Isola Bella and Villa Crespi

Last week we found ourselves, child free, driving around the lakes of Piedmont. The kids were with their grandparents and we found a car rental company which would let us have a small vehicle for the entirely reasonable sum of €19 for two days. We sped up to Lago Maggiore to have a bit of a look around.

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The weather was fine, and on the spur of the moment we took a ferry into the lake to visit Isola Bella. Apart from a tiny village (full of restaurants and souvenir shops) by the harbour where the ferry docked, this small island is taken up almost entirely by a large stately home and the attached gardens. I had little interest in the palazzo, but we had to walk through it in order to access the gardens, so we found ourselves slaloming our way around groups of trudging tourists as they gazed at a large collection of uninspiring paintings in overwrought gilt frames, spread across a ridiculous number of drawing and function rooms.

The route was long and winding with no possibility of short-cuts, but eventually we found ourselves back out in the fresh air and entered the gardens. These were the most intriguing aspect when seen from the water as we approached:

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Here’s the view of the other side:

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And looking back towards the mainland.

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See that lacy white thing on the lawn on the right hand side?

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Albino peacock!

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In fact there were two, one on each of the twin lawns. And they regularly called to each other and put on displays for the smartphone-wielding tourists.

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Our lodgings (and, er, dinings) for that night were a short drive away next to Lake Orta. You may remember that we’d been to this area before a few years ago, and in fact we had driven past and noted Villa Crespi as an intriguing-looking place. So of course this was our destination this time. As the hotel website tells it, “Cristoforo Benigno Crespi, a pioneer of the Italian cotton industry, while travelling on business in the Middle East was bewitched by Baghdad and its charms and in 1879 finished his own magnificent Moorish villa”. This is the view of the tower from the terrace outside our room.

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The elaborate stucco work continues inside:

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And the view from our room towards the lake wasn’t bad either.

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After a bit of relaxation we headed down for dinner. Chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo is originally from Naples. Hence the title of the tasting menu: “Itinerary from the south to the north of Italy”.

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The opening selection of amuse-bouches.

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I didn’t take notes, but I recall that the round buns at the top were focaccia (my wife’s only complaint of the evening was about this inauthentic version of her home town’s speciality), the green blobs at the bottom were crackers with gorgonzola and celery, and the macaroons at left were savoury.

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First course: oyster in a creamy radish sauce. I’ll never be enthusiastic about oyster but this slipped down easily enough, aided by the sauce.

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Raw shrimp in a “pizza”-style sauce (tomato, mozzarella, oregano). Strange and memorable.

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Linguine with squid and a rye bread sauce.

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Red mullet, aubergine, and a smoked provola cheese sauce. Fantastic. This dish was one of the motivations for buying the chef’s recipe book before we left the next day.

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Pigeon with foie gras and chocolate crunchy bits. My son was incredulous when I told him I’d eaten this bird, and asked me “Did they clean out all the poo first?”

It was a surprisingly large amount of meat and we started to feel full at this point.

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But then…CHEESE TROLLEY! A good range, although the waiter didn’t give us too much time to find out what each one was, and just gave us a selection.

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Pre-dessert was an alcoholic sorbet to be sucked up through a straw from inside an edible white chocolate cup.

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Ice cream and fruit.

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More nibbles. We were really full at this point and didn’t finish them all.

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Pretty, though.

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After this there was also a couple of sfogliatelle, but we really couldn’t manage those so we asked for them to be sent to our room and we had them the next morning.

Oh, there was also some good wine.

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But in spite of our bursting bellies it had been a very enjoyable meal. One of the best for a while, in fact.

At breakfast the next morning I saw mention on the menu of cereals, but couldn’t find them anywhere. Only after I’d had my fill of bread and cheese did I notice the small jars on the buffet which, on closer inspection, were revealed as bespoke cereal containers. Rice Crespis!

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I can see us coming back here in the not too distant future.

#gastronaut, #italy, #travel

Florida notes

A few final random notes about the recent trip to Florida, and the “little differences” I noticed.

