Kiviaq and Epoisses: essential fermentation
Just ran across this essay at Oddity Central about kiviaq, a Greenlandic Inuit dish made from fermenting whole sea birds. For an American, the images and video are pretty tough to take—whole, unplucked birds are left stuffed into the stomach of a seal for up to a year, then skinned and eaten raw. Heady stuff, and don't click through if you think it'll ruin lunch. But I was glad to see the author put the dish in context: in the darkness of a Greenland winter, hunting fresh food is difficult and dangerous. Kiviaq can make the difference between starvation and survival.
Keeping food edible for the long term is a trick many cultures mastered before refridgeration. Fermented dishes are found around the world: the Icelanders preserve and detoxify basking shark flesh as hákarl, Koreans sock away vegetables for the cold winter months as kimchee, the Spanish keep pork through the heat of summer as jamón, and the French take fragile fresh milk and create wheels of long-lasting epoisses.
Under the rind of the finest cheese is that same need for survival: how to take what you've got and make it last. In the case of milk, it's an extremely urgent affair: at room temperature, sweet milk goes sour in a few days, and sour milk becomes undrinkable a week or two after that. Keeping milk edible longer lets the farmer hedge against a lean season.
As a medium for storing diary calories, a fragile Époisses de Bourgogne is probably not as desireable as a nice durable wheel of Comté, but I also suspect that few Greelanders rely on kiviaq for most of their winter food needs these days—Wikipedia notes that it's often served at weddings and birthday parties. Fermentation is about flavor too, and if you brave the video over at Oddity, you'll see how the woman in it savors her bird. It's become a delicacy, born of survival but lasting because of the pleasure it brings.