From Iceland — Iceland's Food Revolution: Foraging, Feasting, And Reinventing The Past

Iceland’s Food Revolution: Foraging, Feasting, And Reinventing The Past

Published September 7, 2017

Iceland’s Food Revolution: Foraging, Feasting, And Reinventing The Past
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Ragnar Eiríksson leans through the metal railing of Reykjavík’s Danish embassy, grasping at a bush on the other side. He clips off the tip of a berry-laden branch with a pair of pruning shears, draws it back through the fence, and presents it with a mischievous smile. “These are redcurrants,” he says, popping one into his mouth, and offering them around. “I often get them from here, it’s a great spot.”

The berries are perfectly ripe, and tart but sweet. Such urban foraging seems eccentric at first, but as we wander the network of quiet streets around Hverfisgata, picking ingredients from the surroundings, the appeal becomes quickly apparent. Ragnar spots edible plants lurking discreetly on every corner, ignored by passers by. We collect tufts of pungent, celery-scented lovage from the cracked pavement of an alleyway, and clip heads of ripe green angelica from an overgrown garden. Before long, his arms are full of assorted fresh and aromatic sprigs, leaves, stems, flowers and seed pods.

The foraging trip is to demonstrate a part of the philosophy behind Dill, Iceland’s first and only Michelin-starred restaurant. As we return with our haul, the small staff is preparing for the night’s service. They’re booked out, as always—the waiting time often stretches to a full three months.

I take a seat at the bar, taking in the atmosphere of the room as Ragnar puts on his apron. The place is smaller and more humble than I’d expected, with a total of just thirty seats in a dimly lit, grey-walled interior. Worn green lamps hang from the beams, and a peeling red door is embedded halfway up the wall, overlooking the tiny service area.

“It’s a 160-year-old building,” grins Raggi. “Every millimetre counts in this kitchen.” He reaches down and reorganises the spoon handles in a long series of containers that hang against one counter. “It was a great day when we realised if we point the handles this way, we get three extra millimetres of space.”

Magic happens

Ragnar and his team set about whipping up a handful of dishes for us to try. They gather around the tiny hob, flipping from their casual, jokey mode into rapt and silent concentration. They reach deftly around each other as they focus on the process at hand, stirring small, steaming saucepans and plating the food.

The first dish is a smooth paste made up of mashed potatoes and skyr topped with several juicy morsels of smoked haddock, and finished with a green tarragon-infused oil. The homely, classic combination of potato, creamy dairy, delicate fish and herbs forms a perfect harmony of flavours. I shudder with pleasure, muttering, “It’s so… simple.” Ragnar smiles. “I tend to think think three flavours is enough,” he says.

Next we try a risotto-style dish with Icelandic barley instead of rice, and a fluffy cloud of finely shaved hardfiskur in place of parmesan. Again, it’s a bullseye—a delicious, eye-opening combination that brings familiar ingredients to life in an unexpected way. The final dish is a dessert that’s being tested for the menu: tartly sweet cherry tomatoes topped with soured, powdered buttermilk and a scoop of ice cream. We try two wines: one sweet, and one ultra dry. Both are under consideration for the menu; every pairing undergoes extensive tasting and discussion as the dish selection evolves and different ingredients come into season.

It’s a satisfying but teasing glimpse into the unpretentious artistry of Dill’s small, dedicated team, and we say our goodbyes, wandering out into the daylight feeling stunned, and more than ready to join the long queue to sample the full seven-course menu.

The New Nordic Kitchen

Dill was first opened by Gunnar Karl Gíslason—now the head chef of the Michelin-starred Agern in Manhattan—in 2009. “We’ve just reopened Agern,” he says, over a glitchy Facetime connection. “The whole restaurant was flooded four months ago. We were closed for three months. It was a crazy time. We’d been open for a year, got a fabulous review from Pete Wells in the New York Times, and got a Michelin Star… and then the flood. It’ll be interesting to see if we can regain that traction.”

“Chefs pay a lot more attention to what we have around us today.It’s quite magical, what we have here.”

Gunnar was born and raised in the north of Iceland, in a house just outside of Akureyri. He was interested in food from an early age. “I remember helping my mother in the garden, picking berries, tending potatoes, and looking after the vegetables,” he says. He enrolled in a local cookery course, and instantly loved the hands-on nature of his studies. Noticing his enthusiasm, a teacher named Halla got him a job as a dishwasher at Bautinn, which is still running in Akureyri today. “I found out that if I worked really hard, they’d allow me to help set up the salad bar, and flip a burger or two,” Gunni recalls. “I loved the atmosphere of the kitchen right away.”

