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Sketch for an Arctic cuisine

The soils of Southern Greenland produce surprisingly juicy and sweet vegetables. Reportage from agriculture in Greenland
Les terres du sud de l’Islande produisent des légumes remarquables ; reportage
Anders Holst Markussen
Translated by Anders Gudmundsson

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Extreme seasons

1While the extreme weather conditions of Southern Greenland may well be a nuisance to the vegetable farmer, they do wonders for the culinary quality of his crops. Having visited a test farm that experiments with various fruits and vegetables, I’m convinced there’s a potential for an Arctic cuisine.

2Following fifteen minutes of sailing from Qaqortoq, South Greenland’s largest town, you arrive at the village of Upernaviasuk. Here you’ll find The House of Agriculture, in Greenlandic Nunalerineq, which also functions as a test field: an agricultural counseling site: a school for gardening and sheep farming, as well as a display of agriculture in Greenland. The institution is owned by the Greenlandic government (the home rule government), but sells meat and vegetables on equal terms with the country’s about 50 other full-time animal farms.

3Sheep farmers in Greenland often have a side production of turnips. Normally I don’t find turnips to be particularly stimulating, but these are a noteworthy attraction. Smooth, unpigmented mains penetrate the virtually frozen soil. The white cell walls absorb an unusual surplus of water; a purling and tickling succulence. The aroma of the turnip is fruity, making it easy to comprehend why the natives call it ‘Greenland’s apple’.

4The test farm also grows rhubarbs which can be eaten raw as they contain no oxal acid. The sweetness is somewhat surprising, but is nonetheless characteristic of the vegetables you get to taste; all of which have grown under the duress of the county’s Arctic climate. The sweetness, as it turns out, is the plant’s defence against the cold.

5The area is flat and has a few houses and some ruins from the Northerners, in Danish Nordboerne, who knew how to find the most arable lands. In the hills 800 sheep and lamb graze as they have done for the last one hundred years. Since 1955 vegetables have been cultivated on the fields and in greenhouses. While the rumors of the effects of climate change on South Greenland’s agriculture have spread throughout the world, the actual amount of field space that is available to this village is no more than 8 square miles.

6Aqqalooraq Frederiksen manages the place. He grew up as a sheep farmer in a Greenlandic village. It is the sheep farmers who cultivate turnips and potatoes as a secondary job. In his youth Aqqalooraq went for a two year stay at a musk farm in Fair Banks, Alaska where the climate, in contrast with the coastal climate of South Greenland, is far more of an inland climate - cold in the winter, warm in the summer. Today Aqqalooraq gives counselling to Greenlandic farms wherein some have a production of potatoes and turnips. He says, “I think we have full-time vegetable farms, but a few more years are likely to pass.”

7This is partly because of troubles of distribution and partly due to the cold. Aqqalooraq continues, “On test farms we experiment with sorts which can sprout early and withstand the cold and give a good yield. Today we look at the sort known as the ‘solist’ - a light yellow, oval-shaped and early sprouting potato - the county’s most commonly cultivated potato. But it is not very rich in taste, so at the moment we are trying out different sorts.” This season Aqqalooraq and his colleagues are also experimenting with grass and have had the best results with grass from the Faroe Islands. They have also cultivated strawberries and raspberries - “I only managed to get one berry, but we’ll try again next year.”

Sweetness and early sprouting defend against the cold

8Turnips, however, are in ample supply and the fresh sharpness of the turnip provides a fine contrast to meat. In everyday Greenlandic housekeeping, the turnip is cooked so that the sharpness wears off and, when possible, for the last five minutes together with potatoes. They also make soup from the turnip mains, or preserve them.

9Turnips are served raw for dried fish and seal blubber, though are also quite tasty when eaten on their own. The test farm also cultivates the less juicy but more aromatic rutabaga. The rhubarb stalks, which are only a third of an inch thick, are sweet and pleasant to eat raw. The reason the oxal acid has been displaced is most likely due to the cold. The North Atlantic vegetables and fruits develop a special sweetness and aroma because of the cold and the many hours of sunshine. In Upernaviarsuk during October it is pureness, succulence, and sweetness which are the most striking characteristics.

10The cold summer necessitates the use of heating elements which are installed in the ground beneath the glasshouse. I get to taste romaine, heart salad, and - in particular - Chinese leaves of a greater succulence than I’ve ever had before. The robust Chinese leaves can last the winters of Thule. Chinese leaves, which are normally imported from Denmark, have become the most faithful touch of green in Greenland’s food culture and can be bought in the supermarkets at $5 apiece. The test markets primarily deliver to Qaqortoq where the vegetables can be sold without the steep costs of transport.

Seasons

11There are no vermin for the Greenlanders to worry about - no one uses pesticide spray in Greenland. They do, however, use animal fertilizers with some added artificial fertilizers for the nutrient-poor soil.

12Upernaviarsuk is located around the 60th degree of latitude, similarly to Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, yet the Inland Ice in Greenland presents some completely different challenges. Now and again the so-called foehn winds destroy all the plants outside of the glasshouses. The dry winds blow off the Inland Ice with hurricane strength; up to 40 km/h in the summer and 70 km/h in the winter. The winds have always been a problem and there is an indication that they’re increasing in strength to levels not seen since before the last Ice Age in Greenland.

13The soil can normally be cultivated around the 20th of May until mid-September though turnips and rutabaga are able to survive the frost. Unfortunately the summer has been very cold this year so the season did not start until June. The temperatures have risen 1 1/2 degrees over the last fifteen years and a similar rise in temperatures will probably push the agriculture of Southern Greenland out of its Arctic embrace and open up new possibilities. So far, however, nature has put its own limitations on these potential developments.

