Visit Norway- Norwegians Eat Whale, Do You?

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I had another restaurant experience I want to talk about while I was in Norway. This one is going to raise a few eyebrows and maybe even a few tempers. But I think we are all mature enough to handle this conversation.

I had a great meal at a restaurant in Bergen called Jacob’s Bar & Kjøkken (Kong Oscars gate 44). It’s an innovative restaurant, casual in feeling but serious about food and wine. In other words, my kind of place. Hand me a menu and let’s get started.

There’s an appetizer billed as Bread and Fat (lardo, aioli and soy lemon nut butter with bread). Yum! Followed by a seasonally appropriate cold soup with ramson (wild garlic) and potato with dry-cured salted leg of lamb– Wowza! But what should I have for my main course? The skate with egg & potato salad, radish, turnips, herring roe and dill cream looks good. Maybe I’ll order that. But look, there’s whale on the menu. Would you eat whale? Would I?

In my part of the world people are aghast at the idea of consuming whale meat. But it might surprise you to know that there are only 6 nations who still practice whaling. And the U.S. is one of them. The others being: Japan, Denmark, Russia, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, and (as I discovered) Norway.

Fat & Bread from Norway's Jacob's RestaurantThese countries have joined together under the banner of The International Whaling Commission (IWC) with the purpose of monitoring and regulating whales around the world to ensure that there is a responsible and sustainable rate in the hunting of whales.

The whales that are used as food in Norway are not endangered. The species is known as minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata). It is the second smallest of all the whales and its population is widely monitored.

Monitoring the population is important if the IWC wants to claim that whale populations are sustainable. Monitoring is also what sets the quota of hunt size for Norway. In order to understand what is needed to maintain a sustainable population of minke whales Norway ceased all commercial whaling between 1988 and 1993 to allow scientists to gauge the size and the rate of growth in the population. It was determined that minke whales would be the only legally hunted species. Since then the hunts have been regulated, and Norwegian catches have fluctuated between 487 animals in 2000 to 592 in 2007. For the year 2011 the quota is set at 1286 minke whales. Meaning the population of minke whales is growing.

Ramson Soup in NorwayI am firm believer in monitoring and regulating fisheries all over the world. I certainly hope these practices prove successful in California where the salmon fisheries have been closed for a number of years. This is the first year in a long time that commercial salmon fishing has returned to coastal California. The limited success and slight rebound of the California salmon fisheries helps me accept the argument that programs such as Norway’s are responsible and sustainable.

But there are some cold hard facts about meat in general that must enter into the discussion. I am a meat eater. I have had to weigh a lot of information to come to the conclusion that it’s OK (for me) to eat beef. In fact I might even be guilty of setting aside some of my convictions just to have a hamburger. That’s between me and my conscience though. Because the raising of beef cattle has one of the highest environmental impacts on this planet. The amount of energy and resources that go into beef production are staggering. The carbon and methane it produces are currently unacceptable to me. Rainforests are mown clear to make room for grazing. People are displaced and our planet is permanently altered. Yet still I eat beef. This is the nature of these food issues. They are far more complicated than simply stating cold hard facts. I realize and accept that some readers will never condone the concept of whale (or even beef) consumption.

SkateBut my hope is that the beef industry will find the sort of balance that the Norwegians seem to have found with their whaling program. I want delicious beef to be available to me. I want it to be healthy and sustainable. To get there I have chosen to eat meat and support ranches with responsible production. It means buying beef that might (does) cost a bit more. But if the market demands better practices, I believe the industry will follow.

Another interesting fact: Whaling does not destroy the environment where the animal lives. The same cannot be said about North American Atlantic cod fishing. Insane practices of harvest have altered the oceans floor to the point that Atlantic cod can no longer reproduce at a rate high enough to maintain its population size.

I’ll admit that I did all of this research well before I sat down to eat at Jacob’s because I knew I would face whale meat on some menu somewhere in Norway. I wanted facts to guide my decision. Would I eat it, or would I pass? If you read this blog much then you know that sustainable seafood is an important issue to me. By the time I sat down I was convinced of Norway’s adherence to sustainable practices in its whaling industry. However as I sat looking at the menu, deciding if I wanted to order whale, I realized that I felt a bit of revulsion anyway.

Pan Fried Steak from Jacob's Restaurant in NorwayIt can’t be from the way the menu described the dish: pan-fried whale with cabbage, pancetta, walnuts and blue cheese emulsion. The only thing about that sentence that disturbs me is the word whale. I realized just then that I was suffering from cultural imperialism. We Americans can be very prone to this affliction. In fact it’s one of the few widely accepted forms of bigotry that still creeps into my life. I don’t want to be the kind of person who believes that my values are somehow automatically better than the values of another culture. Especially if I’ve never taken a step in their multi-colored shoes…

I ordered the whale and ate every bite. I liked it quite a bit. Like the beefiest beef you can imagine.

And just for the record. I am not arguing that you should make the same decision I made. But I do hope to illustrate the importance of getting the facts and processing them through your own belief system and making a responsible choice all your own.

SERIOUS FUN FOOD

Greg Henry

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