The other day my girlfriend and I had a craving for sushi. Ok, so this isn’t Tokyo. You’re not going to get a Ginsu knife-wielding chef plucking a live salmon from a tank and segmenting it to death right in front of you; still, Icelandic fish is among the best I’ve eaten—raw or otherwise. Cut that Icelandic salmon 4 mm thin, spice it up with a dab of wasabi, a slice of pickled ginger, and you have perfect sashimi. Great Aunt Freyja winced and sighed. Although I’ll give this to her: she managed to force down three pieces plus a California roll. Possibly it had something to do with the hot sake. Still, I know Aunt Freyja would rather have half a sheep’s head or hangikjöt (smoked lamb) with Ora peas any day of the week.
A buyer for Bónus once told me that his bestselling vegetables were canned peas. And not just any old canned peas. Ora brand is the leader by a long shot. If you’ve shopped here, you’ll surely have noticed that neon yellow label. You can rest assured that they grace most tables where a roast lamb is being served for Sunday lunch. Quite likely you’ll get a dollop of sweet canned red cabbage and if you’re lucky a smattering of jarred beetroot or maybe a pickle to go along with it.
Katrín, my friend Siggi’s mother, has told me the story about her first apple umpteen times. It was Christmas 1943. A handsome British soldier hailed her down and handed it to her as he pinched her rosy cheeks. “Apples and oranges smell of Christmas”, she sighs dreamily. And bananas? She was over thirty (bear in mind she didn’t travel abroad until ten years later).
Solla (Sólveig) Eiríksdóttir, possibly Iceland’s best-known health food guru, explains how Icelandic eating habits changed quite suddenly in the ‘70s:
“When fast food first reached our shores—hamburgers, pizzas, fried chicken in tubs—it was as if the nation, having been starved of all their trans fats and carbohydrates, went quite Kentucky Fried mad. The traditional diet was fish throughout the week, rice pudding on Saturdays, roast lamb on Sundays, and piles of potatoes with every meal. All this fuelled the hard working Icelander through his bitter winters. More comfort meant more efficient heating, better homes, which meant you didn’t need all that stodge and excess fat; so when cheap fast food reared its head, it went straight to the waistlines and worsened the general health. I’ve been an advocate for healthy food ever since”.
We all know the dictum, “You are what you eat”. Solla narrows her eyes when I ask her if she has ever observed what your average Icelander stuffs into his Bónus shopping bag. “Course, it’s the same all over the world”, she says. “Make it quick. No time. Many young families are living on Cheerios and TV dinners. I understand it though. To eat healthy in Iceland is not cheap”.
But, then again—and I’m sure Solla would agree—the body is a temple; so eat less, but eat well. Easier said than done, especially if you have a craving for horsemeat sausage.
“Sixty years ago, there was no selection in the shops at all”, says Margrét Sigfúsdóttir, Head of Hússtjórnarskólinn, Reykjavik’s Domestic Studies College. “You could always get fresh fish, lamb too—if you had the money; but when I was a little girl you couldn’t even get spices: just salt, pepper, bad curry, bay leaves, old onions, and if you were lucky, a couple of sticks of cinnamon. Back then, people ate simply but they ate healthy. Fish was boiled, sauce was a bit of melted lamb fat. Vegetables were carrots, Swede, turnips, cabbage, perhaps a little seaweed”.
“When I was an au pair in New York in the ‘60s I ate my first bell peppers, my first corn-on-the-cob. The vegetable selection in Iceland can’t compare with London or New York, even now; but it’s come a long way. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, more and more international influences arrived. Now, of course, there’s hardly a town in Iceland that doesn’t boast its own Thai restaurant”.
“But one thing I can’t understand”, I ask Margrét. “Why is the fruit and veg selection in Icelandic supermarkets still so poor? I mean there are daily flights to New York, London, Frankfurt. Are Icelanders not interested in artichokes and Shiitake mushrooms and nectarines and fresh white asparagus?”.
“No, I think many of us are interested. Icelanders are well travelled. Personally, I think it’s the Icelandic supermarket chains. They’re thinking of the bottom line. They don’t want to risk sitting on vegetables that only sell occasionally. It’s a small market and some tastes are still rather traditional”.
I think what Margrét says may be true—to a certain extent. I resolve to discuss this later with the supermarket chains themselves; yet, I do know that many of the older generation balks at garlic, turn their noses up at rocket, and grumble at broccoli. An olive isn’t even in it. But Ora peas? Ora peas seem to hit the spot every single time. I have an Icelandic friend who lives in Florida who flies in cartons of the stuff. Says he can’t stand those Green Giant peas they sell in the States.
Margrét tells me that before the arrival of the potato in the mid 1700s, Icelanders struggled desperately to feed themselves. Some infants were weaned on rich mare’s milk, as their mothers just didn’t have the constitution to nurse.
“The best place to live back then was probably Breiðafjörður. You had fair farming land, good fishing. Sea birds were abundant, and at some stage, Icelanders have eaten them all (and their eggs). In Breiðafjörður you also had seal and the occasional whale”.
“What about pork? Beef?”
“There wasn’t the right infrastructure or buildings for pigs. Pig farming came much later. Cows were mostly kept for their milk, which was essential in the Icelandic diet. The sturdy Viking sheep could pretty much take care of itself. That’s why lamb is still a very regular feature on most Icelandic menus. In latter years, Danish trading ships delivered luxuries like flour, coffee, salt, spices; but of course, it was all so dear. Icelanders made do with what they had. They pickled meat in whey. That’s where the whole Þorramatur tradition comes from. They had skyr, which is a fantastic protein source; and, of course, they smoked fish and meat alike. Much of these foods are still part of the old customs. One loves what one grows up with”.
And then there’s the question of all that candy and ice cream. Icelanders just adore it, particularly anything with liquorice in it. There are those who visit an ice cream shop every single day of the week. On a Friday night—even in winter—they’re lining up outside the door for a bit of soft, milky delight with liquorice sprinkles.
During the course of our conversations, I ask both Margrét and Solla, “What’s this thing about Icelanders and candy and ice cream?” They shrug, they roll their eyes—slightly disapprovingly.
“Beats me”, says Margrét.
“Possibly a substitute for something else”, says Solla.
I don’t dare ask what, but I swear I’ll get to the bottom of it.