The Northeners

14Climate change is not, however, the reason that cultivating vegetables in Southern Greenland has become possible. Soon after the aftermath of ‘the Little Ice age’ – which reached its climax in 1750 – had receded, a Norwegian and Greenlandic wife farmer built a farm in 1782 in the village Igaliku (that is close to Narsasuaq) and started a production of beets and beef cattle. This is still very much the same today . This was the cradle of South Greenlandic farmer culture while the innovation of recent times is due to the organization of the farming.

15The Greenlandic soil has been cultivated since the arrival of the Northeners who inhabited the land between 1000-1500 ad. They built terraces and irrigation systems where they primarily cultivated Angelica and grass for animal feed. Angelica was originally used for medicinal purposes. The bottom part of the male plant tastes sweet and, when dried, slightly resembles dill and hashish. Angelica in cooking particularly brings out the taste of salt. Angelica can be candied and eaten as a snack but is even better when reduced to a soft, velvety syrup. Angelica grows like weeds and can be seen in several of the otherwise scanty gardens.

Crowberry cake and harebell ice cream

16Vegetables are something you will find aplenty at Rune Collin’s restaurant Nipisa in Nuuk. The vast majority of his production is exclusively for Restaurant Nipisa which, with its privileged supply, has 90 % of its needs covered in the summer months (in the winter they import.) Nipisa means lumpsucker. Even though the kitchen has an expressed focus on meat and fish, the green element is actually the most extraordinary.

17Rune Collin has been the chef and manager of the restaurant since 1999. Despite some economic challenges, the lauded restaurant has proven to be the steadiest in Greenland. “I almost feel like we’re pulling a confidence trick when we tell people it’s inland ice. We’ve always used it, we gather it ourselves,” says Rune as he brings the carafe containing water with the gritty ice cubes. The ice is pure, but oddly enough the water has a light taste of chlorine (tap water has tastes like this everywhere in Greenland.)

18Collin has roasted Greenland halibut jaws which are juicy and served with roasted potatoes, pureed celery root from chiffon, and parsley foam. Everything is Greenlandic and brilliant. The Greenlandic scallops are small with a nutty taste - similar to that of Faroese scallops - and spiced with parsley, this time in an oil smoked with heather.

19Rune Collin is similarly unpretentious when introducing my dessert, “Crowberry is the world’s dullest berry. They have to be served with or in something.” A pie with crowberry and dark chocolate served with harebell which brings aroma to a white chocolate ice cream. Harebell is also known as Greenlandic vanilla since they are used in a similar way. The taste, however, has to be concentrated by making a ‘tea’ from an extract. For three months the harebell appears in the hills as tender flower meadows.

20But it’s the green growth of crowberries which is seen everywhere on the hills: dwarf bushes with needle-like leaves and blueish-black berries. The locals simply eat crowberries with sugar and milk which has a pink coloration. However, for the true character of the berry to appear, the taste has to be concentrated. This can be done by drying and bruising the berry into a kind of dust which also enriches the dessert. For those calling and asking for it in advance, the kitchen also promises to improvise a menu for vegetarians. I soon learn to appreciate the watery bitterness of the berries, but they don’t match all that well with my kir on Nipisa. Kir is the most common aperitif in Greenlandic restaurants. “Champagne simply can’t become generally accepted in this country,” Rune Collin remarks.

Thoughts

21The journey out of Greenland is over the mountains. In some parts, the hills are colored red from the bilberry bushes, light-brown from Angelica, and green from the crowberry bushes. From the sky it’s clear to see how the mountains contain life at the coasts. The green sprouts are in stark contrast with the massive plains of ice which dominate the country. The mountains form a thin protective shield against the Inland Ice; the lifeless and contourless ice desert. The top of frozen water, which can be up to two miles deep in some parts, covers 80% of Greenland. ‘The Worlds Biggest Island,’ or maybe not, as it is only a very limited part of the land mass that is above the water surface. Where the glaciers break, city dwellers arrive to bottle the ice: beer sold in Denmark, vodka sold in Canada. Just as slowly melting ice cubes sputter loudly when put in a glass of water, the ice cubes bears witness to the compressed air bubbles of the ice. But it’s not the taste of the ice which is special; the aesthetics lie in the story. The Inland Ice quenches the thirst of the restless and industrialized bodies for the nourishment of the past.

22Promoting vegetables from the Arctic may sound like an exotic gimmick; like old ice in new bottles. But the Greenlandic vegetables provide culinary reasons for excitement; the succulent turnips and sweet rhubarbs deserve attention as legitimate gourmet produce. But the challenges are many. The farming is done by hand and the general volume of production is far from reaching the point of making Greenland self-sufficient with vegetables. So far the sprout of Greenland has the massive attention of the world press to build on.

23It may very well be Greenland’s crude oil that interests the world the most, but the vegetables are altogether a valuable and wonderful experience.

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References

Electronic reference

Anders Holst Markussen, « Sketch for an Arctic cuisine », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 14 January 2013, connection on 23 April 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/7081

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About the author

Anders Holst Markussen

Freelance journalist and food writer with a focus on Nordic gastronomy, Anders Holst Markussen has a MA in Nordic Literature from the University of Copenhagen; his thesis examined and challenged the norms of culinary reviews. He is now about to complete a book on the Nordic kitchens; e-mail: anhoma@gmail.com

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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