Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Whale Meat Again, Don't Know Where Don't Know When

You see the problem is, once I get onto a subject it can be a while before I get off it! Cases in point are Joe Bonamassa and Feasts. Last evening I dined with the Edwards, who earlier in the week described my attitude to Mr Bonamassa as 'anal', so I decided to give them a taster. Sheila is most discerning, possibly even catholic, regards her choices of music, while Bowie (Lorne) borders on unpleasable. Craving their indulgence, I suggested we play the opening sequence including the track Django, followed by the 'self penned' Ballard of John Henry, before eating. As the last riff of BofJH faded I turned to look at my hosts who appeared to be in a state of bewilderment. Briefly, Bowie said he had never seen or heard anything so musically exciting, while Sheila claimed to be high and exhausted by the experience. The delivered Chinese 'take-away' from Yummy on Abbotsbury Road (advert) was excellent as usual, but all those 2 Herberts wanted to do was get back to the (double) DVD, which we played in its entirety - good evening or what!

Frozen Feast in the High Arctic

My 10 week trek from El Segundo Beach, Los Angeles, California to (arguably) the most northerly town in the world Barrow, Alaska, taking in the full length of the Alaska Highway, was both diverse and unparalleled as far as experiences were concerned. The full distance of 2,700 miles was undertaken by public, road transportation, with the exception of the final 500 miles Fairbanks to Barrow. There was a simple reason for this, roads are dangerous and inadequate, and similar to the sea, frozen solid to the North Pole despite the time of year, early summer. Having witnessed and experienced enough to fill a book, the best, by accident, occurred last.

The moment our pilot announced we were crossing the Arctic Circle - having crossed above it, in the past, by air, over it by ship and under it on a submarine, I now have a desire to transit it on foot to complete the 'set'.

Firstly, meeting the Iñupiaq (who we might call Eskimos) people was a wonder in itself, with a family inviting me to their home before even disembarking the aircraft. Next, as previously mentioned the ground was still frozen, the surroundings were austere and immediately obvious life here is tough. On the up side, dawn to dusk birding meant 24 hours, there was no lack of company with locals and contractors seemingly willing to help where they could. Of the latter, off-shift activities only included thumb twiddling, sleeping, searching for nonexistent alcohol and looking for company, so it was very easy to find someone to take you further afield.

I wouldn't want to go Mackerel fishing in that, let alone Whaling with a hand harpoon

One afternoon, returning towards the hotel I watched a group of men bringing this small boat off the ice and into town. Here a large group of people had formed for what was their traditional Whale Festival. Immediately invited to join the throng, I was told that these diminutive boats are used, almost exclusively, for hunting the 28 Bowhead Whales that the Indians are permitted to kill annually.

Bowhead whale hunting was, and continues to be, important to the Iñupiaq culture, not just for the food they provide, but for the sense of community and cooperation it creates. The whales can weigh as much as 60 tons, which means they have to be hunted by groups of people working together with a whaling captain. When they kill a whale, the Iñupiaq thank it for giving its life to them, and the whole community shares in its bounty. Much of the equipment traditionally used by their ancestors, including the umiaq, or sealskin canoe, is still used today. During the prolonged winter the boats stand propped up on the ice, with those flying a flag at the masthead indicating success in the hunt.

Bowls, mainly filled with White-fronted Goose stew, ready to be served

Once the boat is secured in the car park, today doubling as the village square, the festivities can begin. Firstly, everyone is served a soft drink followed by a hearty portion of Wild Goose stew amid much adulation for the boat crew, who not surprisingly are 'local heroes'. Much effort goes into this celebration of the Whale, but more than meets the eye.

Serving Muktak - don't worry Bags there will be plenty left for 'seconds'

When each of the revered beasts are landed, the town elders select and remove the most sought after cuts, slice into strips and store the raw flesh in large barrels. There it is marinaded in its own blood for 6 months, during which time it is stirred ritually every morning and evening.
The 'Muktak' Muncher, looking very confident

On the fateful day, this is served to the whole assembly, most of whom take it home in plastic bags to 'enjoy' with their families in the evening. I have never been squeamish about eating strange foods around the world, but on this occasion I think it would have been preferable to learn about what was to be eaten, after the event.
Ditto - but the smile has gone as the first drop of blood hits the back of the throat!
Delicious - the locals look amused, but I'll take a rain check on 'seconds' thank you!


Contact with Europeans came in 1826, when two British men arrived and renamed the area Barrow (the Iñupiaq named it Ukpiagvik, meaning “the place for hunting snowy owls”).

In 1969 'Cream' lyricist and songwriter Pete Brown formed a band which he called Piblokto. Having seen them on a number of occasions, the name intrigued me at the time, but it wasn't until this trip that the true meaning was reveled.

Piblokto, or Arctic Hysteria is a condition exclusively appearing in Eskimo societies living within the Arctic Circle. Appearing most prevalently in winter, it is considered to be a form of a culture-bound syndrome.

(Unintended) Double Entendres - should my memory allow, it is intended to post what are considered a dozen of the best, submitted by one of our regular readers.

Ted Walsh, Horse Racing Commentator - 'This is really a lovely horse. I once rode her mother.'

New Zealand Rugby Commentator - 'Andrew Mehrtens loves it when Daryl Gibson comes inside of him.'

Pat Glenn, Weightlifting Commentator - 'And this is Gregoriava from Bulgaria . I saw her snatch this morning and it was amazing!'