It is appropriate that I am on a boat in South Greenland when I try my first mouthful of fermented seal blubber, a buttery slice tasting not unpleasantly of the sea with a lingering note of fish oil, followed by a jaw-bustingly lengthy chew of the country’s famous delicacy mattak, a square of scored whale skin, cartilage and fat.
That’s because here in the Arctic, there is only a short distance between tundra and table, or as it is today, the sea and the serving dish: only a window separates me from the clear water, studded with icebergs, where the food was caught. Inunnguaq Hegelund, the award-winning indigenous Greenlandic chef introducing me to these dishes, is known in Greenland for his outstanding work with traditional meats, including polar bear, who are roaming on the rocky shoreline some hundred metres away.
Hegelund is part of a wider revolution happening in the Arctic and subarctic region, where he and a group of leading chefs and food entrepreneurs are reclaiming the indigenous food cultures of the past and developing them to create sustainable local food traditions for the future.
“I strongly believe that you have to know how to treat the food in your own backyard,” Hegelund said, “When I was at culinary school, we took our bible from the French kitchen. We used the traditional French techniques with traditional French meats. When I started as a trainee, we never served local Greenlandic food – we even served fish from Spain! Now things are different.”
The New Arctic Kitchen movement brings together the communities at the top of the world – including Arctic Canada, The Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Åland Islands in Finland – to share and develop their food cultures together. They have plenty in common: a sense of isolation, populations scattered in small coastal settlements and strong hunting traditions, setting them apart from the food cultures of the West.