Gunni went on to study cooking in Reykjavík. He was already becoming interested in using fresh, local ingredients. “I once took in all these different wild herbs to work when I was a student,” he recalls. “The chef threw it in the garbage can, and looked at me like I was a witch. Now, picking wild herbs is getting more and more popular, and it’s a big part of what I do.”

“Just before we opened Dill, the financial crisis hit. Everything imported got extremely expensive. We had to come up with a plan B.”

After his studies, and stints in several high-end restaurants in Iceland and around Europe, Gunni became head chef at the hotel restaurant Vox. While the restaurant already—and unusually—used local fish and meat, Gunnar had become interested in Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi’s famous 2005 declaration of “The New Nordic Kitchen,” which extolled the virtues of using all kinds of local, seasonal ingredients.

“Claus, Rene and Mads [Refslund] came to Iceland, because they were going to be opening up Noma,” says Gunnar. “They were travelling the Nordic countries to see what was available. The meeting that I had with them was very inspiring. When I left Vox to open my own restaurant, Dill, it was at first located in the Nordic House, so it made sense for us to use ingredients from all the Nordic countries. But just before we opened, the financial crisis hit. Everything imported got extremely expensive, and our investors jumped off the wagon. We had to come up with a plan B.”

A taste odyssey

And so it was—partly by design, and partly by necessity—that Gunnar embarked on a road trip around Iceland, seeking ideas and inspiration from rural food production. “I didn’t discover anything new,” he says. “What I discovered was actually something old—the old Icelandic traditions. I came back a week later with lots of ingredients I’d collected on the way, and started doing experiments with them, and putting them on the menu.”

“I once took in all these different wild herbs to work when I was a student. The chef threw it in the garbage can, and looked at me like I was a witch.”

The people he’d talked to had a shared story of using traditional methods that had fallen out of popular use. “The techniques weren’t practical enough for a modern world, so to speak,” says Gunni. “They were drying fish for months instead of using modern ovens. And you could tell from the quality. It was a kick in the ass for me, not to just engage with Icelandic ingredients, but with Icelandic traditions—to find ways to mix them into the menu at Dill.”

Ultimately, Gunnar’s experiments led to a book entitled ‘North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland,’ and those ideas have since filtered out widely into Reykjavík’s restaurant culture. “Chefs pay a lot more attention to what we have around us now,” says Gunnar. “Not just chervil, sorrel and angelica, but to the beef we produce from this clean land, and all the fish and shellfish we have access to in Iceland. It’s quite magical, what we have here.”

The new new-wave

Jónas Kristjánsson is a retired journalist who remembers what came before. He was once Iceland’s most outspoken food critic, and has watched these changes occur with interest. “I started to write about restaurants in 1979,” he says. “At that time, a transition was occurring, away from the prevalence of Danish-style cooking. French cuisine was changing from classical to nouvelle cuisine, which had different rules—it was much better cooking. In the next decade, this flowed out of France to other countries, and nouvelle became the standard for Western cuisine, including here in Iceland.”

“New Nordic cuisine is built on the French Modern model, but with more of an emphasis on what is available in the north.”

“The new rules were that there should be only fresh ingredients of the season,” he continues. “Nothing was frozen, or from cans. Hard fats went out, to be replaced by olive oil or lighter oils. Greens and fish were emphasised. No wheat was used in sauces or soups, and preliminary work was abolished—everything was started when the customer ordered. Menus were much shorter, and more conscious about calories. It’s difficult to offer people 5000 calories at dinner. They shouldn’t live eating like this.”

The final tenet of French Modern cuisine, and perhaps the most relevant to New Nordic cuisine, was an emphasis on using fresh local ingredients and produce wherever possible. “In that sense, New Nordic cuisine is built on the French Modern model, but with more of an emphasis on what is available in the north,” says Jónas. “It’s the same idea, with a more local flavour.”

Free oysters

The heavily localised ideas of New Nordic cuisine, as expressed in the creative, exploratory work of Icelandic chefs like Gunnar and Ragnar, do bring something new to the table. Their cooking forms a conceptual connection between contemporary fine dining and all-but forgotten traditions of Iceland’s culinary history. As a whole, their work rings true as a fascinating expression of Iceland’s historical, cultural, and culinary identity.

This is clearly visible at Slippurinn, a family-run summer restaurant on the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. A few days after our tasting at Dill, we drive down the south coast on a blustery autumn morning and take a choppy half-hour ferry crossing to Heimaey. The head chef of Slippurinn is Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, who cheerily picks us up at the harbour for a drive around the island.

