Extreme fermentation and eating the environment

A little known tale of extreme fermentation, Vikings and Inuit

As research for a book project I’m working on, I recently spent 2 months traveling from the south of Greenland right up to the far north. For those who haven’t been before it’s not all ice and polar bears. The southern bits are actually relatively lush and green, which is what led Erik the Red to persuade a couple of hundred of his Icelandic brethren to leave their land of fire and ice and set up home there a thousand years or so ago. The fact that they disappeared before their 500 year anniversary came round has been the subject of much speculation; vastly differing theories such as unsurvivable ice ages, plague, Inuit massacres, malevolent English whalers and aliens all contributing to the myth. The mostly touted theory – a tale of increasing hardship due to worsening weather combined with a cessation of supplies from Iceland or Norway and that the Norse didn’t adapt to their environment quite as well as they could have done doesn’t quite ring true. It seems to overlook the fact that the Norse had already survived several centuries on one of the most inhospitable islands in the world, as well as ignoring archaeological evidence such as extensive seal bones found in their middens. Indicating that actually, they were very much in tune with their environment. The Norse arrived in the south, reaching a peak population of somewhere between 3000 and 5000 souls, at pretty much the same time as the Inuit arrived in the north – moving generationally eastwards across from Alaska via Canada. This was last of several waves of migration across from the North, from the American continent, there seemingly being distinct gaps between each era. These two distinct ethnographic groups; Inuit and Norse, would’ve met first when the Norse travelled up to the hunting grounds of Disko Bay, located about halfway up the west coast of the country.  Like most Greenlandic Norse history there’s pretty much zero in the way of documentation of how that meeting went down but there seems to be evidence of trade between the two sides. As well as the odd skirmish.

The aspect that I really love about Greenland is the human story – it’s the first time homo sapiens had met up after going their opposite ways after breaking out from the fertile crescent in the Middle East – one set heading east across Asia, the other west and across Europe. After moving westwards from their main base in Norway, the Norse settled both the Faeroe Islands and Iceland which were pretty much the only countries left in the world that didn’t have an indigenous population – and although technically Greenland probably did have an indigenous population, ol’ Erik the Red and his gang of merry adventurers weren’t aware of that fact. Greenland itself wasn’t accurately mapped until a couple of hundred of years ago and it was thought to be connected to both Asia and Norway at various times of its cartographical history.

The two groups had vastly different lifestyles and backgrounds: the Norse coming from a settlers background of farming and fishing, used to putting down permanent geographical roots by building enduring farmsteads from which they could tend their livestock which they used for dairy products as well as meat. The Inuit were nomads, upping sticks and travelling as needed to follow the migration patterns of their food sources – generally seals in the winter when they cut holes in the ice to spear them when they came up for air and during the summer months heading further inland where the caribou were plentiful.

So as well as being a meeting of two different ethnographic groups, it was also the location for the two distinct human lifestyles to meet – farming and hunter/gatherer. But whereas the Inuit had developed their lifestyle through centuries of adapting to the harsh arctic environment, the Norse were bringing a way of living that was rooted in easier climes. And whilst there is no evidence of the Inuit adapting or trying to emulate the Norse way of living, the Norse had to borrow some Inuit tricks in order to survive.

Despite the backgrounds of these two groups, the common denominator is that they both ended up in a country where their diet would be almost entirely animal based. Trying to get crops to grow in the country is a challenge, the geology is stacked against you – 80% of the country is covered in ice, rock makes up the rest with a few spots of greenery in the south – which also makes getting around tricky. The crops that the Norse did manage to grow were mainly to feed their animals.

This not a great environment if you’re a vegetarian – berries grow here, very limited vegetables and seaweed. The early settlers would’ve quickly moved on or died had there not been an abundance of fish, reindeer, musk ox, birds, seals & whales. Cattle and more practically, sheep, were introduced by subsequent travelers and have become part of the food & actual landscape.

The further settlers sailed away from the comparatively easy life of mainland living the more extreme their environments became. And the more inventive and extreme their methods of getting food. In these kind of temperatures the act of killing your food takes on a much more exciting live-or-die tinge. For starters the size of the prey is big. Bearded seals can reach almost half a tonne in weight, chasing birds with a net on exposed & icy cliff tops is also reasonably challenging. And whales are well known for being large. It’s not just a case of setting a trap and waiting for something to fall in. This kind of food harvesting involves spears & other very sharp objects, where the prey is generally not enjoying many aspects of the hunt & at some point will probably turn on the nasty men with sharp things trying to hurt it. Given that the weather can go from clear blue calm skies to a nil-visibility storm within minutes AND the fact that this is all done in heavy furs and skins with hands that generally aren’t working too well due to the cold then you have a whole bunch of factors that could easily ruin your day.

When food is such an integral part of existing and eating for pleasure is a distant concept, preservation methods take on a life or death status. When the environment has such a god-like influence on food availability the nose-to-tail eating concept becomes less ‘cool culinary concept’ and more ‘essential or you’ll die’, there is no room for the fussy eater here. Despite the differences between the farming Norse and the hunter/gatherer nomad Inuit both systems recognised the over arching importance of making the most of a kill or harvest. Crops can easily fail just as the seals can move on elsewhere and so ways of making the most of a bounteous hunt or harvest was essential. In the absence of the technology we have nowadays, techniques that have supported humans since the very beginning are employed to ensure maximum usage of the food. Drying and fermenting were the two predominant methods out here. Not so much salting or smoking due to the distinct lack of trees with which to either create smoke or to evaporate seawater to get salt. And an inevitable consequence of drying is fermenting – if the water content of a food stuff can’t be dried out quickly enough the water content will support the symbiotic proliferation of bacteria, yeasts and fungii that make up the magic of fermentation.

Whilst the Norse were no strangers to the life preserving attributes of fermentation – fermented milk, skyr, cheeses, fermented fish and hung lamb and beef – all adapted and mastered over hundreds of years from Norway through the settlement of the Faeroes and Iceland, the Inuit were masters of the ingenious. It takes a little searching out in Greenland and is most often found by talking and consequently being invited to someone’s home but fermented food prevails. Having eaten substantial amounts of fermented seal, whale and the blubber of both on my way north it was way up in Qaannaaq that it came into its own. The world’s northernmost permanently inhabited settlement, this area has been used as a base by many a polar exploration party and is also home to the US Airforce Base of Thule. It’s also home to several hundred Inuit – living in a somewhat odd limbo between tradition and imported Danish colonialism. There are only two supply ship drops each year, anything urgent is flown in on a weekly run from Upernavik. In this most outerly of outposts, the contrast between the two cultures is most evident. The beach is littered with the skeletal remains of whales and there’s a steady flow in and out of the tiny harbour of hunters, the most common catch in late summer being seals with the occasional narwhal.

 My book is following the Norse as they travelled across the North Atlantic and how they adapted food and techniques as they went in order to be able to survive – all seen through the lens of the New Nordic style of cooking – a widely known movement made famous by a swathe of Scandinavian chefs with the common premise being to re establish the connection between food and the environment it comes from. Being up here was like a distillation of everything I was looking for and without actually eating the earth I don’t think there’s a better example of eating the environment. An unexpected side project of all this came about from the amount of fermented food I was eating – I have always been a curious chef, constantly questioning the Why? of foods and food techniques, this, combined with a love of history, had led me deeper into humankinds relationship with food and our modern obsession with refrigeration and ongoing war with all bacteria. Scratch beneath the surface of this and it becomes apparent that we are doing it all wrong. Take fermentation – it’s still seen as a fairly niche ‘thing’ – eliciting a frown on most people’s face. And yet all the good stuff is fermented – coffee, chocolate, cheese, bread, wine, beer, salami…. It seemed to me that we as a species are being pretty obtuse here – millennia of using fermentation to keep us alive has been instantly, at least in evolutionary terms, disregarded and we’ve set ourselves upon a sterile path. I’ve become fascinated by the trillions of tiny microbes that work within and with us to create such a unique microbiome – one that differs from person to person. The more we leave the processing of our food to Mother Nature the more in tune the food is with our bodies – this surely makes infinitely more sense that blasting our food and environments with antibiotics and bleach?

In the 2 million years or so that humans in some format have been around it seems incredible to me that we have, in the course of a couple of generations TOTALLY changed our diet and eating habits. If you break human existence down into a single day time frame, then the farming revolution – moving from being hunter gatherers to domesticated farmers – would have happened around quarter to midnight. Clearly CRAZY.

