Stykkisholmur (Iceland) (AFP)

On a remote island in Breidafjördur Bay off the west coast of Iceland, a thousand-year-old harvest is underway: that of the very luxurious eiderdown, which sells for several thousand euros per kilo to make the best duvets and eiderdowns from around the world.

Like every summer, nearly 400 Icelandic farmers dig in the hollow of a rock, in the sand or in the tall grass to find a few handfuls of the gray feathers of this polar duck, which came to nest from May in these superb seascapes. and sparsely populated.

"When there are eggs, we only take a part of the down. And when the eider has already left the nest, we take everything", explains to AFP Erla Fridriksdottir, the boss of King Eider, the one of the country's main exporters.

Marine fowl of the subarctic oceans, the eider - which gave the word eiderdown in French - leaves behind a natural treasure for those with the cold: one of the warmest natural fibers on the planet, both light and very insulating.

The female, with dark brown plumage barred with black, detaches the down from her breast and lines her nest to isolate it during incubation.

About sixty nests are needed to produce a kilo of down - and each quilt requires between 600 and 1,600 grams depending on the quality chosen.

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The global harvest of this archiluxe product does not exceed four tonnes, three quarters of which come from Iceland, by far the world's largest producer ahead of Canada and other countries bordering the North Pole.

- Meticulous cleaning -

On the island of Bjarneyjar, entire generations are busy locating traces of a nest.

A local tradition that would have started in Iceland during the Viking colonization from Norway at the end of the 9th century.

Since 1847, the eider is fully protected in Iceland: its hunting and the use of its eggs are prohibited.

There are still many predators: seagulls, crows, eagles, mink and foxes, but according to specialists, the species knows how to protect itself.

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"We feel that the ducks like to have their nests near us, where we live (...), so we think that predators probably remain at a distance thanks to us", argues Jon Fridriksson, Erla's brother.

Once harvested, the down is dried in the open air to prevent mold, then it is in a huge oven that Erla employees begin the first stage of cleaning, at a temperature of 120 ° C for eight hours.

"When the down comes in here it's filled with grass, eggshells and all kinds of things from the ocean. We put it in the oven to kill any organism and that also makes the grass more crumbly." , explains to AFP Pall Jonsson, in charge of the machines at the workshop located in the small neighboring town of Stykkisholmur.

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Secondly, rotating machines remove other dirt from the down by compressing it against a thin wire mesh.

The final touch will be carried by expert hands, which no technology can replace, to make a final sorting: even for the most experienced, it takes four to five hours of work to clean by hand a kilogram of down.

- 4.350 euros per eiderdown -

The feathers are finally washed with water and disinfected, again by hand, before being wrung out and dried.

Globally prestigious, the production of eiderdown is only a drop in the bucket in the world production of down estimated at 175,000 tonnes per year, according to the International Down and Feathers Bureau.

In addition to its geographic rarity, the journey of eiderdown - from manual collection to rigorous cleaning - explains its expensive price: a simple eiderdown containing 800 grams of plumules is sold at 640,000 Icelandic crowns (4,350 euros).

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His clients ?

"They are often nature lovers and people who care about the environment", because "it is the only one to be harvested, the other duvets are often by-products of the food industry", explains Erla Fridriksdottir.

Its Icelandic SME exports mainly to Japan and Germany.

© 2021 AFP