Tell people you’re going to Iceland, and they assume it’s for the bars and the music. Then there’s the landscape: grey lunar plains, waterfalls so powerful it’s hard to breathe when you stand near them.
What you don’t go to Iceland for is the food. ‘Reykjavík?’ friends laugh, mock-gagging at the thought of putrefied shark (an Icelandic speciality, nowadays eaten mostly by tourists), minke whale and puffin.
But things have changed. You expect tough economic times to alter a country’s food, but Iceland’s culinary scene has blossomed since the financial crash of 2008. At the peak of the economic boom, Icelanders were obsessed with foreign food.
‘In the freezers of supermarkets in Reykjavík you could find ostrich steaks from South Africa, Kobe beef from Japan and kangaroo from Australia,’ says food historian Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir. ‘Pasta and pizza had replaced haddock and potatoes as our everyday food.’
It was the tourists, explains young Icelandic chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, who ‘changed everything. After the crash it was cheaper for tourists to come here, and when they did they wanted to eat Icelandic food. We didn’t even know what that was.’
Sheep graze on seaweed and wild herbs, which produces the best lamb I’ve ever tasted
Before the rise of exotic cuisines, food here had been a mixture of traditional Icelandic fare – salted, smoked, whey-preserved and dried – and Danish dishes (Denmark ruled Iceland for 500 years), such as roasts, soups, porridge and flour-thickened sauces. And before that?
‘For almost a millennium Icelandic food was a cuisine of wants, a land of milk but no honey,’ says Rögnvaldardóttir.
The first settlers found a virgin country with rivers full of salmon, trout and Arctic char, and they brought crops and animals with them, but the period of plenty didn’t last long. There were no fruit trees or edible nuts, and only a few wild berries. Preserving was essential (smoking wasn’t done over wood, but over compressed hay and sheep manure – it still is, in a process called 'dirt smoking’).
Rögnvaldardóttir says settlers paid a high price for choosing to live ‘somewhere north of life’.
Auðunsson referred to old cookbooks to get a handle on Icelandic cuisine. ‘I looked at modernising dishes,’ he says. ‘Things like boiled cod’s head had to be reimagined. I cooked it in chicken stock, glazed the head with a blowtorch and served it with potato and lovage salad.’
This is a magnificent-looking dish, and it’s still on the menu at Matur og Drykkur, the Reykjavík restaurant where Auðunsson worked before opening his own place, Slippurinn, in an old shipyard workshop in Heimaey, a small island just off the mainland.
At Slippurinn, I drink cocktails that have a sense of place – chervil and angelica Martinis, dandelion whisky sours, pear- and arctic-thyme-infused vodka.
He hands me a small green leaf. ‘Go on, taste!’ he urges. ‘They’re oyster leaves.’ I chew sceptically, then gasp – this is briny oyster flesh in leaf form. There is also cured lamb with smoked cheese, and lobster tails with a seaweed that tastes of black truffles.
Auðunsson credits Gunnar Karl Gíslason (Iceland’s most-garlanded chef), who opened his Michelin-starred restaurant, Dill, at the beginning of the crash, with bringing about the country’s culinary awakening, as well as the New Nordic movement, though he finds the latter ‘a bit austere’. He wants to produce food that is true to Iceland, but he’s not abandoning olive oil in favour of rapeseed, or lemons for apple vinegar.
It isn’t just chefs who’ve thrived since the financial collapse, as Eirný Sigurðardóttir explains. ‘People just had to buy what was on their doorstep, and those who’d lost their jobs had to find something else to do. Farmers diversified and others started to produce things for the first time: people made jam, syrups from birch, pine, dandelion and meadowsweet; more turned to cheese making.’
Sigurðardóttir has been instrumental in organising farmers’ markets, bringing together artisan producers, and runs Icelandic-cheese-tasting sessions at her own deli, Búrið, in Reykjavík.
In the 1930s, the Icelandic homemakers’ schools that had been established were referred to as ‘porridge schools’; now you can learn how to make cod with barley, celeriac purée and wild mushrooms at Salt Eldhús, Sigríður ‘Sirry’ Bragadóttir’s cookery school, which overlooks Reykjavík’s harbour.
Smallholders are opening their gardens to visitors. And you can get better cinnamon buns at Braud & Co in the Icelandic capital than you can in Copenhagen (beware, though – queues start at 6am).
What should you taste here in Iceland? The lamb: sheep graze on seaweed and wild herbs, which produces the best lamb I’ve ever tasted. Smoked lamb, perhaps the quintessential Icelandic product, is delicious cold, sliced wafer-thin and eaten on rye flatbread; or warm, with potatoes.
At Bjarteyjarsandur farm, an hour’s drive from Reykjavík in a mountainous fjord, Guðmundur Sigurjónsson and Arnheiður Hjörleifsdóttir rear 600 Icelandic sheep and even make smoked blueberry-marinated mutton. ‘It’s the product of a particular place,’ says Hjörleifsdóttir. ‘There’s so much of that here – food from small rural communities.’ They take visitors down to the shore to gather wild mussels, cooking them on the beach to eat with hunks of home-made bread.
You also need to try proper skyr, which is yogurt-like but made with rennet and a starter from the previous batch, and drink the whey that is its byproduct. There is sustainably caught fish – pearly white cod, haddock, Arctic char – and shellfish.
Rich butter (Icelandic milk has a high fat content). Seabird eggs with birch-smoked salt. Cod roe. Rye bread. Rhubarb, known as ‘poor man’s pear’ (rhubarb is abundant and pears are expensive), wild berries, seaweed, salt liquorice (which everyone is crazy for), and the most-loved Icelandic herbs: angelica, lovage and dill.
As befits a volcanic island, Iceland’s culinary landscape is exploding. Home cooks, chefs and food producers are looking to both the past and the future. Reykjavík’s first food hall opens in an old bus station in June, and Auðunsson’s new venture – a restaurant with Icelandic small plates, beers and herbal cocktails – will be up and running by September.
I’ll be there – chervil Martini in hand. It’s too exciting to miss.