“Icelandic food is mostly on the map because of preservation methods. The season for gathering produce has always been short—we had to dry things, pickle things, or ferment them.”

We cruise over a gnarled lava field to a remote beach to pick tangy, horseradish-flavoured “sea beans” from a black beach. Nearby, there’s a patch of succulent “oyster leaves,” so-called because their flavour bears an uncanny resemblance to fresh oysters. On the other side of the island, we find fat strips of purple kelp seaweed and fuzzy black sea truffles—a parasitic plant found growing on seaweed, with a truffley taste and aroma—washed up on the rocky shoreline.

As we drive slowly through the volcanic landscape, Gísli tells us about his experience of the new wave of Icelandic cuisine. “There was a cook called Rúnar Marvinsson who was the first to really start using local products,” he recalls. “He was considered an outcast in the chef community at the time, but when you look back at it now, he was doing amazing things. He inspired people to be proud of their region. I don’t know if it’s just in fashion now, or if it’s a permanent change, but it’s a really good thing that it’s cool to use local products.”

Push the boundaries

Another pleasing aspect of this focus on the local is how it resonates with current thinking about consumption; about reducing carbon footprint, reducing wastage, and moving towards organic and sustainable ingredients. It’s an eye-opening experience to be picking wild herbs and vegetables, and to see them transformed into mouth-watering culinary creations just hours later.

“At Slippurinn, we try to get a little more sustainable every year,” Gísli explains. “Everything from organising the trash really well, to making sure ingredients that don’t come from the islands are sourced nearby, from the south coast of Iceland. It’s good to push those boundaries.”

“Icelanders were a little ashamed of our food before, because it was so simple. It was considered peasant-like.”

In tandem with his work at Slippurinn, Gísli was also one of the founding partners of the respected Reykjavík eatery, Matur og Drykkur. “The concept there was to do new takes on traditional Icelandic food, using old methods and stories,” he explains. “Icelandic food is mostly on the map because of the preservation methods. It’s so cold, so the season for gathering produce has always been very short. The culture here was shaped a lot by that—we had to dry things, pickle things, or ferment them in sour whey just so people could eat all year round. For example, before there were trees in Iceland for birch smoking, they smoked things using compressed and dried sheep shit and hay. It sounds disgusting, but the taste of things that are smoked this way is really good.”

At Slippurinn, Gísli moved away from such culinary archaeology and began focussing more on the creative use of fresh ingredients that are available in Vestmannaeyjar and the south coast. “We’re trying to just make a really good local restaurant,” he explains. “We’re not digging really deep into traditional Icelandic cooking—we’re trying to build a really good seasonal restaurant. We’re only open for four months a year, so we can do that here.”

The results are plain to see—and taste. After an opening salvo of wafer-thin dried cod and kelp crisps with a capelin roe dip, we’re treated to prosciutto-thin thyme-cured lamb, succulent langoustine tails with sea truffles, a whole cooked cod head with an angelica glaze, and perfectly cooked lamb with rhubarb. The colours, aromas, tastes and textures are a lovingly created form of sensual tourism that taps profoundly into the life and landscape of Vestmannaeyjar.

Permanent revolution

The wider outcomes of the New Nordic movement, and Iceland’s ensuing restaurant revolution, are still unfolding. As well as supporting local producers, and thus helping keep traditional and artisanal food production going, the dishes and methods espoused by Icelandic restaurants are also changing attitudes towards home cooking.

“In Australia, Peru, and Bolivia, people are starting to appreciate what’s in their own territory.”

Ragnar from Dill says locals have grown increasingly curious about the possibilities of foraging, even around the shoreline of Reykjavík, and Gísli’s sister, Indíana Auðunsdóttir, relates how teenage girls on the Westman Islands have asked for cocktail recipes for their house parties. “I think Icelanders were a little bit ashamed and embarrassed of our food before, because it was so simple,” says Indíana. “It was considered peasant-like. All these methods—storing things in whey, and rotten foods—this was the only thing we celebrated. But there’s so much more than that.”

This shift in perception is changing how people view traditional food, not just in Iceland, but worldwide. “It’s happening everywhere now,” finishes Gísli. “It’s a big thing in Australia, Peru, Bolivia… people are starting to appreciate what’s in their own territory. Here in Iceland, we have such high quality meat and fish, and nothing growing in the landscape is poisonous. It’s such a clean land. And that’s beautiful.”

Read more about Icelandic restaurants here.

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