Monday, 9 May 2011

Iceland snapshots

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For years Iceland was in the back of my head waiting to happen and when it finally did, it took my breath away as I had hoped it would, despite the whales, puffins and Northern lights making a no-show. The earth is agitated, unpredictable and constantly bubbling under the surface, physically and metaphorically. It is a geological playground brimming with glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, hot springs, geysers, snow, sleet, rain and last, never least and always present, the mighty wind.
It was clear from the start that food was to be our compass, leading the way through the innards of the land and weaving the sublime landscape with the local food scape. Despite or rather due to its arctic nature, Iceland, it turned out, had plenty to offer.
With no time to waste, plenty to see and mostly eat, our splendiferous Iceman dispensed us with the culinary itinerary in the shape of a double sided A4 list of foods for the week, categorized. If it weren't for the singed lamb's head, it would have bee a perfect score. The presence of a jaw, teeth and an eyeball proved a tad much...
Within an hour of our arrival we headed to dinner at Dill. Specializing in the New Nordic cuisine, each dish was served in exquisite Nordic china, and in its own particular way explored new ways of having fun with the finest local ingredients. The only thing that hindered the experience was my own personal repulsion of anything celery, that made an unfortunate appearance in one of the desserts.
A day later we enjoyed yet another glorious meal, this time at VOX. Once again we sat down to a 5 hour seasonal tasting menu complete with wine pairing for each dish (personally served to us by the head sommelier and 4- time winner Sommelier of the Year in Iceland- Alba Hough) for what turned into an unforgettable evening of incredible food and a unique insight into the emerging local cuisine.

We stayed at KEX, a biscuit (or kex, as they're called in Icelandic) factory turned boutique hostel in Reykjavik, unlike any other. It was here that I was introduced to Skyr, my first of many. Misleadingly reminiscent of thick yogurt, it is in fact a soft cheese made from skimmed milk. The exceptional buttercup yellow Smjor (butter) and the rich blue-veined, triple-cream ‘Stori dimon’ cheese (named after a local mountain) underlined the Nordic grass- fed- diet effects on the quality of the dairy products.
Not a day passed without the presence of local pastry, from the dense and sometimes sulphuric fried Kleina to crispyAstarpungar, aka ‘loveballs’; sweet yeast pastry dotted with raisins and deep-fried until crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. It’s the simplest things in life that give the greatest pleasures like the dense, chewy doughnuts from the local supermarket, covered in thick dark chocolate tempered to a pleasing crackle and snap sound.

About the local Arctic fish and seafood. Yes, we had Hákarl, rotten shark that proved harmless and reminiscent of a mature hard cheese, especially pleasant with the local rúgbrauð. There was seal fat and yes, the 'surf & turf' in one, the controversial Minke whale (perfectly legal in Iceland). However, it was the Seawolf, redfish, blue ling, langoustines, halibut, Arctic char and blue mussels of which I could not get enough of. Having to settle for fish from the tepid Mediterranean waters on a day to day basis, this was a glimpse into the North Atlantic offerings. I'll put it this way: the biting cold North Atlantic seawaters turn the men into Vikings and fish into superior delicacies, juicy and succulent. Assuming they're fresh and in capable hands as was the case for most part, that is.

Sægreifinn, aka Sea Barron, is a restaurant by the water in Reykjavik, where both Locals and tourist show up for the lobster soup and sea- kebabs. Once we settled down from the stormy weather that hit us on the way, I noticed the walls, covered in local memorabilia and the odd taxidermy. We sat down on the buoys- turned- makeshift seats by one of three long and narrow tables. Conveniently positioned next to the till is the refrigerator, displaying skewered chunks of meat. It was here we tried our first whale kebab as well as halibut, redfish and scallops, all charred to a crisp on the outside, vivacious and succulent on the inside.
Langoustines are a local specialty and are referred to as lobster. At Fjorubodid in Stokkseyri lobsters are the house specialty. The Icelandic lobster soup (complete with bread rolls and butter) warmed us up before the main course: lobsters cooked in butter and garlic arrived. A lemon was squeezed and then, it was all but gone.
It never occurred to me the ease with which I take still air and gravity for granted. As the days passed we hardened, little by little, attempting to acclimatize to the unpredictability of the local weather, from brutally cold wind, sideways- pouring rain, sleet, snow, dark storms and just plain windiness that had waterfalls falling upwards.

There's more foods, adventures, memories, stories and pictures then I could possibly fit in, nor is possible to even attempt to map it into words. I do, however, hope that some of the fascinating and unique landscape and food- scape came across in between the words, lines and images. I still pinch myself in disbelief that it really happened, but also, that it is all but over.
(Ps. Takk Chris & Kate)

Iceland's cuisine:

Should You Eat Like an Icelander? an article by By Jen Murphy on 'Food & wine'

Wikipedia's article on Icelandic cuisine


New Nordic cuisine

Traditional Icelandic food

Lobsters (or what we refer to as Langoustines)

Best Kebbabs from the sea and Lobster soup (again, think Langoustines)

Mark Bittman's article in the NYTimes on Saegreifinn

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