Vestmannaeyjar is poised to be at the forefront of food as cultural heritage
One of the highlights of 2022 was the birth of Matey Seafood Festival. Rooted in Vestmannaeyjar, the homegrown food festival seeks to celebrate the bounty of Icelandic waters and the ingenuity of using local produce, while sharing these culinary treats by inviting guest chefs to revisit Icelandic ingredients and serve them anew. Food festivals here are largely unknown and most associate them with the two decade old Food and Fun festival, the OG, that introduced Icelanders to the culinary world by inviting guest chefs from around the globe to take over local restaurants in a weekend-only pop-up format. Matey leans on this format, but that is where the similarities end.
It was with bated breath that a team of international food writers arrived in scenic Vestmannaeyjar. The weather gods seem to know just how to put on a show when it matters the most, and we were blessed with clear blue Simpson-esque skies and warm sunshine. A treat for us sun-starved folks, at the end of September no less.
This year’s line up at Matey, like its debut, boasted an impressive line up of chefs bringing unique expertise and culinary backgrounds: Adam Qureshi, head chef at Kol, London; Adrien Bouquet, chef at Clown Bar and Cheval d’Or, Paris; Tuscan chef Francesco Triscornia, from Terraza del conte Marina di Carrara; and Cúán Greene, founder of Ómós Digest, Ireland.
Wholly managed by heimamenn, Matey is the brainchild of chef Gísli Matthias Auðunson and renaissance man Frosti Gíslason, with the support of a host of local businesses, producers and sponsors. Over the course of three days, four restaurants in Heimaey play host to four visiting chefs, showcasing a set menu highlighting local seafood.
From Japan, Ireland, Mexico and Italy, to Iceland
Matey’s curation spans the globe from Mexico to Japan and the in-between. The terrific thing about food festivals is the opportunity to choose from a broad selection of tastes to choose from and with days to spare, guests can expect to dine on a different cuisine on each of the nights.
As if the gods weren’t already generous enough with the weather, we soon found out that a whopping 250+ kilo bluefin tuna was caught by-catch on the day of the festival. After a frenzied hour-long phone call between Gísli on one end and a harried ship’s butcher on the other about how to break down the hulking beast, menus were quickly reprinted to include this rare treat. We were off to more than a spectacular start.
Adrien Bouquet at Næs, showcased the bluefin with a savoury crowning of slivered scallions, and marinated kohlrabi. His enthusiasm on discovering the differences between Icelandic mackerel and Spanish mackerel was infectious, as we dug into a tempura of the oily fish, otherwise rarely seen on restaurant menus in the country. The black tempura, in contrast to the nubbly capelin roe spicy sauce alongside, made for a memorable bite. But when the slow cooked cod arrived in a puddle of l’orange sauce, a hush fell over the table as we savoured each bite. The celeriac “cake” was a carefully mandolined construction, baked and cooked like a delicate millefeuille, albeit a vegetable one, so expertly cooked, it almost overshadowed the fish.
On to Tuscany
From the comforts of Japanese laced French food, we land in a Tuscan embrace at Einsi Kaldi. Chef Francesco presents a specimen of panzanella so refined, an Italian nonna wouldn’t recognise it. But one bite in and it is a rendition of the humble classic through and through. What was missing, however, was the lardo di Colonnata. Which led to a frantic chef Einar coming out to apologetically explain that the specially flown in lardo, was in fact kidnapped at the Reykjavik harbour and never made it to the restaurant!
I must admit we were all impressed by such determined thieves with exquisite taste, sad as were to be deprived of the lardo. After a flawless risotto cacio e pepe, opinions were divided on the savoury-leaning dessert of Sbrisolona with baked ricotta, truffled honey and pears in Vin Santo. A lively debate ensues and I lean back thinking to myself that this moment here exactly is the power of food — even when we disagree, we can all come together in conversation about it.
The Irish connection
At Slippurinn, chef Cúán Greene packs in so many sleights of hand, bringing the Irish connection to Iceland to the forefront. A bloody history, but one still alive in memories, Westman Islands are in fact named after the enslaved Irish who fled to the archipelago after having killed their slaver.
