The restaurant at the end of the world

The new Icefjord Centre in Ilulissat is a beautiful thing. Designed by Danish architect Dorte Mandrup to “soar like a snowy owl over the landscape”, the £17.3mn visitor centre finally opened last year, the culmination of an idea that had been around for two decades. Funded by philanthropists and the Greenlandic government, it’s designed to provide a meeting place for the local community, to act as a gateway between the town and the wilderness beyond, and to encourage tourism.

Having been there in the daytime to see the exhibition explaining the science of the ice-cap and Greenland’s position at the forefront of climate change, I returned at midnight, taking advantage of the midsummer light. My footsteps echoed along the wooden boardwalk leading across the tundra, accompanied by the howling of sledge-dogs, chained up on waste ground between the town and the new centre. The footpath goes up and on to the centre’s flowing wooden roof, but for an even better vantage point I continued a few more minutes, to where the walkway climbed a smooth granite escarpment.

There, stretching away to the horizon was the area’s big attraction: the iceberg-filled fjord and behind it the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, breathtaking in scale, a fissured, craggy expanse of whiteness stretching as far as the eye could see. It can flow at more than 20 metres per day, sending 35bn tonnes of ice annually into Disko Bay.

The futuristic Icefjord centre set in a land of rocks and sparse vegetation
The Icefjord Centre in Ilulissat, Greenland, designed by Danish architect Dorte Mandrup © AFP/Getty Images
People walking along a boardwalk, with a glacier in the background
Visitors to the centre take the boardwalk towards the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier © AFP/Getty Images

It’s a sight that has made Ilulissat Greenland’s biggest tourist destination, though the statistics are relative. In 2019 the town saw record tourist numbers of 22,000, rather less than London’s Tate Modern gallery can get in a day. For now, it still has the air of a frontier town, with hunting rifles hanging under the eaves of houses, a few souvenir shops selling bone carvings and sealskin fashion accessories, but the government is keen to promote tourism as a way of diversifying the economy. As well as helping to fund the Icefjord Centre, it is extending Ilulissat’s airport so it can take long-haul flights, with completion expected in 2024 or 2025. Until then, visitors must change on to smaller planes either at Reykjavik, Iceland, or at Kangerlussuaq, a former second world war US air force base, 150 miles to the south.

GM230711_22X Travel -Greenland-Map

If the Icefjord Centre is one sign of Greenlandic tourism moving beyond being a place for hardcore expeditioners, an hour’s boat ride away, on the far side of the icefjord, is something even more remarkable. The tiny village of Ilimanaq normally has about 50 residents, as well as the 15-room Ilimanaq Lodge, made up of simple wooden A-frame chalets perching on the rocks above the iceberg-filled bay. Since the middle of last month the village has also been home to Koks, a gastronomic restaurant formerly based in the Faroe Islands, where it won that country’s first Michelin star in 2017 and a second in 2019. It’s located in a cosy timber house dating from 1751, one of Greenland’s oldest buildings, but installing a high-end kitchen here has not been easy.

“In Greenland, I was told that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong,” says the executive chef, Poul Andrias Ziska. “And what shouldn’t go wrong will probably go wrong as well.”

A chef preparing food
Poul Andrias Ziska prepares food in the kitchen at Koks in Ilimanaq © AFP/Getty Images

A chef preparing food
The restaurant, awarded two Michelin stars in the Faroe Islands, has relocated to Greenland and opened last month © AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps it’s his unflappable Faroese character, but if anything has gone wrong, it doesn’t show. On the evening I ate there, slickly uniformed serving staff presented a dizzying, somewhat daunting 18-course tasting menu — DKr2,100 (£239) per head — accompanied by fine wines (another DKr1,600). After eating a dozen artfully crafted dishes ranging from braised whale to wild trout in fermented gooseberry sauce, I was reinvigorated by a sequence of several desserts including a tongue-tingling mousse made with roasted kelp combined with fermented celeriac. The bitterness of the kelp was then obliterated by a caramelised limpet (presented on a small rock, naturally), smooth as melted toffee and sweetened with carrot jam.

It’s not like anything anyone in Greenland has experienced before, but the hope is that local chefs will find the presence of a cutting-edge kitchen inspiring. One of the younger chefs is Brijan Isaksen, a native Greenlander from the south of the island. “I feel proud that people can come here and taste some of our traditional ingredients,” he told me. “And maybe other Greenlanders will train to work in restaurants so that we can show off the things that make us happy.”

A chef on the phone photographed outside a restaurant
Ziska on the terrace of Koks. The restaurant is an hour’s boat ride from the Icefjord Centre at Ilulissat © AFP/Getty Images

Eating at Koks is not for anyone squeamish about animal protein. There is reindeer heart, musk-ox broth, as well as whale steaks and raw blubber. Greenland permits Inuit hunters to take a limited number of several different whale species, a catch sanctioned by the International Whaling Commission on the grounds of indigenous culture and tradition. They also recognise that for many Inuit, the protein provided by eating marine mammals is a necessity on nutritional and economic grounds.