Being in possession of a vague grasp on how short a time span 100 years is on an evolutionary scale, the dietary 360 we’ve performed in this time period has always seemed to indicate to me that we’re heading for a major crash as a species. And this seems to be borne out by the prevalence of cancers, obesity, diabetes and other modern ailments that were seemingly unknown to our hunter gatherer ancestors.

I’m intrigued by the gut microbiome and the flood of research being published attributes more and more importance on the microbiome as being key to our health and wellbeing as a species. This being the case our insistence on sterilising our food and environment, literally to within an inch of its life, goes against a couple of million years of evolution and all common sense.

Our ever-increasing reliance on monocrops – huge geographical areas committed to growing one type of crop – wheat, rice, maize, palm trees goes against what nature has taken MILLIONS of years to develop. Rainforests, tundras, oceans, bacterial gut populations – all depend on biodiversity for success. If and when one species becomes too dominant, nature has a way of knocking them down a peg or two for the good of the whole.

Spending some time in Qaanaaq and a day even further north in Siorapaluk – the oft-used northern base for legendary polar expeditions and attaining my culinary goal of eating kiviaq  – picture 400 seabirds stuffed inside a seal, sewn up, air squeezed out and buried under rocks for several months – created a retrospective eureka moment for me – knitting all the various jumbled yarn in my head together. The kiviaq was up there in my Top Ten Most Smashmouth Foods, yet compared to the fermented seal it was relatively tame. The fermented seal – kept out on the decking – was incredibly strong tasting, scouring the outermost layers of skin in my mouth off instantly, it was the closest I’ve come to not being able to eat something.

Being English though I was extraordinarily polite, my only remark being on how lovely the seal tasted, accompanied with much smiley head nodding, just in case language let me down. At which point the family jubilantly proceeded to feed me several more chunks and some rancid tasting blubber, going so far as to present me with a couple of pounds in a bag to take back with me. Expecting something gastrically drastic, I was very pleasantly surprised to have no adverse affects at all, especially so during the four hour rollercoaster-ish boat trip back to Qaanaaq. One aspect of extreme ferments that I’ve noticed before is that it seems to deliver a little ‘high’. Not enough to add an extra revenue arm to drug cartels but it’s there.

YouTube is packed with amusing videos of people eating (and consequently spitting out) ‘disgusting’ foods – from surstromming to fermented shark to rakfisk – all fermented, all very pungent and all with an eyewateringly strong taste. Yet they all have their supporters and all are still made on a considerable scale today. It’s always intrigues me how this is so – do the fans of these examples of extreme fermentation actually enjoy them or are they misguidedly perpetuating them due to a sense of tradition and history? How can one person eat a plateful of rakfisk whilst another will not get within 10 metres of it? These are the questions that were keeping me awake at night.

This rotten aroma comes from the production of nitrogen rich gases such as cadaverine & putrecine during the decomposition of living tissue. The words themselves are indicative of their general characteristics. Research and investigation of the accounts of polar explorers show that not only were these ‘rotten’ foods extensively eaten by the Inuit, they were preferred over other meats, often tucked into with gusto. There was evidently much hilarity to be found in the disgust of the European interlopers when offered these putrid foods – often bristling with maggots. The following three excerpts are taken from three renowned explorers notes on the subject of indigenous foods:

“…I have frequently known them when a whale has been driven ashore, bring pieces of it home with them in a state of offensiveness insupportable to any thing but a crow, and devour it with high relish, considering it as preferable to that which is fresh.” (Jewitt 1849)

“…invited us to their huts to eat, in expectation of receiving a bit of tobacco, but we found it impossible to taste their dried meat; it was so nearly putrid that the pieces would scarcely hold together. This, however, is entirely to their liking; they seldom use meat till it is rotten; they keep it in their huts, unexposed to the air, till it is almost impossible for a stranger to remain indoors on account of the stench arising from putrefaction.” (Coues 1897)

“Right alongside the spot where we pitched our camp we found an old cache of caribou meat—two years old I was told. We cleared the stones away and fed the dogs, for it is law in this country that as soon as a cache is more than a winter and a summer old, it falls to the one who has use for it. The meat was green with age, and when we made a cut in it, it was like the bursting of a boil, so full of great white maggots was it. To my horror my companions scooped out handfuls of the crawling things and ate them with evident relish. I criticised their taste, but they laughed at me and said, not illogically: ‘You yourself like caribou meat, and what are these maggots but live caribou meat? They taste just the same as the meat and are refreshing to the mouth.’” (Rasmussen 1931)

So many questions arise from these stories – not least Why?!