Of the towns we saw in Florida (Cocoa Beach, St Petersburg, Fort Myers, Homestead) most of them were fairly visually uninteresting, at least to my European eyes. Wide and flat, with little in the way of distinctive architecture. Now admittedly we were there for the wildlife and theme parks, so this wasn’t a deal breaker. And we stayed mostly in chain hotels in probably the least interesting parts of town. We were usually just off a large through road surrounded by malls and fast food restaurants, so not the kind of place where you’d just want to go out for an evening stroll, but we did see the downtown areas too and they looked like more of the same. Our final stop, Miami, was wildly exotic and full of imaginative design in comparison, even though I’m not that big a fan of ostentatious, pastel-hued Art Deco.

Speaking of hotels, we had contrasting experiences with two big chains. Hampton Inn was fine, but considering how much they charged you’d think they’d be able to provide proper crockery and cutlery at breakfast. Instead I felt like I was at a children’s party, eating off of paper plates with plastic knives and forks, all of which gets thrown away at the end of the meal, of course. Large trash cans dominated the food area. Tacky and incredibly wasteful.

On the other hand the Staybridge in St Petersburg was very good. Not only did they have proper, grown up plates and cutlery, but they even gave us free food to put on it. I mean, not every meal, but Monday to Wednesday evenings there was a free buffet dinner and glass of wine for all guests. And a free DVD rental on our first night (although our kids insisted on watching The Phantom of the Opera). And a free shuttle bus to anywhere within a three mile radius, which meant most of the main sights as the hotel was centrally located.

St Petersburg, by the way, is known for its excellent Dalì museum, but there’s plenty of free art in the streets too, with murals all over the place, and especially near Central Avenue. These two were spotted near Haslam’s bookstore.

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Finally, I was struck by the flight attendants on our American Airlines. No, they didn’t hit me. I mean I was surprised at how old they all were. This was true to a certain extent of Disney World staff too, and I’ve noticed something similar in certain sectors in the UK. It seems much more common these days to see people near or even past retirement age working in the service industry, no doubt caused in part by the pensions crisis and a generally ageing population in the west. Considering that we were in Florida I’d expected to see fewer of these senior citizens serving me food and drinks and more of them sunning themselves on the beaches.

#art, #quotidian, #travel

Coral Castle

On the morning of the penultimate day of our Florida holiday I thought we might briefly drive past Coral Castle, which our guidebook noted was a quirky, kitsch little sculpture garden; the kind of curious roadside attraction to be filed alongside Carhenge. They were seriously under-selling it, as it was one of the most memorable things I saw on this trip.

It was built by a Latvian immigrant called Ed Leedskalnin in the 1920s, supposedly as a tribute to his 16 year old fiancé who’d jilted him at the altar. There are three interesting aspects to this place: what Ed built, how exactly he built it, and Ed’s personal story.

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The entire construction is made from massive blocks of oolitic limestone, which Ed quarried single-handedly out of the ground surrounding the property. Many of the pieces are not only very large, weighing several tonnes, but bear no obvious cut marks, and fit perfectly together. A couple of “gate” stones are so perfectly balanced as to be able to spin easily with the slightest push (you can see some video footage here).

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In fact it was originally built in another location, and Ed moved the whole thing, again single-handed, in order to be near a newly-constructed highway which he hoped would bring more visitors. No one ever saw Ed at work, and in fact he worked only at night so as to avoid scrutiny. When quizzed about his methods he usually gave one of two answers: “It’s easy when you know how” or “I know the secrets of the pyramids”. He used only simple tools made from scrap metal found at a nearby garage. Here’s the view of the main garden.

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Many of the pieces are of astronomical significance. There’s a sundial and a “telescope” lined up to allow viewing of the pole star.

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There are various chairs angled so as to receive maximum sunlight at different times of the day. Ed spent a lot of time sunbathing as he’d been told that it would help cure his tuberculosis.

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There are several outdoor “rooms” obviously intended for his erstwhile fiancé and their hypothetical future children, including a bedroom with baby cot (at top). He also built a “repentance corner” where naughty children (or his wife) would be made to stand with their heads through a hole in the rock while he lectured them on their failings.

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A well.

