By Jacob Resneck
Tens of thousands descended on Dalvik, a small fishing town of about 1,500 people in northern Iceland, last weekend for a two-day festival of free food. It was all courtesy of the community's four seafood processors.
Ulfar Eysteinsson, who is the head chef overseeing preparations in Dalvik, is credited with coining the name, fiskidagur mikli, the Great Fish Day, when it began 11 years ago.
"We are cooking for about 30,000-plus. The last three years we've had up to 40,000," he said.
At quarter past eight, pairs of candles began appearing in the front of Dalvik homes, to signal that the soup was ready — a thick, aromatic fish stew made with cream and seasoned with curry. Visitors paraded through homes and gardens where the soup was served.
Valdis Gudbrandsdottir welcomed people enthusiastically into her home.
"This is so fun, this is so giving," she said. "We are giving other people food and they are happy and we are happy. We have been doing this maybe 10 years in this house."
But the big crowds didn't appear until the next day. By 11 am, the entire waterfront was blocked off with tables lined with individual portions of fish — grilled, stewed, raw and fermented.
Ulfar Eysteinsson used the event to promote his Reykjavik restaurant's most controversial specialty: minke whale. He wears a white chef's jacket that said, "WE LOVE WHALES FOR DINNER."
"People like the taste," Ulfar Eysteinsson said. "It's so soft. It's very tender."
Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006, flouting an international moratorium. Last month, the Obama administration threatened Iceland with economic sanctions over the whale hunts.
At the Dalvik festival, some of the dark red minke whale meat was served raw with soy sauce and wasabi to enthusiastic visitors. Reinhold Bacher travelled here from his home in landlocked Austria.
"The first time I eat whale! This tastes absolutely great," Bacher said.
Further down the line a Greenland shark was hacked into small slabs and slopped into paper Coca-Cola cups. This is hakarl, fermented shark meat, an Icelandic specialty. 13-year-old Isaac from Reykjavik stared uncertainly at his Coke cup full of the greenish, gelatinous flesh. He said he hadn't tasted it yet, because it's "gross." When pressed to try it, he did, reluctantly. His reaction? "It's still disgusting," he said.
Around the block the line for fried fish burgers was much, much longer.
Fishing is big business in Iceland. It's a major consideration as this small island nation of about 300,000 plots its political and economic future in the wake of the 2008 banking collapse.
This past June, Iceland launched formal talks to join the European Union. One of the key considerations is the future of Iceland's exclusive fishing grounds. The country would have to open them up as an EU member state.
Svanfridor Jonasdottir, the mayor of Dalvik, argues that full EU membership would help fish processing towns like Dalvik, even if it comes at the expense of the domestic fishing fleet.
"It would affect the right to fishing in a way we don't know yet, really. But for the fishing processing factories, they are quite similar to other industries in Iceland. They have to have this market in Europe. The market in Europe is the biggest market," she said.
But two polls conducted in June suggest that Icelanders are split on this issue.
If Dalvik's Great Fish Day is any indicator, Iceland takes great pride in its fish production and may not be ready to compromise on one of its greatest natural resources.
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