For the record, the whale meat has a slightly chewy texture with the flavour of lean beef. Soon afterwards, a course of whole deep-fried shrimp heads complete with eyes and whiskers seemed comparatively tame, and once in my mouth they had the reassuring consistency and flavour of prawn crackers. And surprisingly, in a country 80 per cent covered by ice and with bare rock and thin soils on much of the remainder, there was also fruit and vegetables, including crowberries, delicate Arctic mushrooms and mountain sorrel.

A couple of wooden A-frame chalets
The tiny village of Ilimanaq is home to the 15-room Ilimanaq Lodge, made up of simple wooden A-frame chalets © AFP/Getty Images

Ziska honed his skill in the Faroes, where there is an ancient tradition of serving fermented meat — usually lamb, but also fish and poultry, in a process that produces extremely strong flavours. Salt was expensive so rather than using it as a preservative, the islanders would hang their meat in drying sheds open to the whistling Atlantic breezes and with a steady autumn temperature of between 4C and 8C. The result — in the case of lamb — is a wizened, blackened joint of meat covered in a fine layer of mildew formed by anaerobic bacteria. The taste is extremely powerful, with the pungent tang of blue cheese. Fermentation, and the distinctive flavours it imparts, remains at the heart of Ziska’s cooking. In Greenland, it recurs in his cleansing blackcurrant kombucha drink, as well as dishes like snow crab with fermented mushroom paste.

Traditional Faroes flavours are challenging to the outsider, and for many years they were hidden away from tourists. But Koks, with its modern, very elegant twist on wind-blasted staples showed itself capable of attracting diners from all over the world. Devising a similarly sophisticated menu from Greenland’s more varied flora and fauna took a lot of research and development, says Ziska. He showed me the freezer at the restaurant containing joints of reindeer meat, and a shelf on which there were a dozen half-plucked ptarmigan. Diners are served tender slivers of breast meat skewered on a wing bone (feathers still attached for decoration).

A dining table with a view of the passing icebergs
A table at Koks with a view of the passing icebergs © AFP/Getty Images

Wild Greenlandic salmon with fermented gooseberry on a plate
Wild Greenlandic salmon with fermented gooseberry . . . © AFP/Getty Images

Ptarmigan meat and black currant salsa skewered on a wing bone
. . . and ptarmigan and black currant salsa on a grouse wing, part of the 18-course tasting menu © AFP/Getty Images

Ziska is clearly energised by the remote location at Ilimanaq, and unfazed by the idea that his foodie clients will have to get to Greenland and cross an ice-filled bay to reach the restaurant, which has 30 covers. “We saw in the Faroes that people would fly in for a long weekend from New York to experience Koks,” he says. “There is an international segment of people who are determined to eat at places few others will have the chance to visit.”

Adding to the exclusivity is that the world’s most remote gastronomic restaurant will be open for only two years, after which it will retreat to new premises in the Faroes.

At the Icefjord Centre in Ilulissat I was struck by the irony of tourists flying all the way to Greenland to learn about the effects of climate change. And, in the same vein, I wondered about the ethical plusses and minuses of catering to diners who may soon be journeying from America, or even further afield, to eat dishes that are scrupulously local and sustainably sourced. However, Greenland’s government believes that tourism is less potentially damaging than the obvious alternative, mineral and fossil fuel extraction.

Boats in Disko Bay
Disko Bay, and to the right, Poul Egedes House, the temporary home of Koks © AFP/Getty Images

Even if Koks helps bring gastro-tourists to Greenland’s west coast, the bigger draw will remain the astounding natural surroundings. On the morning after my meal, I walked out from Ilimanaq with local guide Nivé Heilmann of Diskobay Tours. Within half an hour we had spotted a group of five musk-oxen, the woolly coated bovines that weigh up to 400 kgs, and subsist on the flower rich tundra. “I don’t like to go too close,” she said with a giggle. “A friend was chased by one not long ago when he was hanging out his washing. He managed to roll under his veranda, losing a shoe in the process. He wasn’t injured but the musk-ox peed in the shoe before leaving.”

After another hour we came across an old cemetery near the site of an abandoned village. “Life has always been hard here, and even today people still often die young, because of the weather, in hunting accidents or at sea,” she explained. “But, we probably don’t fear death in the way you do. When someone dies, of course we offer our condolences, but after the funeral we also say “pilluarit” (“congratulations”), as a way of celebrating that we had this person in our lives. We also believe that if you grieve heavily then the departed soul will struggle to reach heaven. Our soul has to crawl underneath a skin blanket to get to the other side, and if we are too sad and make too much fuss then it gets pulled back towards our world. And that’s not good.”

Looking out on to the frigid waters close by, it wasn’t difficult to understand how tough people needed to be to survive here, and why death needed to be dealt with as practically as possible. The food available in Ilimanaq might now be exquisite and expensive, but outside this is still a harsh place. I felt punch-drunk with the endless light and hypnotised by the constant passing of floating ice, a kind of half-element between sea and sky.

Tim Ecott is the author of ‘The Land of Maybe: a Faroe Islands Year’ (Short Books)

Details

Koks in Ilimanaq (koks.fo) is open until September 8 this year. Tim Ecott was a guest of Discover the World (discover-the-world.com); its six-night “essential West Greenland” trip cost from £2,946 per person, including two nights in Reykjavik (one on the way out, one on the way back), two nights at the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, two at Ilimanaq Lodge, dinner at Koks restaurant, flights from Iceland, airport and boat transfers.

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