Mike Keen: ‘I’m trying to get people thinking outside the box’
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Germany, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China, Gibraltar, and Canada. These are just a handful of the countries Ipswich chef Mike Keen has spent extensive periods of time in.
Throwing himself head first into local traditions and customs, Mike is no stranger to being immersed in other cultures, and has spent years finding out more about how people enjoy their food across the globe.
But his recent adventure to Greenland is perhaps the chef’s most interesting – and eye-opening – to date.
The East Bergholt-based adventurer and culinary expert spent three months in the Arctic nation, learning how people in such harsh, remote conditions preserve their food and yet still enjoy a healthy diet on such little.
Prior to this expedition however, readers may best remember Mike from his various residencies at a number of the county’s culinary institutions – including a stint at Jimmy’s Farm followed by tenure as head chef at The Anchor in Walberswick.
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After returning from a few years working on cruise ships in China, Mike returned to Suffolk where he took over The Brewery Tap in Ipswich. Shortly after, opening Cult Café on the town’s waterfront.
However, it was The Boot in Freston that arguably put Mike on the Suffolk foodie map. He took on the mammoth task of refurbishing the derelict 16th century pub, breathing a new and much-needed lease of life into it.
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And in 2018, he made international headlines after The Boot became the first pub in the country to go totally cashless. A decision that, in hindsight, could be seen as revolutionary by many following the mass move away from cash following the subsequent pandemic.
But with a never-ending itch to travel and explore pastures new, Mike sold the country pub in 2019, and began planning his next adventure.
“Before Covid hit at the start of 2020, I was working at food festivals and doing consultancy work for a number of businesses, including a restaurant in Georgia. I went out there a couple of times, and at the same time I was also doing a few pop-up, private ticketed events in places such as Estonia and Finland.”
It was during his stint in northern and eastern Europe that Mike became fascinated with the process of fermentation.
At its basic level, this is food made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components. Some of the most popular ingredients are actually fermented, including chocolate, coffee, cured meats, cheese, beer, and wine to name but a few.
“I started off by looking into extreme examples of fermentation in Iceland, where they actually ferment Greenland shark,” he explains.
Fermented shark – also known as Hákarl in its native Iceland – is chopped up and buried under sand for six months. High in ammonia, it’s known for its strong smell, and is often featured on travel and cooking shows.
“I was more interested in the serious side of it rather than the novelty though, and finding out how the Norse survived in such difficult environments thousands of years ago. These foods are a product of that ingenuity, and the human will to survive.
“The shark eventually got me on the trail of the Norse all those years ago, when they started leaving Norway, eventually moving onto the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.”
Situated between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, Greenland is the world’s largest island and has been inhabited for around the last 4,500 years by forebears who migrated from what is now modern-day Canada. In the 10th century, the Norse settled in the uninhabited southern part of the island.
Today, Greenland is the only nation within the Americas where its native population – the Greenlandic Inuit - make up the majority of its demographic.
Many of its cultures and traditions remain today, with the nation for the most part untouched by modern Western influences.
A fascinating place in its own right, it was the stark contrast in how they deal with food that really opened up Mike’s eyes to a wider issue in terms of consumption habits around the world.
“Finding out about their food really highlighted the craziness of the global food system at the moment. Here in England, we have such an abundance of stuff – you can go to the supermarket and get 20 different types of apples. But probably only one or two come from this country – and the rest are flown in from places such as New Zealand or South Africa.
“And it’s not such a stark reminder until you go to somewhere like Greenland, where they can’t grow vegetables at all.”
But due to colonisation, in recent years food that has been sourced from around the world is now flown into Greenland from Denmark – adding to the issue surrounding unnecessary food miles. This is something that Mike sees as a huge problem.
“It takes you two or three days to get to these shops in the middle of nowhere, and they’re stocked with kiwis and avocados. These fruit and vegetables would have been produced in near-slavery conditions in places such as Mexico, flown across the Atlantic to Copenhagen before being sent to Nuuk. These people haven’t asked for these sorts of food, but it’s in their shops – it's crazy.
“And for me, that really sparked this dilemma within the food system. Eating what you can grow, catch, hunt and source within a 10 or 20-mile radius surely has to be better than using all of that fossil fuel to fly things around the world.
“The argument from the supermarkets is that that’s what consumers want, but I don’t believe that. That’s not what we want, it’s because it’s come to us in the first place and has become such a part of our lives that we think we want it. If we don’t have strawberries in January, apparently there’s uproar - it’s not like we don’t have anything else to use.”