And so I’ve been questioning where, and indeed, if there is a ‘where’, the line is drawn between fermented and rotten. ‘Rotten’ implies some kind of adverse health reaction. As does ‘putrefied’. But these are just terms indicating that a food has moved on from being merely fermented into a higher state. But a state that is still ok to eat. It doesn’t actually look like there’s an end limit to how fermented a food can be before it becomes inedible.

The main concern expressed here is usually ‘but what about botulism?’ – by all accounts this seems to be a modern phenomenon in regards to traditional fermenting practices. When Euroamericans started sticking their oar in and insisting that more sterile practices be used – such as glass and plastic containers that seal the foods the number of botulism cases rose dramatically. *see previous note about sterile environments…

One of my first thoughts when trying to understand the science behind it was that it must be something to do with the lower temperatures making the food safe for consumption – but wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t low-temperature reliant and is something that could be used in other geographical areas where food wasn’t abundant. Or in areas that experience severe fluctuations in food availability, for reasons such as famine and drought for instance. Surely the available food imbalance across the world could be enormously aided by these forms of food preservation that don’t rely on expensive refrigeration and transport. But the temperature of the ambient environment ISN’T a make or break factor in these foods – the Hadza in Tanzania and the Bushmen in Namibia have often been recorded eating putrefied meat left over from lion kills.

The science behind this isn’t an exhausted field by any stretch. My time in the Faeroes looking at skerpikjot – the fermented lamb that is made all over the islands took me to the Uni there where research was still ongoing trying to ascertain which bacteria were responsible for the safe fermentation process – it turned out the bacteria were working together with certain fungi to ‘process’ the meat. But the strains and amounts of this bacterial, fungi-laden soup differed vastly all over the islands an indeed from hjallur to hjallur (the slatted sheds used to dry the lamb) showing that, despite our constant need to interfere, nature has a much better method for balancing things out.

But back to the ‘why’. Many good reasons actually – the first being that it makes life a hell of a lot easier. In an environment bereft of flammable materials being able to eat food without cooking is an enormous advantage.

It also means that you are able to keep foods indefinitely – that fact that they become more ‘gourmet’ the more fermented they are works even better!

Minimal prep involved – pretty much all of the raw foods – fish, caribou, seal, polar bear are either left whole & intact (guts in) or hacked into primal cuts and chucked into a pit – they are then covered – usually with rocks to prevent animals getting at them and left. The beauty of it is that there’s no time limit. These foods are generally stored near to where they were caught – a fishing ground or area rich in caribou. Which means that they’ll be on established routes – which means that when future bands of Inuit come through there’s a good chance they’ll be able to tuck into some delicious maggoty meat straight away. There’s also the joy of not having to lug pots and pans around. Or having to light a fire in often crappy weather.

One of the big problems with a 100% meat diet is the lack of vitamin C – well documented by the old problem with scurvy amongst early sailors. Combatted by Captain James Cook on his long voyages by stocking up on barrels of lovely sauerkraut and later generations with lime extract (hence ‘Limeys’). It turns out that Vitamin C is prevalent in the less photogenic bits of seal – notably in the offal and blubber. And vitamin C is especially prone to degradation when subjected to heat. Fermentation also generates several B vitamins in these meats. Fermentation has a fantastic habit of making otherwise inaccessible nutrients bioavailable – soy is useless to us unless it goes through a fermentation process, cassava is poisonous until it’s fermented. Hakarl – the fermented shark dish of Iceland is fatal to us until its fermented.

So if it’s good for us why do we find it disgusting?

Turns out that disgust is a learned reaction. Until the age of 5 ish, humans find very few things disgusting. Look at the strongest ‘normal’ foods in the western diet – blue cheese, beer, whisky – all these are what we call acquired tastes. Most people’s initial reaction to these is not good the first time they try it. I’m not proud to admit that I was caught eating poo when I was around 2 years old – hand down the ol’ potty like an all-you-can-eat-buffet. So yes, I’m saying that if you eat enough, on a regular basis, you too will come to love maggoty meat. (I must stress that was the first and last excremental experimentation.)

I’ll continue on my quest to see if there’s a line that can be drawn between fermented and putrefied, but in the meantime will continue to broaden my gustatory horizons and the tipping point on my disgust reflex.

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