Modern-Day Vikings: Puffin Hunting in the Land of Fire and Ice
Iceland looks and feels like no other place on earth. As our plane touched down just outside Reykjavik, I was almost convinced we’d landed on the moon. Not surprising, given that NASA astronauts trained in Iceland prior to the first moon landing. In much of the country, the barren, rocky topography looks otherworldly. Iceland, which is roughly the size of Ohio, is a glacial, rocky, moss-covered expanse born from volcanic eruptions. Treeless mountains, sweeping fields of arctic grasses waving out to the horizon, awe-inspiring geysers, raging rivers, spectacular ocean vistas, and therapeutic hot springs fueled by underwater volcanoes are stunning but make much of the island uninhabitable. Iceland is called the Land of Fire and Ice, yet despite its staggering natural beauty, the overwhelming majority of the population lives in the capital city of Reykjavik. Everyone else is a farmer or works in either the thermal energy business (booming) or the greenhouse-gardening industry (emerging).
* Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital city and is home to two-thirds of Iceland’s total population of about 320,000 people.
* Iceland’s name implies that the weather is freezing, but that’s not the case. Summer temps rarely hit the sixty-degree mark, but the winters are surprisingly mild--the average temperature in January is 32°F.
* The only native land mammal when humans arrived was the arctic fox, which came to the island at the end of the last ice age, walking over the frozen sea. There are no native reptiles or amphibians on the island.
The country is changing and growing all the time--literally. In 1963, a volcanic explosion just off the southern coast of Iceland created an island that eventually expanded to one square mile in size. This landmass, named Surtsey after Surtur, the Icelandic fire god, grew to this official landmass status in only three and a half years. I was fortunate enough to travel to Surtsey by boat one day. It’s a phenomenal thing to see, an island that is as big as it is, that is as new as it is, and freakishly almost exactly as old as I am.
I knew the food in Iceland would be wonderful. As a chef in New York and Minneapolis, I’d always been floored by the quality of the Icelandic lamb, dairy products, and seafood I’d run across from time to time. Icelandic animals drink the cleanest water on earth, eat the freshest grass, and breathe the purest air. Everything, from the horses to the sheep and cows, is genetically pristine, and the animals are raised not only for their meat but for their milk and cheese products. Skyr, the addictively cheesy yogurt product you see everywhere in Iceland, comes from cows that eat sweet grass for a brief period of time, then silage for most of the year. The cows’ diet produces a unique flavor profile that is distinctly their own.
I spent much of my time in Reykjavik, puttering around town and enjoying the beautiful summer weather. Summer temperatures climb into the forties during the day, maybe the fifties in the sun.
* Because Iceland is so close to the North Pole, the country experiences midnight sun in the summer. In the winter, expect only four to five hours of daylight.
The food scene in Iceland is vibrant. I was looking forward to my first taste of puffin, those cute little black-and-white birds with big orange beaks. Before you get yourself all worked up about me eating this cute ’n’ cuddly creature, consider the fact that only about 320,000 people call Iceland home. The puffin population, on the other hand, runs between 8 and 10 million. Icelanders could eat puffin meat at every meal from now until eternity and they would never make a dent in the region’s population. As a matter of fact, they urge people to eat the birds as a point of civic duty because there are just so many of them.
HEADING TO THE SOURCE
But to eat the best puffins, and to hunt them where they live, you need to head south of Reykjavik. There you’ll find the Vestmannaeyjar Islands, a cluster of smaller islands that make up one of the region’s most famous fishing communities. This area’s other claim to fame is the 1973 volcanic eruption on Heimaey, the largest island in the chain. It’s Iceland’s version of Pompeii, but only a few decades old. Lava flows crushed half the town, and when you see the end results of something that destructive and realize that it happened within your lifetime, it takes your breath away. You see homes buried, and cars half frozen in black, porous rock. Luckily, everyone was able to get off the island in time to save themselves.
Millions of puffins call the Vestmannaeyjar Islands home, and the local restaurateurs take advantage of this ample source of food. The rest of the citizenry are devoted puffin eaters or hunters, or both. Once our six-seat puddle jumper landed on Heimaey, the Bizarre Foods production crew and I tried to negotiate our way over to the far side of Vestmannaeyjar, with its simple harbor, occasional spouting orca, seals, and numerous birds. We ended up running into a guy who claimed he could arrange to have us picked up by boat on the far side of the island and taken to an uninhabited area to experience a puffin hunt firsthand. Without hesitation, we piled into our van and headed over.
It’s a bright, beautiful summer’s day in Iceland, perfect sweatshirt weather. We pass alongside a huge half-moon bay, complete with breathtaking views of the ocean and the outer isles, which include Surtsey. We start unloading our gear onto the mile-long black sand beach at Surtsey. There isn’t a trace of human imprint as far as you can see. Not a jet contrail in the sky, not a footprint in the sand, not a boat at sea . . . it’s just empty and desolate. You know for sure you’re at one of the ends of the earth--a feeling I find so satisfying I could have sat on that beach all day.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World of Food: Brains, Bugs, and Blood Sausage by Andrew Zimmern. Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Zimmern. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.