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Whale Meal

June 20, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

The only people who regularly eat whale meat these days are the Japanese and certain Arctic and subarctic peoples, such as the Inuit and the Faroe Islanders.

In most of medieval Europe, the only people who ate it--as far as kings could manage--were the kings and their friends; seagoing mammals were considered royal property. Mostly this was for the childish reason that whales were so big and impressive, but it was also because of the flavor: Whale can be very tasty, something like good beef, though with a faint fishy undertone. The meat is purplish when raw and dark mahogany brown when cooked, and it's low in fat; the whale's fat is concentrated just under the skin, for insulation.

There are several fancy medieval recipes for one variety of whale, the porpoise: in jelly, in porridge or roasted and served with spicy sauces. Whale retained aristocratic connotations for quite a while. The 16th and 17th century French were crazy about whale tongue.

Whale meat was always commoners' food in Scandinavia, however. It was eaten plain, and leftovers--there are usually lots of leftovers from a whole whale--were salted and made into whale ham (spikihval). The best meat came from around the fins and the best blubber from near the tail. Even the gristle was relished. We don't know much about how the Vikings on Greenland cooked whales, but they certainly caught them--about the only commodity the Greenlanders' poor colony could export was the "black rope" made from braided whale skin.

Whale continued to be eaten in Scandinavia down to this century. In Norway, gryn was a dish of blubber and meat boiled with potatoes and barley, and mylja was flat bread spread with melted blubber. The Icelanders liked to preserve both blubber and the meat of the flippers and flukes in whey, which gave them a sour flavor.

This all sounds pretty gruesome today, when whales are an endangered species, but we have to remember that in those days, there were no whaling ships and the whales people could eat were usually ones that had washed up on shore. (Whales that washed up at high tide were said to have better blubber than low-tiders.)

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