A cool trip to the polar pantry

After eating walrus, narwhal and muskoxen, raiding the fridge is just not the same for Sam Vincent.

Knud Rasmussen was as tough as they come. The first man to cross the Northwest Passage by dog sled, he is a giant of Arctic exploration and Greenland's favourite son. Unfortunately for Knud, his stomach wasn't as tough as he was. On December 21, 1933, having eaten a little auk bird weeks before, Rasmussen staggered, then keeled over and died. Seventy-five years later, I hope to fare better.

I am in Maniitsoq, a hamlet of colourful fishermen's cottages 100 kilometres north of Greenland's capital, Nuuk. For the past two weeks I have been embracing the sometimes controversial, always interesting world of Greenlandic cuisine. I've wolfed down walrus, gnawed narwhal and munched muskoxen; I've slurped seal stew and sampled the finest whale blubber around, all washed down with beer brewed from icebergs.

The only thing left on my menu is Knud's killer: the dreaded little auk. Called apparaq in Greenlandic, these pot-bellied birds resemble small penguins until they teeter into flight with near useless wings.

Returning to Greenland's waters each spring, they send the locals into a culinary frenzy, whole families skipping school and work to shoot them at sea. Along with three Greenlandic friends, I am joining the hunt.

As we chug out of Maniitsoq harbour in my mate Kjeld's tinnie, mountains as black as coal rise around us, speckled with snow to the water's edge.

Ten minutes out of Maniitsoq, the north wind picks up off Davis Strait, freezing in place the uneasy smile I had assumed when given a gun. Aqqalu and Naja, the other passengers, cradle rifles too and scan the water carefully for anything tasty. Kjeld tells me we must shoot no more than three little auks today. Greenlandic children are taught from a young age to take only what they need and although I have mixed feelings towards hunting, such words are heartening.

"Otherwise," he asks me, "what will be left for my children?"

We head north towards a group of small islands known as an auk rookery. The sun appears and I curse myself for having left my sunnies at the hotel. In the old days, Inuit hunters would rub ash from their campfires under their eyes to combat snow glare. They are even attributed with inventing the world's first sunglasses, lens-less affairs fashioned from reindeer antlers with slits to permit vision.


We pass a boat of grinning Greenlanders auspiciously holding a bunch of dead little auks as if they were a bouquet of roses.

Then we see them. A flock of seven bobbing on the waves, the auks seem oblivious to our presence. I am offered first shot but having never fired a gun, I miss badly.

As the birds take to the sky awkwardly, Aqqalu and Naja spring into action, quickly bagging three between them. With each loud bang, auks career out of control like shot-down bombers; feathered fuselages plopping neatly into the sea.

The fog begins to roll in and Naja suggests we take cover in her nearby summer cabin, where we can warm up and, more importantly, eat our auks. We are soon there but before we enter, she carefully plucks and cleans each bird, throwing the entrails to a squawking group of gulls above.

While the auks roast in a small gas stove, Aqqalu opens his backpack and reveals the hors d'oeuvres. There is ammassat - dried capelin that resembles cardboard and doesn't taste much better. More appetising are the black leathery strips of muskox jerky. Native to Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Norway, these shaggy beasts look like the offspring of a yak and Sesame Street's Snuffleupagus.

Easily the most disgusting snack Aqqalu produces is a pile of puisiposua - raw seal fat. Despite heaping it with salt to mask the taste, I gag when it hits my tongue, its flavour reminding me of the mutton grease we feed the dogs on my family farm. While I attempt to rid the taste with a gulp of beer, Aqqalu shoves a huge slab in his mouth and gives a nod of approval. "Rich in omega-3 fats!"

But it is judgment time. To be fair, Knud Rasmussen was poisoned from an auk that was a tad out of date. We are eating fresh ones but, even so, I approach the steaming serving before me with trepidation. The meat is soft and dark and, as much as it pains me to say, tastes like chicken. Far from a putrid chore, it is delicious and I greedily help myself to seconds.

Aqqalu tells me we must save some for the qivittoq. These are said to be men who were long ago exiled from their communities and now live alone in caves. It is believed that over time they have gained supernatural powers, with some able to fly, others seeing vast distances, while others still, it is said, can dash as fast as an Arctic hare. Greenlandic hunters will always pack thread and matches whenever they journey far from home, as these are believed to be the only objects capable of appeasing a cranky qivittoq.

Bellies full, we head outside to toss some auk on the rocks for the qivittoq or, more likely, any Arctic foxes that may pass by during the night. Although nearly summer, it is bitterly cold and having left my gloves in the cabin, my fingers are soon the colour of lavender.

I start shivering but am soon sniggering. I may not be as tough as Knud Rasmussen but at least I didn't baulk at my auk.

The writer was a guest of the Maniitsoq Tourist Office and Hotel Maniitsoq.


Getting there

Air Greenland (airgreenland.com) flies several times a week from Copenhagen to Maniitsoq, with a change at Kangerlussuaq, starting at $2000 return.

Staying there

Hotel Maniitsoq (hotelmaniitsoq.gl) offers warm and comfy rooms with a big breakfast included in the price. Singles/doubles from $280 to $360.

When to go

Spring and summer are the best seasons to visit Greenland when there are more daylight hours and the weather is bearable. Whatever the season, remember to bring lots of cold-weather gear - and your sunnies.

Further information

See greenland.com and come2maniitsoq.com.