“Is it a cookbook about rotten shark?” I’ve received this question more than once when people find out I’m writing a cookbook about Icelandic cuisine. But contemporary Icelandic food has nothing to do with putrefied shark or any of the other pickled animal unmentionables so closely associated with this island nation. Today, Icelandic cuisine is about fresh ingredients sourced from one of the most pristine environments on the planet and chefs who are cleverly transforming them into dishes worthy of the global stage.
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I’ve visited Iceland more than 25 times in the past several years. My first trip was on the cusp of the Icelandic economic collapse in 2008, one of the worst financial disasters in world history. If a catastrophe like that could have a silver lining, it was that chefs who once eschewed local products in favor of expensive foreign imports were forced to source closer to home. What they discovered was renewed pride in natural resources, deserving of attention as much as foie gras from Paris or prosciutto from Italy.
Iceland heats its greenhouses using 100% sustainable geothermal energy, sources its fish from immaculate waters, and procures the majority of its meat from free-range animals that spend their lives eating grasses free of fertilizer and pesticide. The benefits of all that reflect in its products.
A burgeoning Icelandic food artisanal movement
Another upside to the economic crisis was the awakening of artisanal food and beverage pioneers who have infused Icelandic staples such as bread, beer, salt, tea and cheese with newfound creativity. There’s Saltverk, the only artisan salt produced entirely from geothermal energy, and Modir Jord, an organic barley company whose owner, farmer Eymundur Magnússon, has almost single-handedly preserved the ancient practice of Icelandic barley production.
Another champion of preserving protecting Icelandic traditions is Johanna Thorvaldsdottir, a woman who saved the Icelandic goat, a unique species on the planet, from extinction. Through her tireless efforts, Thorvaldsdottir is returning to her nation products such as goat cheese, sausage, milk, butter and ice cream that were once on the verge of disappearing.
Beer is another Icelandic product undergoing a transformation. Prohibition of alcohol was in full effect in Iceland until the 1990s. When beer was finally made available, it emerged in the form of fairly generic pilsners and ales. Today, craft beer companies such as Einstock are transforming the once-lackluster beer industry. Considering that the beer is produced 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle from some of the planet’s most pristine water, it’s clear why brews such as their white ale with hints of orange and cardamom are so palatable.
Spirits are also in the midst of a makeover in Iceland. Staples such as vodka and schnapps are being reworked into ambrosial specialties such as Foss Distillery’s liqueur and schnapps infused with birch, Iceland’s national tree.
One might assume that a nation undergoing something of a culinary renaissance would discard its traditional ingredients in favor of innovation. That is not the case. Contemporary Icelandic chefs such as Gunnar Karl Gislason strive to preserve ancient Icelandic ingredients such as bacalao, smoked Arctic char, skyr and smoked lamb by fostering deep and lasting relationships with producers who might otherwise disappear without the support of chefs like him. Gislason is a master at transforming these traditional ingredients into their more contemporary version at his restaurants Dill and Kex. Other restaurants in Reykjavik adeptly celebrating Iceland’s natural resources are Icelandic Fish & Chips and Slipbarrin in the Marina Hotel, a fun, centrally located place to stay when exploring Reykjavik’s culinary scene.
Another way to experience the food culture of Iceland is to sign up for a cooking class at Salt Eldhus in Reykjavik. In a well-stocked and beautifully designed classroom, owner Tilefni Audur Ogn and a revolving roster of local and international guest chef instructors explore traditional and contemporary Icelandic cooking as well as cuisines more further afield.
Touring the Icelandic food scene
Top photo: Icelandic butter and pickled herring. Credit: Sandeep Patwal
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Note: Zester contributor Jody Eddy will be teaching a summer class at Reykjavik’s Salt Eldhus from her cookbook “Come In, We’re Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants,” and she will be leading a culinary tour in August 2013 with Kjartan Gislason.