Mike is firm believer that we should hark back to working with the environment and seasons, taking heed of the Greenlandic way of life – before it’s too late.
Climate change aside, witnessing the difference in diets between Westerners and those in Greenland was absolutely fascinating for Mike, as he explains some of delicacies that can be found on the island.
“Before Danish colonisation, the Greenlandic diet was almost 100% sea mammals. They go out and hunt seal, whale and seabirds, alongside seabird eggs and seaweed. And only recently have they started to grow a small amount of potatoes, turnips and other root vegetables.
“And because there’s pretty much no trees to burn to create salt, they’ve learnt to preserve food without it.”
But how do they do this?
Often, the Inuit will bury seals in the sand, stuffed with seabirds – with the fermentation process meaning there are no ill effects during consumption.
“One of the great things about fermentation is that it converts seal fat into Vitamin C, so they don’t get scurvy. There’s also a grass that grows in Greenland called scurvygrass which is also high in Vitamin C, so they get everything they need from these few foods.”
Other traditional delicacies he tried include kiviaq, which consists of auk seabirds that have been fermented in a seal skin, and Iginneq which is fermented seal fat itself.
“When I went to visit a family in Siorapaluk, in the north of the island, I ate fermented seal. They just leave it on the balcony out of direct sunlight, but it’s essentially left rotting for six months. It has such a strong smell, and a taste comparable to blue cheese. If you imagine you’re eating blue cheese, it’s fine, but it’s such a mental hurdle to overcome. But as with everything, you get used to it.
“You have to remember it’s a controlled rotting which they’ve been doing for thousands of years – and it really is a fantastic story of how humans survive difficult and hostile conditions. It’s only in the last couple of generations that we’ve had domestic refrigeration, and you can just see how much food we waste now. We have a three-day shelf life on many things, and if something is a day past its best before, we throw it away. It’s the total opposite to how they live in Greenland.”
With such a different outlook on food now, Mike is intent on bringing his newfound Greenlandic culinary experiences to the UK – and has already shown the people of Suffolk the joys of fermented meat and fish.
“At last weekend’s Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival, I made three types of tacos – ceviche skate, one with blackened skate, and the third with skate which I’d left fermenting in a bucket of sand in my garage. I also fermented a couple of wings for my stage demo, but they only had two weeks to ferment. In Iceland, it’s traditional Christmas dish and they usually spend three months fermenting which makes them explosive in the ammonia department! The ones for the festival were pretty strong though, and I had an amazing reaction from the audience.
“I just try to make it non-sensationalist. I simply explain the basic science behind it, and how it came from a time and place where refrigeration or any other form of preservation wasn’t possible, and the menu options were extremely limited!”
With his sights firmly set on opening people’s eyes to the joys of fermentation, Mike isn’t stopping there. He is currently in the process of penning a book documenting his experiences and recent discoveries.
“What I’m trying to do with the book is change our attitudes towards food and get people thinking outside the box. So how we can become less reliant on the fridge, and more open to fermentation. It’s really come into the public eye in the last five or 10 years, despite it being huge in the backbone of human food preservation for the last 40,000 years. When done correctly, it’s incredibly safe and also good for your health.”
His book – which is due out next autumn – will also include a modern spin on classic Nordic fermented dishes that have been adapted for Western tastes. “For instance, you’d be hard pressed to find seal fat over here, but pork or lamb fat would make a great substitute when trying out these recipes.”
Fermentation aside, Mike is already planning his next adventure – this time, to South America.
“I’m talking to a television company, and we’re planning an eight-week trip to Peru similar to what I did in Greenland. I’ll explore how food has been adapted by the locals, and I'm planning to delve into the country’s history to find out what has brought it to its current position – including the conquistadors and the effects colonisation had on the country. I’ll also venture to the market towns and see how food has developed over the years.”
Following that, Mike hopes to visit Siberia and Sakhalin – a Russian island just north of Japan to explore their local delicacies and fermentation methods. “It’s a part of the world not many people know about, but I can’t wait to get there and cook with the locals.”
Before he jets off however, Mike also has plenty in the pipeline here in Suffolk, too.
“For the next couple of months, I’ve got one and a half acres of land and I’m building a smoker on it, with the hopes of potentially setting up a workshop. I want to show people how to smoke and cure their own food while learning about eating their environment.”
With so much on his plate at the moment, we can’t to see what Mike sinks his teeth into next.