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Ed himself lived on the top floor of a small two storey tower, sleeping on a wooden board suspended by chains from the ceiling.

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The room below shows some of his work tools such as simple pulleys and metal levers.

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Over the years many theories have been elaborated as to how Ed managed all this by himself. People talk of anti-gravity, harmonic resonance and, of course:

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Others maintain that for all the seeming impossibility of the task Ed, an experienced stone mason, was simply applying well known principles of leverage. Many videos on youtube and self-published books offer detailed arguments to support their theories.

There’s a brief overview of the site and its history on wikipedia, but I also recommend the book I bought in the gift shop, which gives a fairly comprehensive account of Ed’s strange, solitary life and his unconventional ideas. In the end for me the man is as interesting as his work, which is best seen not just as an engineering puzzle but as an expression of his view of the world.

Make time to visit if you’re ever anywhere nearby.

#art, #science, #travel

The Everglades

After four days in Disney World, fun as that was, I was in the mood for quiet open spaces and nature. Fortunately the Florida Everglades are nearby and offer vast stretches of water, grass and mangroves, and are filled with refreshingly non-anthropomorphised animals.

A boat tour of the Ten Thousand Islands (an archipelago off the extreme south-western coast) afforded the opportunity to see many creatures close-up. A nesting osprey.

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There were a couple of furry chick heads poking out of the nest. Sadly the sign reminds me that the one creature I was most keen to see on this trip, the manatee, was the one we didn’t spot. We ran out of time on our few days passing through this area. But we did see other aquatic mammals: bottlenose dolphins, for example.

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Oh, and these things. Can’t remember what they’re called, but they’re pretty common around these parts.

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The mangroves themselves are pretty interesting. Tannins from the mangrove turn the water a deep tea-brown, but the water is actually very clean as it’s constantly filtered by the many oysters living there.

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We took an airboat trip through the winding alleyways. Not sure to what extent these are artificial or natural: some of them are very straight.

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We encountered a pair of raccoons who were obviously very used to human contact.

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We did another boat tour over the ‘river of grass’. I didn’t realise until I was looking at the photos at home afterwards that I’d captured an airboat passing by at the top right of the picture.

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A walk around the pond near the Ernest Coe visitor centre on the eastern side of the park, just south of Miami.

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Saw our first turtle here. I don’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved that we didn’t get a closer look at the alligator snapping turtle.

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Great Blue Heron. Seconds after I took this shot and lowered my camera it jerked its head forward, speared a passing fish with its beak, and stalked off into the bush to enjoy its meal.

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Florida also has moss. Spanish moss. Although it’s technically not a moss at all. It’s just moss-querading.

“Spanish moss has been used for various purposes, including building insulation, mulch, packing material, mattress stuffing, and fiber. In the early 1900s it was used commercially in the padding of car seats. In the desert regions of the southwestern United States, dried Spanish moss plants are used in the manufacture of evaporative coolers, colloquially known as swamp coolers. These are used to cool homes and offices much less expensively than using air conditioners. A pump squirts water onto a pad made of Spanish moss plants. A fan then pulls air through the pad and into the building. Evaporation of the water on the pads serves to reduce the air temperature, thus cooling the building” [wikipedia]

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This large mural was on display in the aforementioned visitors’ centre and I’d love to have bought a poster of it.

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The World of Disney

So this Easter we took our kids to Walt Disney World Florida. They were already a little too old to get excited about seeing people dressed up as princesses or Mickey Mouse, and besides they’d seen that stuff a few years ago when we visited Disneyland in California. The Florida branch, however, appeals to the slightly older child (particularly those in the 35-55 age range) as the Hollywood Studios section features a fair amount of Star Wars and Indiana Jones attractions.

Two of our three signed up for the Jedi training activity. This basically involves being given a nylon Jedi robe and a plastic lightsaber and being marched across the park to a mock-up of a Jedi temple where you are taught a handful of saber moves.

I’d always wondered what the inside of an AT-AT looked like. Basically it’s a lighting rig:

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The Jedi younglings gather and a couple of “cast members” do a comedy routine and then encourage everyone to open the temple doors with their minds. “Use the Fastpass!” Umm, I mean, the Force.

