"The ducks keep their nest warm with their chest down (it is Iceland, after all). The eggs are nicely incubated and then just before the ducklings appear the farmer takes the fluffy insulation."
In search of eiderdown. . . sounds like a wild goose chase to me.
Wild duck chase, actually, and at more than £1,000 for a genuine eiderdown it's a prize worth pursuing.
Why so expensive?
For the duvet lover, eiderdown is the cashmere of bedding materials. The Japanese in particular revere eider duvets as status symbols and their demand for the real thing combined with the limited supplies has pushed up the price.
And where does the eider stuffing come from?
Iceland, collected during the eiderdown harvest.
Harvest? Does it grow on trees, then?
Don't be silly . . . it comes from the nests of the eider ducks and has to be hand-picked by eider farmers before the wind blows it away.
Who is being silly now?
Seriously, it is a very old example of man working in harmony with nature. The ducks keep their nest warm with their chest down (it is Iceland, after all). The eggs are nicely incubated and then just before the ducklings appear the farmer takes the fluffy insulation.
Too cruel for words?
No, he is very considerate. He carefully moves the sage-green eggs to one side, scoops up the Tam o'Shanter ofnest down and puts it into his sack. Then, like a good nursemaid, he lines the nest with hay, returns the eggs and scatters a little bedding on top to protect them from prying eyes.
It sounds like cradle-snatching; doesn't the mother duck mind?
The first-time nesters are a little perturbed, but they soon get used to it, so much so that older mothers simply waddle patiently to one side while the farmer collects his booty.
But what does the poor duck get from the deal?
The eider farmer makes good money, so naturally he is the duck's greatest protector. He defends their territory and hates predators with a passion, particularly the roguish mink, which can wipe out whole colonies of eider. The farmer I travelled with carried a shotgun in his boat ready for any enemies of the eider we came across.
A sort of poacher turned gamekeeper?
More of a conservationist, as the farmer keeps a careful note of every nest he collects. This provides an accurate long-term record of the mating numbers and any sharp decline can be easily spotted. Iceland has some of the largest eider colonies in the world.
Where does all this take place?
The eider nests on offshore islands around Iceland. They love peace and quiet and when they find it they tend to flock together in tightly packed nesting sites. Some of the most popular sites are on the thousands of tiny islands in Breidafjordur, off the coast of north-west Iceland.
Usually the nests are brimming with down and eggs in the second and third weeks of June.
During the summer solstice?
The farmer takes full advantage of the hours of daylight and bobs between the grassy islands in his tiny boat collecting till late at night.
The harvest sounds like something from a fairy story . . .
Yes, an Icelandic saga, with the light of the midnight sun adding a magical glow to the proceedings.
So if I wanted to experience the eider harvest, how could I?
It is a little difficult as the islands are private, but if you take the ferry to Flatey, an island between Stykkisholmur and Brjanslaekur, you should be able to spot the nesting eider and get a sense of life on this splintered edge of Europe.
And what happens to the down after the harvest?
First, it has to be laid out to dry on the islands and then heated to 230F (110C) to kill off wee bugs. Any feathers are picked out by hand (you don't want prickly bits in your duvet, do you?). Next, the down is packed up and sent off for professional electrostatic cleaning. Finally, up to 2.5 lb of natural down is used to stuff a very classy duvet.
They may be classy but are they any good?
The best. The down has a fluffy memory, so no matter how many times you squeeze and crumple, it always resumes its shape and holds together. It is as light as a souffle, very warm and, like the air in Iceland, pure. Hence the tradition of giving mini-eiderdowns as presents to new-born babies.
Where can I one track one down?
If you ask around in the mainland towns of the western isles you might be able to buy one direct from an eider farmer at a reduced price. Jon Scheving in Stykkisholmur (00 35 4438 1188) is certainly worth trying.
Can you buy them in tourist gift shops?
No, you must go to specialist duvet shops in Reykjavik.
What are they like?
Bed linen lovers' heaven. Two recommended shops are Soengurfatagerdin, 36 Baldursgotu, and Dun og Fidur Hreisunninn, 3 Vatnsstigur (complete with a stuffed duck display). Both are a short stroll from the main thoroughfare of Banka Street.
I am afraid so but there is a wide selection of sizes, ranging from an 80cm x 110cm small single for about £200 to a king-sized 200cm x 200cm duvet for £1,140. If you are not tickled by the price you could lower your standards and settle for a mix of eider and cheaper imported goose down. But remember that the real eiderdown is an Icelandic classic that will keep generations of tootsies toasty.
Duvet do's and don'ts: