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Andrew Zimmern, the host of The Travel Channel’s hit series Bizarre Foods, has an extraordinarily well-earned reputation for traveling far and wide to seek out and sample anything and everything that’s consumed as food globally, from cow vein stew in Bolivia and giant flying ants in Uganda to raw camel kidneys in Ethiopia, putrefied shark in blood pudding in Iceland and Wolfgang Puck's Hunan style rooster balls in Los Angeles. For Zimmern, local cuisine — bizarre, gross or downright stomach turning as it may be to us -- is not simply what’s served at mealtime. It is a primary avenue to discovering what is most authentic — the bizarre truth — about cultures everywhere. Having eaten his way around the world over the course of four seasons of Bizarre Foods, Zimmern has now launched Bizarre Worlds, a new series on the Travel Channel, and this, his first book, a chronicle of his journeys as he not only tastes the “taboo treats” of the world, but delves deep into the cultures and lifestyles of far-flung locales and seeks the most prized of the modern traveler’s goals: The Authentic Experience. Written in the smart, often hilarious voice he uses to narrate his TV shows, Zimmern uses his adventures in “culinary anthropology” to illustrate such themes as: why visiting local markets can reveal more about destinations than museums; the importance of going to “the last stop on the subway” — the most remote area of a place where its essence is most often revealed; the need to seek out and catalog “the last bottle of coca-cola in the desert,” i.e. disappearing foods and cultures; the profound differences between dining and eating; and the pleasures of snout to tail, local, fresh and organic food. Zimmern takes readers into the back of a souk in Morocco where locals are eating a whole roasted lamb; along with a conch fisherman in Tobago, who may be the last of his kind; to Mississippi, where he dines on raccoon and possum. There, he writes, "People said, 'That's roadkill!' ‘No it's not,’ I said. ‘It's a cultural story.’”
Whether it’s a session with an Incan witch doctor in Ecuador who blows fire on him, spits on him, thrashes him with poisonous branches and beats him with a live guinea pig or drinking blood in Uganda and cow urine tonic in India or eating roasted bats on an uninhabited island in Samoa, Zimmern cheerfully celebrates the undiscovered destinations and weird wonders still remaining in our increasingly globalized world.
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Andrew Zimmern is a food writer, dining critic, chef, and co-creator, host, and co-producer of Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods and Bizarre Worlds with Andrew Zimmern. Zimmern is the founder and editor in chief of www.andrewzimmern.com, writes monthly for Delta Sky Magazine and Minneapolis-St Paul Magazine and lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Modern Day Vikings
Puffin Hunting in the Land
of Fire and Ice
Iceland looks and feels like no other place on earth. As our plane touched down just outside Reykjavik, I was almost convinced we’d landed on the moon. Not surprising, given that NASA astronauts trained in Iceland prior to the first moon landing. In much of the country, the barren, rocky topography looks otherworldly in the extreme. Iceland is roughly the size of Ohio, a moss-covered, glacial, rocky expanse, born of the volcanic womb. Treeless mountains, sweeping fields of arctic grasses waving out to the horizon, awe inspiring geysers, raging rivers, spectacular ocean vistas and therapeutic hot springs fueled by boiling, underwater volcanoes are stunning, but make much of the island uninhabitable. Iceland is called the land of fire and ice yet, despite its staggering natural beauty, the overwhelming majority of the population lives in the capital city of Rekyavik. Everyone else is a farmer, or works in either the thermal energy business (booming) or the greenhouse gardening industry (emerging).
The country is changing and growing all the time– literally. In 1963, a volcanic explosion just off the southern coast of Iceland created an island one square mile in size. This landmass, named Surtsey after Iceland’s mythological god of fire, grew to official landmass status in only three and a half years. I was fortunate enough to travel to Surtsey by boat one day. It’s a phenomenal the thing to see, an island that is as big as it is, that is as new as it is, and freakishly almost exactly as old as I am.
I knew the food in Iceland would be wonderful. As a chef in New York and Minneapolis, I’d always been floored by the quality of Icelandic lamb, dairy products and seafood I’d occasionally run across from time to time. Icelandic animals drink the cleanest water on the earth, eat the freshest grass and breathe the purest air. Everything, from the horses to the sheep and cows, is genetically pristine and raised not only for their meat, but for their milk and cheese products. Skyr for example, the addictively cheesy yogurt product you see everywhere in Iceland, comes from cows that eat sweet grass for such a brief period of time, then silage for most of the year, which gives them a unique flavor profile that is distinctly their own. Sweet and white, devoid of the yellowed and grassy notes that conventionally raised cow’s milk contains for much of the milking year.
I spent much of my time in Rekyavik, puttering around town and enjoying the beautiful summer weather. Summer temperatures climb into the 40s during the day, maybe 50s in the sun. We got a lot accomplished thanks to the globally famous amphetamine affect of the short nightfall. Occurring between 12AM and 5AM, the mid hours of the night are mostly dusky blue and never really deep black.
The food scene in Iceland is vibrant, small little cafes like the Sea Baron serve up steamy bowls of chowder and lobster bisque, elegant eateries like Vox and Siggi Hall would be great restaurant with huge followings in any city in the world, and the local seaport boasts a lamb hot dog shack that is a must for any food lover’s Icelandic itinerary. I swam and spa-ed at the geo-thermal hot spring, the Blue Lagoon. I availed myself of the local public bath houses in town, which are very popular, and made a host of new friends courtesy of our larger-than-life host, Svein Sveinson. Svein is a filmmaker, bon vivant and legendary lover of the good life, who introduced himself to me online by sending me a picture of himself, stripped to the skin, after he’d stuffed his enormous 6 foot 5 inch frame into the teeniest hot spring he could find.