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But who’s that lurking inside? It’s Kylo Ren’s grandfather! (oh, sorry. Spoilers for The Force Awakens, I guess).

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And he’s brought one of the Expanded Universe characters with him to help out, and perhaps for laudable gender balance reasons.

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One by one the trainees take turns facing their fears. The first boy was one of the smallest and was obviously, hilariously terrified. Unprompted he tried to ward Vader off with the Force:

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But there was no escaping the hand-to-hand combat. Judging by the look of terror on his face I half expected him to leave a little Padawan puddle on the stage floor.

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Thankfully he prevailed against evil, as, unsurprisingly, did all the other would-be Jedi. None of them chose a different path, as this little girl so memorably did:

And of course Kylo showed up too, probably because he had an imminent DVD release to promote.

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Meanwhile, back in the Magic Kingdom there’s a parade. No need to queue for hours for a meet and greet when you can just sit back and watch them all file past you. Some of the floats were very pretty.

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Sometimes the costumes outshone the floats.

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Tinkerbell was a little too smirky for my taste.

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Merida from Brave, astride a giant set of bagpipes!

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A giant fire-breathing dragon from Sleeping Beauty.

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Impressive, although I think the one at De Efteling is better. I did like the accompanying creepy stilt walkers, though.

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Oh Mickey, you’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind.

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I wouldn’t rule out a return trip some day, as they’re planning to massively expand the Star Wars element. Plus, they’re currently building Avatar World next door…

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#children, #travel

Original sound track

The other day during a long drive my kids were sat in the back watching the 1980 movie version of Flash Gordon on DVD. As I was sat in front I couldn’t see any of it but I could hear it. This was not at all a strange experience for me because I’m much more used to listening to that particular film that seeing it (in fact I don’t think I’ve actually seen it for decades).

I remember back in the days before home video (yes, I’m that old) that once you’d seen a film at the cinema you wouldn’t get a chance to see it again until it turned up on TV some time later. And then if you missed it, you missed it, as there was no way to record and preserve it. So what was a young movie fan to do when he wanted to re-live (repeatedly, obsessively) the experience of his favourite big screen science fiction epic in the comfort of his own home?

There were a couple of options. One was the soundtrack album. In the case of movies like Star Wars which have very memorable, expressive and almost continuous music (only 20 minutes of the film’s 125 running time don’t have musical accompaniment) this was a decent alternative. It had the advantage of omitting any creaky dialogue and letting you fill in the images with your memory or imagination. Or you could flick through a visual aid like the comic book adaptation or souvenir magazine while listening.

Later there was a brief popularity for soundtrack albums which incorporated dialogue and sound effects, and Queen’s Flash Gordon album was one of these. In fact it was Queen themselves who proposed this approach, apparently, and for me it made it a much more enjoyable experience to hear “pew! pew!” sounds and immortal dialogue like “Gordon’s alive?” and “I’m flying blind on a rocketcycle!” interspersed with guitar solos.

I also had an album called The Story of Tron, which even added voiceover narration telling the story. This was less successful, as you can hear here:

Which is why I also later bought the music-only soundtrack so as to be able to hear Wendy Carlos’ electronic tonalities unsullied.

And as I mentioned before, there were visual aids available too. I went through a phase of reading novelisations, but usually only for films I was too young to see at the cinema (Robocop, Predator, Aliens). I had a couple of “photo-novels” (paperbacks formatted like comics but using still frames from the movie) of Battlestar Galactica and The Black Hole. And, of course, sticker albums: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Return of the Jedi, Gremlins and more (there’s a good set of photos here). I was always anxious about not being able to collect all the stickers, bought in packs of five or six, and having a complete set. God knows how much money I spent buying packets looking for those last few stickers, and throwing away the free, sickly sweet pink chewing gum that came with them.

