Here’s what they eat in the world’s northernmost city
This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Halfway between Norway and the North Pole you will find the Svalbard Islands. This snow-covered archipelago is home to more polar bears (approximately 3,000) than inhabitants (2,500). It is also the northernmost inhabited place on the planet.
It is important to remember a few key things about life here. It’s cold – it was -11 ° C most days of our trip in late October – and dark. Between November and February, the sun does not rise above the horizon.
If you’ve heard of Svalbard, it’s probably thanks to the Island’s Seed Vault. It opened on the island of Spitsbergen in 2008, the safe now houses just over a million culture samples. Think of it as an agricultural service of the future: the samples stored there will help us feed us in the event of a global seed crisis.
We hadn’t traveled this far to explore the Vault, however. No, we were in Svalbard to experience the food scene in the northernmost city on Earth. We stayed in Longyearbyen, the main town in the archipelago. As you might expect, the venue is determined to make the most of its claim to fame. Almost every business in town advertises itself as the northernmost thing: walk down the main street and you’ll see the northernmost supermarket in the world, next to the northernmost hairdresser, next to the northernmost museum. north, next to the northernmost food truck.
In the hope of understanding what authentic arctic cuisine is all about, we targeted three northernmost locations: the grocery store, a traditional local restaurant, and a luxury one.
First, we headed to the supermarket. Co-op is the chain of choice on top of the world and there was a much wider product line than we had ever imagined. Who knew it would be so easy to get decent fruits and vegetables at the North Pole? Past the produce aisle, a pair of local specialties caught our attention: dried reindeer and smoked whale.
The vacuum-wrapped reindeer sticks – with added salt, pepper and speck – were good. Don’t grab one while expecting huge, bold flavors. With my eyes closed, it was hard to tell him apart from your standard plastic-wrapped smoked sausage, although there was certainly a pleasure to be had in Rudolph just steps from Santa’s spiritual home.
The whale was another story. It tasted strange, like fish that had a sort of steak aftertaste. Equally confusing, it was tender and chewy at the same time – and really salty. Accompanied by Norwegian cheese, recommended by the supermarket butcher, it was a strangely successful snack.
After checking out some of the more unusual supermarket deals, it was time to dine like a local. The problem was, most of the restaurants in Longyearbyen served the kind of pizza and burgers you can find anywhere on Earth. What we wanted was a more authentic dining experience.
Locals told us to visit Mary Anne’s Polarigg, a family run restaurant. It should be noted at this point that very little vegetation grows in Svalbard except for a handful of very small plants and fungi that come out of the ground each year in August and September. It is not a place for vegetarians and vegans in the world.
The region’s menus are full of reindeer, seals, whales and ptarmigan, the only bird that has made its home in the archipelago all year round. The restaurateur assured us that everything was of local origin and that “eating these animals is the most natural thing possible here”.
Hunting is indeed highly regulated. Each resident citizen has the right to kill one reindeer per year for private consumption, while some hunters have a limit of 25. Basically anything that is hunted in Svalbard is eaten in Svalbard.
The reindeer was served with overcooked veg, but it was definitely tastier than the stick I had before. The seal was the specialty of the house. The staff were keen to point out that it is “very different from anywhere else [on Earth]Here, in fact, the seals eat crustaceans, while in Greenland and the rest of Norway they eat fish. This gives them a taste similar to that of whales, although a bit stronger and more bitter. So strong, in fact, that when the chef arrived in Longyearbyen and tasted the seal for the first time, he wasn’t quite sure he wasn’t eating beef.
Next, a meal in Huset Svalbard, the only restaurant town with an Instagram account. The chef here keeps things interesting by changing the menu every three months, but there was still room for the reindeer when we visited. This time, it was a smoked reindeer heart tart, served on a local mushroom mousse. The chef had picked the mushrooms himself the previous month. All other vegetables had to be ordered from the mainland, and some deliveries may take up to a month to arrive.
Chef Frederik doesn’t think arctic cuisine exists – what he cooks is exactly what they eat here in Svalbard. The range may be limited, but it is an opportunity for chefs like him to be creative in their kitchen. Traditional Svalbard cuisine is found only on the island and there is no export market for local produce.
The next class involved more reindeer – a reindeer carpaccio wrapped in a reindeer roll with dried seaweed and salmon caviar. Bread and butter topped with grated reindeer thighs were served as an accompaniment. And yes, I asked twice to be sure: part of the reindeer front paw is grated on the butter.
The only thing Frederik won’t serve at Huset Svalbard is the whale. This is because the only local fisherman who sources meat for the community uses dynamite as part of his fishing process, and Frederik does not agree with his methods.
Frederik had to cut our private dining experience short as the evening’s first customers started arriving for dinner. On our way out, we asked the chef to give us three adjectives to describe Svalbard cuisine. “Difficult. Limit. Liberator,” he said.