to learn that two of the meats were muskox and fin whale. All of the meat is smoked at the hotel in a smoker located out-front. The tray also included dollops of mayonnaise which was mild, pieces of pickled onion and carrot, and pieces of hazelnut which completely and amazingly changed the taste of the smoked meat. 

Smoked halibut was one of the meats. Halibut, shrimp and tourism are the main money generators in Ilulissat. The halibut is caught from small boats fishing near the iceberg bank of the Ilulissat Fjord using long-lines. In winter, the locals also go by dogsledge out onto the ice of the Icefjord and fish for halibut with long-lines from the ice. 
Smoked halibut.
I don't like halibut because it has virtually no taste. A few years ago, after one of my partners was raving about halibut fish and chips he'd eaten in Alaska, I tried some halibut fish and chips and was sorely disappointed. Halibut breaded and fried is as bland and tasteless as halibut baked or pan-fried. I might add that two of my partners claimed that the halibut they tasted in Ilulissat was the best halibut they'd ever eaten. That said, I did like the smoked halibut. The smoking interjected some texture and taste to the fish: it was still soft and pliable, but more firm and a bit savory. 

Smoked cod was the second of two smoked fish meats. Greenland cod is a bottom fish that inhabits depths of up to 218 yards. The flesh is white and flaky but firmer and tougher than Atlantic cod. I only ever eat cod in fish and chips, which I love. The flesh of the smoked cod was a tad bit more mushy, but it was more flavorful than the halibut.  
Smoked cod
Smoked muskox was one of two mammalian meats. Muskox were originally found in northeastern Greenland, but in the 1960s 27 were taken from northeastern Greenland and transplanted to the area near Kangerlussuaq, about 153 miles south of Ilulissat. The muskox took to the less harsh environment and the numbers expanded greatly. There are an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 muskox near Kangerlussuaq today. 
Range of the muskox from Wikipedia. Red is the original range and blue is where the muskox has been introduced. The blue area about one-third of the way up West Greenland is Kangerlussuaq. 
Smoked muskox.
The smoked muskox was quite tasty. It was very similar to beef, retained some of its moisture, and was not gamy at all. It was the best of the four smoked meats. 

Smoked fin whale was the second mammalian meat. Fin whales are the second largest species on earth, only surpassed by the blue whale. The International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on the commercial hunting of this whale, but allows hunting by Greenlanders under an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling provision. The Inuit, that are 90% of the inhabitants of West Greenland, are allowed to kill 19 fin whales a year. 
Smoked fin whale
The fin whale pieces were thicker and larger than the musk ox pieces. The taste was just slightly fishy, but nothing as strong as seal or otter that I've tasted before. When we first arrived in Ilulissat a pilot from Denmark, that we got to know later when he took us on two private flights over the area, suggested that we try a fin whale steak at the Hotel Icefiord. He said it was as good as beef. I asked about the steak at the hotel and was told the menu had changed just the day before. I did notice that a beef ribeye steak on the menu at the Hotel Arctic was much more expensive than the local options. 

We had dinner at the Hotel Icefiord and we each got grilled muskox steak with pureed turnip, parsnips and crowberries in a sauce. I thought this was perhaps the best overall dish we had in Greenland, considering both the taste and the presentation. The muskox was cooked through (Greenlanders don't know the concept of rare or medium rare), but was surprisingly moist and savory, with just a titch of a gamy taste. The crowberry sauce was somewhat tart and blended perfectly with the meat. Crowberries are black and picked locally off small heather-like bushes. They contain tannins which make the taste unpleasant (slightly acidic and bitter), so they are cooked which makes them a little sweeter and less acidic. Parsnips and turnips are perfect vegetables for Greenland, hardy and long lasting. I'm not sure I've had pureed turnip before, but it was lick-the-spoon good. Several people in our group hardly touched the muskox because of the gamy taste, but the gaminess was not nearly as strong as most venison or antelope I've eaten.
Grilled muskox
Breakfast the next morning was a buffet that included some smoked meats. The halibut has been described above and the caribou (or reindeer) was rather stiff, more along the lines of jerky. Caribou is found in the Kangerlussuaq area and a 2000 survey I found estimated about 51,500 caribou (plus or minus 11,000) in that area. I managed to eat the pieces I'd selected, but certainly had no interest in any more.  
Smoked halibut and caribou (below). 

1 comment:

  1. I thought the food at the hotel was wonderful. If I had been served tuna or beef, I would have felt cheated. If tourism grows in Greenland, I hope they can still retain this local diet.