The wildlife that sustains Slippurinn
Once upon a time puffins were harvested on his Icelandic island, but these days chef Gísli Matt and his colleagues look upon the birds as old friends
Slippurinn, chef Gísli Matt’s incredible, and incredibly remote restaurant on Heimaey, in Iceland’s Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Islands archipelago manages to cook and serve locally sourced foods, despite the odds.
You see, Heimaey is a fairly barren island; a volcano wiped out most of its agriculture back in 1973. Over the following decades, Icelandic people on Heimaey, and those on the mainland, got used to overseas ingredients and modern conveniences. “Icelandic ingredients and methods of preservation fell out of favour for more imported foods,” explains the chef in his new book, Slippurinn: Recipes and Stories. “We began to eat more fresh fish and produce. The food of old Iceland was forgotten by many, lingering in the shadows, concealed in rural farmsteads. With the collapse of the Icelandic banking system in 2008, we began to think about the old ways again, but things have changed.”
There was a time when islanders on Heimaey could harvest the island’s birdlife, without worrying whether one more puffin carcass this season would lead to one fewer puffin egg the next season.
“On July 13, 1977, the photographer, Sigurgeir Jónasson, broke the record for the most puffins caught in a day with 1,204,” explains Matt. “It’s a number that seems unreal now. He wrote in his diary that he was killing them with his left hand while catching more with his right. It happened over eight-and-a-half hours, working mostly non-stop. He stopped to eat a sandwich and an orange, plus another break for a coffee, but little else.”
That’s one side of the local food chain the chef is choosing not to revive. After all, bird numbers have fallen across Vestmannaeyjar, not solely thanks to Jónasson and co, but due to climate change. As Matt explains, “a rise in water temperatures, an effect of global warming, has caused the puffins’ food, silvery sand eels, to disappear.”
Today Matt and co avoid puffin, preferring to serve sustainably foraged gannet and goose, as well as carefully chosen fulmar and guillemot eggs. The chef takes a similar position when it comes to whales; though he acknowledges whaling dates back to the twelfth century, and that some fishermen argue a few species are no longer, he sees the contemporary practice as being driven by profit (most of the meat is exported to Japan). “This hurts the reputation of all of Iceland and we don’t want to support that,” the chef concludes, who favours mackerel, herring and charr.
Today, when Matt and co take a trip out to the uninhabited Vestmannaeyjar islands, “we watch over the puffins like old friends,” he writes. “We watch out for pods of orcas and other whales that might swim by. We eat and drink and sing songs like we once did. Old photo albums in the cabins remind us of the great hunts and miraculous feats we had, of our shared history.”
Just because you remember the old ways, doesn’t mean you have to relive them. For more on Slippurinn’s incredible blend of old and new Icelandic cuisine, order a copy of Slippurinn here.