Published March 31, 2015
When I was in high school, a group of us went on an ice fishing trip at our friend’s family cabin. It had the usual itinerary of binge drinking, homoeroticism, and deep discussions on the meaning of life and the beauty of women. After deciding to stay an extra night, three of us awoke to find ourselves snowed in, stuck, or as the cabin’s owner put it, “fucked.”
We had decided to stay an extra night without any provisions other than the remaining 24 beers and a lake full of jackfish, walleye, perch, whitefish, and burbot. As you can imagine, the usual gaiety of the ice fishing hut was tempered with desperation.
We survived on poached fish and beer and managed to get ourselves shovelled out the following afternoon. It was the first time in my life that I thought about food—really thought about it. Where do the flavours I enjoy come from? Why, in a situation where there was an abundance of food and water, was I clueless about what I could make? What if I was snowed in forever? Was the land of my home unable to sustain me or please me? Or was I ignoring the food all around me?
Look around you
This is not an adequate introduction for Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason’s sharp book, ‘North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland’. The book is sharp because it cuts itself a clear path, a distinction, from other cookbooks. Aesthetically, it is a work of art, much like the chef’s food. Narratively, it makes an argument through the stories of food production and collection. It takes me back to that cabin, and the snowy walks through the trees and the farmers’ fields filled with hay bails. I was stranded in a cacophony of flavours waiting to be noticed, appreciated, and harmonized. Chef Gunnar’s book isn’t a guide or a manual; it’s an invitation to see what’s around you, an appeal to the flavour of location.
The book’s introduction is written by Chef René Redzepi, the Danish chef and co-founder of both New Nordic Cuisine and Noma, a two Michelin star restaurant ranked “Best Restaurant In The World” by Restaurant Magazine. New Nordic Cuisine is a philosophy and way of life—put simply: New Nordic Cuisine is the use of ingredients from your surroundings to create traditional dishes for a region. In the introduction, Chef René writes about his first time in Iceland. When he asked the cab driver to take him somewhere with Icelandic cuisine, the cabbie took him to a sushi bar. He felt a disconnect with the meal. “Simple substitution doesn’t make a place.” This desire of connecting place and food informed Chef René’s cooking in Copenhagen—leading to the creation of New Nordic Cuisine.
The book is parsed by suppliers and region, chapters with titles such as “The Bacalao Producer,” “The Rúgbrauð Baker,” and “The Birch and Mushroom Forager.” These ingredients circle the great hand of Iceland. There is a note preceding the book reminding readers to exchange ingredients native to Iceland for ones closer to home: arctic thyme to regular thyme; lovage to tarragon; birch to bay leaf; wolffish to catfish. The fermenting times are dependent on the relative humidity levels where you live. Don’t let the book dictate. Let your environment guide you.
Build skills, habits
You won’t make all the recipes in ‘North’. They’re not complicated; however, the plating of these dishes appears to require the same patience as engraving the bible on a grain of rice. The recipes are the results of shifts in attitude, labours of preparation. The preparation time for one of the dishes is one year (365 days); even for the most ardent home chef, that’s still a bit daunting. The dedication and focus on display in ‘North’ defines this style of cooking as a philosophy rather than a trend or fad. It’s about building skills and habits—giving yourself the ability to integrate your kitchen with proximate resources.
Beyond the photography, geography, ethnography, autobiography, et cetera, there is a list of things you should do right away after reading this book: make beer vinegar (use a local brew of your liking), start pickling vegetables, make yourself a simple smoker (the instructions are simple, cheap, and the end result will impress your friends) and infuse your own oils. These simple additions will improve your time in the kitchen and make you appreciate the ingredients around you.
‘North’ manages what few cookbooks can: it’s specialized to the point of brilliance, but belongs almost anywhere in your home. The photography attracts it to your coffee table. The stories and research beckon your nightstand. The recipes demand space in your kitchen cupboard. The philosophy sticks with you as you forage around your home and shop in your grocery store or farmers’ market. ‘North’ will introduce you to Icelandic ingredients while giving you the skills to discover your own.