Trying Guga (Gannet) – Eating Like a Gastronaut

We recently went on a field trip with our MSc Gastronomy class to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – we met with many of the islanders, many of whom make a living from the land or sea and what it provides in a variety of ways – fishing, crofting and butchery for example.

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One of the most intriguing people we met was Dods, one of the island’s famed Guga Hunters. Guga are gannets and every year ten men from Ness on the Northern tip of Lewis sail to a tiny island called Sula Sgeir where they are licensed to catch 2000 almost fully-grown chicks which they will then prepare and salt on the island before returning back to Ness to distribute to their fellow islanders.

This is no mean feat as we found out – even in August when this annual event takes place, the seas can be rough and weather conditions extremely adverse, simply landing on what is more of a steep rock than an island can be a challenge. They have to take all their equipment to the island with them and they sleep in stone bothies for the duration with basic supplies, whatever is thrown at them.

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The tradition of eating seabirds was once commonplace in Scotland and came out of necessity, a famine food, it can be said to date back to the iron age however only here in Ness does it remain a tradition that links it to other places like Iceland where puffin can still readily be found on menus and the Faroe Islands where fulmars are still eaten.

Now it is with a sense of rich cultural heritage and pride that these men, for it is mainly men, go out each year to harvest their quota and return home and share their bounty with their countrymen and women. There are no shortage of takers when they return ashore with people queuing up along the harbour and it’s a much-anticipated affair.

The respect and love that Dods showed when talking about the birds was fascinating – it was akin to the crofters talking about their animals or the proverbial good shepherd about his flock. This careful management is clearly not doing anything detrimental to the guga population which has been increasing year on year on Sula Sgeir. It was a privilege to hear first-hand about this fascinating tradition.

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We were also fortunate enough to be able to try some guga which we brought back down the road with us. It’s traditionally served with potatoes and a glass of milk so that’s what we did. The smell was strong, it would probably put most people off trying it but us gastronauts are made of sterner stuff.  I’ll not lie, it’s an acquired taste ‘fishy fowl’ is the best way to describe it – it certainly wasn’t as strongly flavoured as I was expecting from the pungency but it’s also not something I would put on my favourites list, bit, what an experience!

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