After four or five days of cruising around town, I was itching for a change of pace, and I was also looking forward to my first taste of Puffin, those cute little black and white birds with big orange beaks. Before you get yourself all worked up about me eating this cute n’ cuddly creature, consider the fact only 300,000 people call Iceland home. The puffin population, on the other hand, runs between eight and ten million. Icelanders could eat puffin at every meal for now until eternity and they would never make a dent in that region’s population. As a matter of fact, they urge people to eat them as a point of civic duty because there are just so many of them. The country even hosts giant puffin-centric food festivals, where everyone eats smoked puffins and grilled puffins and drinks to the wee hours of the morning. It’s a strange food concept that few people outside Iceland really understand.
But to eat the best puffins, and to hunt them where they live you need to head south of Reykjavik. There, you’ll find the Vestmannaeyjarare Islands, a cluster of smaller islands that make up one of the regions most famous fishing communities. This area’s other claim to fame is the 1973 volcanic eruption on Heimaey, the largest island in the chain. It’s Iceland’s version of Pompeii, but only a few decades old. Lava flows crushed half of the town, and when you see the end results of something that destructive and realize that it happened within your lifetime, it gives you great pause. You see homes buried, and cars half frozen in black, porous rock. Luckily, everyone was able to get off the island in time to save themselves, but my fantastically negative, cynical mind kept telling me I was trapped on an island without an much of an escape route.
Millions of puffins call the Vestmannaeyjarare Islands home, and the local restaurateurs take advantage of this ample source of food. The rest of the citizenry are devoted puffin eaters or hunters or both. Once our six-seat puddle jumper landed on Heimaey, we tried to negotiate our way over to the far side of Vestmannaeyjarare, tooling through the small town, lunching at a teeny fish house on steamed cod and brown bread. With its simple harbor, occasional spouting orca, seals and numerous birds, it was perfect for shooting a little b-roll. Along the way we end up running into a guy who claimed he could arrange to have us picked up by boat on the far side of the island, and taken to an uninhabited island to experience a puffin hunt first hand. Without hesitation, we piled the crew into our van and head over to the far side of the island.
It’s a bright, beautiful summer’s day in Iceland, and in the sun it feels like it’s in the low 50s. Perfect sweatshirt weather. We pass alongside a huge half moon bay, complete with breathtaking views of the ocean and the outer isles, which included Surtsey, and started unloading our gear onto the mile long black sand beach. There isn’t a trace of human imprint as far as you can see. Not a jet contrail in the sky, not a footprint in the sand, not a boat at sea... it’s just empty and desolate. You know for sure you’re at one of the ends of the earth, a feeling I find so satisfying and I could have sat at that beach all day.
We locked our vehicles, thanked our new friends and waited for our guide by a giant piece of driftwood that had washed up on the beach. After 20 minutes, we see a Zodiac boat puttering over to us. It lands on the beach and off steps Pall. He’s a modern day Viking: 6’ tall, blonde hair, 175 pounds and shakes your hand with a grip that could crush pecans. Not big and muscley or long haired with a horned Helga helmet, but he was clearly the kind of guy you just know can repair his own engines, build his own house, fight his way out of bar brawl and shoot the wings off a butterfly. He’s the kind of guy who would travel alone in a Zodiac, a 14’ flat bottom rubber boat, across five miles of open ocean from an uninhabited island to pick me up. Hot on Pall’s heels is a closed-cabin, 20’ cruiser with an inboard engine that will ferry the crew as they capture Pall and I having the “authentic” experience of taking the zodiac to the island of Alsey, where his family has hunted on for years.
I was glad I put on my knee-high rubber boots that morning as I piled into his boat from the surfside. The crew has already headed out into the channel on the cruiser, headed toward a giant boulder looming in the distance. I’ve been in a Zodiac plenty of times, so I plopped down on the edge of the craft on the gunwale, just as I did as a little kid puttering around the inner harbors of the South Fork of Long Island. It’s the perfect vehicle for flat, calm water. Easy in, easy out. But today Pall instructs me to sit down on the floor of the boat itself, explaining that’s how it’s done in Iceland. I’m all confused-- What do you mean, sit on the flat bottom? In the water no less? And in his stern, Vikingly way, he says it again: Sit on the flat bottom. Next, he instructs me to wrap my arms around the ropes attached to the gunwales. What do you mean, wrap my arms around the ropes? He explains that I have to hang on tight unless I want to get thrown out of the boat. It is then that I begin to get a brief idea of what the afternoon will hold for me. He turns toward me, sees the look on my face and a huge grin spreads across his, because he can clearly see I’m fucking shit-face petrified. After a moment of pure self-satisfaction he tells me, “Today will be a great test of your manhood.” And he goes back to staring out at the horizon as he guides the boat out of the quiet water and into the rolling seas.
When you’re in a 14’ flat bottom zodiac in rolling waves, maybe about eight or ten feet high, it’s like being stuck on the longest rollercoaster ride of your life. No life preservers. No radios. Just me and Pall the Viking, cranking down the engine as hard as it could go in this little rubber dinghy. Oh, and in case you forgot, we’re in Iceland. The water is just a degree above freezing. We are miles and miles from civilization as the crow files, at least ten miles from the nearest town. If you fall into that wa...
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