On survival

There’s that old conversation starter, for awkward dinner parties: What would take to a desert island? Who would you want to be with?

I’ve always been concerned with a much more primal enquiry: What would you eat?

Icelanders have answered it.

It’s bleak on their patch of lava, with the 2ºC Arctic Ocean swishing around, a whole lot of lot of volcanoes, winter and darkness, and only the occasional tree.

When the Vikings arrived, they had to feed themselves out of some poisonous sharks and a few seasick sheep. So everything that’s traditionally Icelandic is about survival: killing things, eating all the bits of every animal and making things last.

There wasn’t enough wood, so those wiley pagans smoked animals in their own manure. They still do.

They dried cod in the seabreeze, fermented skate in barrels til it turned to ammonia, buried sharks in the rocks to try to get rid of the cyanide in their flesh, and made all the animals’ insides sour with whey.

They found enormous whales landing themselves on beaches, dolphins prancing about their fjords, and ate those too.

Last Friday, I found myself on a boat, in such a fjord, staring at a baby-pink buoy and a man with a gun. Asgeir was on the hunt for dolphins.

They spear them with a blade attached to a buoy, so they can stay afloat and breathing, then shoot them in the head. It all takes less than 30 seconds, the captain tells me. The ones that drown in nets don’t have the right texture when cooked. I can’t decide what expression to put on my face.

In the home of Free Willy, the dolphins Asgeir wants to shoot are of the white-beaked variety, a species listed as of “least concern” by the IUCN. There are tens of thousands in Icelandic waters. They’re not endangered, it’s not illegal, and it’s not done commercially. They’re also delicious.

After a cetacean-less few hours on the water, at the here’s-one-I-killed-earlier dinner that evening, slabs of dolphin are marinating in Swedish barbecue oil.

In Japan, Taiwan and Peru, they call it “ocean’s pork”. The meat is dark, blood-black, oozing with Omega-3 and nothing like pig, or fish.

It has the rich unctuousness of liver, paired with the nose of a galloping free-range gazelle, in the body of a gently stroked fillet.

Some regard höfrungakjöt as pet food, but it’s more what a French rapper might feed to their pet Siberian tiger, tartare with an anchovy butter.

Our host loves it his mum’s way, crumbed in ready mix then simmered in cream and ketchup. But it is meat that demands hedonism, fires and dancing.

It should be eaten with wild abandon, sizzled to medium-rare on hot granite at the table, and sliced with sharp knives, before the dinner party takes to a snow-encrusted hot tub with Bombay Sapphire and tonic in hand. So we oblige.

The basics of survival are now in-demand.  

Vogue declared the New Nordic diet their new “It diet” in December.

Iceland is one of the few countries controversially still whaling despite an international moratorium, and environmentalists are furious. But 40 percent of the country’s whale meat demand is driven by tourists. And in times of whale shortage and economic crisis, dolphin - a similar, more tender meat - is renamed and slapped on overpriced plates.  

Survival is a vicious business. The seagulls here eat each other.