In the case of Flash Gordon the stickers came free with packets of Weetabix, and one day in the supermarket I persuaded my mother to buy an extra large packet as it would contain a larger quantity of free stickers. I promised her I’d eat all those Weetabix, even thought it wasn’t my favourite cereal. Imagine my disappointment when we got home and tore the packet open to discover…no stickers whatsoever inside. My mother, who was not the complaining type, felt moved to write them a letter. In response they mailed me a complete set.

#film, #music

4 things to do in Stykkisholmur

Stykkisholmur is a charming little town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in west Iceland. There it is, on the horizon.

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Now obviously there are many interesting things to do in and around Stykkisholmur, but for reasons of space I’ve stuck to four. First up is the church, which you may be able to see at the top, just left of centre.

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When we were there it was being painted and patched up a bit. I don’t know how often they have to do this, but it was only consecrated in 1980.

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This postcard shows how it should look once it’s tidy again. Ólafsvík also has a funky church.

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Stykkisholmur also has a volcano museum, housed in what appears to be an old cinema. There are many volcano-themed attractions around Iceland but this one, though small, is well worth a visit.

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Aside from the usual videos of recent eruptions and samples of volcanic rock there’s a good collection of volcano-inspired art from around the world. This caption made me chuckle.

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Mexico:

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Ecuador:

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Japan:

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And of course there are related movie posters.

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A slightly more oblique and original approach to Iceland’s geological heritage is taken by the Library of Water, an installation by American artist Roni Horn. Floor-to-ceiling glass columns are filled with water from different glaciers around the island.

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Bilingual meteorological text is scattered across the floor.

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You can also buy (we did) a book called Weather Reports You, collecting local people’s weather-based memories and anecdotes.

And finally we come to the fermented shark farm. Technically this is a short drive west from Stykkisholmur itself, but it’s worth the trip. Now I’ve heard varying opinions of fermented shark, with some people saying that no one really eats it any more and it’s just kept going in order to appeal to tourists keen to eat something outrageous.

The product is made from Greenland shark. Historically its liver (which makes up 15% of its body mass) was used to make oil for lamps. The rest of the shark was dumped because the flesh is toxic. But someone somehow discovered that if you leave it in a box to ferment for 6 weeks, then hang it out to dry for another couple of months, it won’t kill you if you ingest it. Which still doesn’t explain why you would go to all that effort to make it safe to eat something which still tastes disgusting at the end of the day.

Outside the farm you can visit the shed where chunks of shark are left to dry.

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In this form it almost looks appetising.

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In the main building you can watch a video which explains the main steps in the process, and then you get to taste some. But you may wish to read this warning first:

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Looks slightly less appetising now. It’s traditionally eaten either on a slice of dark rye bread, or chased down with a shot of local firewater brennevin in order to wash away the taste. Which tells you all you need to know, I think.

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You can buy small portions to take home with you. I didn’t.

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The rest of the building is given over to an eclectic collection of nautical knick knacks, some of which I’d have been much more interested in buying than slabs of putrefied shark flesh. Like these catfish skin slippers.

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They missed a trick not selling hats or masks made out of these:

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One other interesting thing to note about Stykkisholmur: it was prominently featured as a location in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Ben Stiller. We watched the film on DVD the night we stayed there. You can see some of it in this clip:

But the weird thing is that Stykkisholmur is not playing Stykkisholmur in the film. That scene is supposedly set in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. This despite the fact that we get a distinctive aerial shot of the town earlier in the film which is similar to the postcard image above. Now I’m quite familiar with the common film-making practice of one location doubling for another (Toronto standing in for New York, Prague for Victorian London, New Zealand for Middle Earth), but what makes it particularly perverse is that later in the film they go to “Stykkisholmur”, but they’ve already used that as Nuuk, so they have to use yet another town (Borgarnes, I think) to double for Stykkisholmur. Now I’m sure they (rightly) figured that most people wouldn’t know the difference, but if I were a Greenlander I’ve be a little peeved that Hollywood portrayed my capital city as a tiny fishing village (in a completely different country) with a population, according to the film’s dialogue, of “8 people” (in fact Nuuk has a population of over 16,000).

Maybe that’s why they like to get their revenge by persuading tourists to swallow chunks of fermented Greenland shark?

#film, #gastronaut, #science, #travel