Photo by Nathan Myhrvold

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Photo by Nathan Myhrvold

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Iceland Rocks

If you fly to Europe from Seattle, the great circle route takes you over both Greenland and Iceland. Every time I’ve done this I swore to visit their barren and beautiful landscapes. I finally did.

Geologically speaking, Iceland is a volcanic island created by a “hotspot” — an arctic Hawaii with a couple twists.

A hotspot, also known as a mantle plume, is a place where molten rock in the earth’s mantle comes welling up to the surface in a narrow jet, melting through the plates or continents.

In the case of Iceland the hotspot is centered on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — the spreading center where the North American plate and European plate move apart from each other. Year by year, Iceland gets 2 centimeters bigger as the plates move away from each other.

Hotspots produce basaltic lava, which tends to bubble from the ground producing “shield” volcanoes with relatively shallow conical sides. Like Hawaii, Iceland has shield volcanoes — in fact it has the shield volcano, Skjalbreiður (the name means broad shield). Until this trip I didn’t realize that the “shield” name was given by the Vikings!

In addition to erosion, glaciers affected Icelandic volcanoes in another way — most of Iceland was created by volcanoes that erupted underneath a glacier, which totally alters the shape. It also leads to unusual erosion patterns because the heat of the eruption melts an enormous amount of water, releasing floods and rapid glacier movement.

The place has the general feel of the frontier — an enthusiastic attitude toward the environment that one finds in places like Alaska, Wyoming, and Northern Canada.

I had an excellent guide on this trip, Kjartan, an electrical engineer who moonlighted as an all-around adventurer.

Kjartan wasn’t a birder so much as he was a hunter. When we would see a particularly dense bird colony he would mutter, “where is my gun?” Kjartan put all wild animals into two categories: “They’re delicious,” or “Don’t taste good.” And to him, just about everything tastes good.

A common American view is that Europe is populated by rabid, Green party environmentalists. I’m here to tell you that Iceland isn’t. Indeed Kjartan, along with most Icelanders, would categorize Greenpeace as very much worth shooting (but not delicious).

Which brings us to Icelandic cuisine — boy do these people eat some strange things!

I’m definitely a meat eater, but even if I’m OK with an animal dying for my dinner, it is quite another thing to accept whaling. To me it has always seemed inhumane and cruel — a barbaric throwback to another age.

Yet there it was on menus. … This is a bit like the dilemma faced by voters in the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign. Each individual vote matters very little … [people] could skip voting, or even vote for the other side without it really mattering. … The paradox is that if everybody had this opt-out point of view, nobody would vote and democracy wouldn’t work.

How is that like ordering whale? Well, if I didn’t order it that one serving would go unsold. That would undermine the restaurant’s desire to order whale in the future — and my refusal would be one tiny economic vote against whaling.

On the other hand … My one incremental dinner entrée would not make any more difference than my one vote. A vote against whaling in Iceland would be a blue vote in an overwhelmingly red state.

Confounding this rational analysis is an additional fact: whaling is really about pride, not economics. There has been little if any economic reason to hunt whales for many years. Nations that still hunt whales in the 21st century do so for two reasons. First, they have a tradition of whaling that resonates culturally. Second, they have a contrarian streak: they don’t want the rest of the world to tell them what to do.

Iceland has had a tempestuous relationship with whaling for the last decade. … Some in Iceland want to continue whaling. Others think this is crazy because it endangers tourism and other Icelandic products.

Indeed, Iceland has become a top tourist destination for whale watching! The irony is quite strong because in Reykjavik harbor, the whale watching boats use the same dock as the whaling boats. On the right side of the dock were the whale watching boats with big signs. On the left were four rather sinister-looking black boats. If Kjartan had not pointed them out, I wouldn’t have known — that was the (entire!) Icelandic whaling fleet.

In the end I figured that my one vote — to order the whale or not — would not tip the balance, so I ordered it. I am a bit ashamed to say that it is delicious. Not so delicious that I have become a convert to the cause, however.

That brings us to the ultimate Icelandic gastronomic specialty: rotten shark. It is rather problematic as a food source: the flesh has large concentrations of urea. [It] reeks of urine. If that wasn’t enough, it also contains a neurotoxin called trimethylamine. So you just can’t eat it. Unless, of course, you rot it first!

Some rather desperate Icelander discovered the following process:

  • Take the shark, cut it up, and then bury the pieces in the ground for 2 to 3 months (these days, they use large plastic bins to hold the shark). Then dig up the rotting shark meat and hang it up in an open-air hut, allow it to dry slightly, and continue the internal rotting for another 4 to 6 months. Kjartan took me to one of these huts. The stench was unbelievable, a combination of rancid urine and rotting fish.
  • To serve, the mahogany exterior is cut away and the white flesh is cut into little cubes and distributed to every grocery store in Iceland. Even the minimarts attached to gas stations carry it.

After the big build-up and the visit to the disgusting shark-hanging hut I had my doubts. … So I went to my shark tasting with a bit of trepidation, but in reality it is not half-bad. The texture is like very firm sashimi. I expected it to be slimy and falling apart but it isn’t. I would not call it delicious, but I did have second and, yes, even third helpings.


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