Cúán kicks things off on a playful note, sending out platters of bluefin tuna belly and perch, dotted with ginger and a slick of soy, nori sheets and a bowl of rice that guests were then encouraged to eat with their hands like at any East Asian dinner table. We need no encouragement and fight over every morsel. When the “dumplings” arrive, however, stories are exchanged over the similarities between kálbögglar, the Icelandic dish of forced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves and then boiled and the Irish variation with flour drop dumplings. Here they arrive as yin-yang twins, one with scallops wrapped in purple cabbage, and the other slátur wrapped in white cabbage. Hearty, with a depth that belies what I imagine careful extraction of flavours from each ingredient, the dumplings are warm, made warmer still with the lamb broth poured over them. What was once about survival, here becomes celebration.
Few Icelanders today sing paeans about blood sausage. And how can one blame them? We have outsourced our culinary heritage to corporations and one has to be lucky enough to be in the vicinity of a farmer or folk who take pride in making their own scratch sausages. Here we see a glimpse of just how good the humble fare can be.
Over at Gott, chef Adam Qureshi too plays with the Icelandic pantry with ease. As he puts it, once you know the basics, it is pretty easy to put things together. This is a sentiment borne out of experience, of course. As the head of R&D at Kol, and now at its helm as head chef, Adam married Mexico and Iceland that evening, in a way that will long stay with us. Tacos de cabeza meets carnitas, but with cod heads and cheeks: all of the unctuous richness of the collagen-rich meat is ideal for the taco, especially with the spicy uni-habanero sauce alongside cutting through the richness. The tortillas are buckwheat, the potatoes barely cooked, a la Chinese tu dou si, recall the crunch of jicama. A clever construction that really puts into perspective the creative expertise the chefs boast, creating a dish like this over the span of just a few days.
By the time the pollock estofado arrives, Icelanders at the table reveal how they never ate this white fish, which is actually fished aplenty. We’ve had several pollack dishes by now at Matey, but this gently steamed version was by far our favourite. Rich and smooth, firm yet yielding, we were impressed by the cook team at Gott for having pulled this one off. Dessert was a sublime sweet corn elote, warm from the basket with a surmjölk ice cream and dulse macha. I wish I’d stolen a few of those elote, a sentiment everyone at the table echoed later.
An island in an island, Vetsmannaeyjar isn’t easy to get to, even if it’s straightforward. A 2.5 hour scenic drive from the capital, studded with waterfalls and flat grassland leads one to Landeyjahöfn, the small harbour port and lifeline to Heimaey, the main island in the archipelago. Once there, you take a 40 minute ferry – incidentally, an electric fleet – to the cluster of volcanic islands. Towering oceanic mountains and a cacophony of squawking seabirds herald your arrival: this is drama and magic, the way only nature does.
So why go to all this trouble to get to what was until quite recently, even by locals, a remote island? And for food no less?
In the past decade, there has been a resurgence of interest and, along the way, pride in Icelandic cuisine. This shift from the shame associated with a cuisine borne out of deprivation to a country that is starting to take pride in its own backyard of native ingredients is in no small measure thanks to the concerted efforts of a small group of committed chefs and advocates striving to elevate Icelandic food from one of survival to modern day cuisine. Chefs like Gunnar Karl Gíslason of Dill fame paved the way for young chefs like Gísli Mathias Auðunsson to look deeper at the country’s own pantry afresh. The latter has, in recent times, has seen his star rise as Slippurinn – the family run seasonal restaurant is rightly considered by many as a pathbreaker.
Like all things Iceland where its size conceals a universe of gifts, a festival that seeks to stir dialogue and discourse about food, bringing purveyors and producers face to face with diners seems like a natural course of events.
Vestmannaeyjar is home to 4,000 people, but boasts of multiple islands where sheep still fatten over summer and are brought down precarious cliffs by determined farmers who make it seem like child’s play. It isn’t. The black sandy beaches that look cold, harsh and devoid of vegetation are actually a thriving biome of a variety of seaweed, herbs and greens like sharp beach mustard that recalls the bite of radish tails, fragrant sea peas, crunchy sea lettuce, and even briny truffle-like seaweed that looks like shredded tobacco.
Given that most restaurants in the country suffer from the sickness of sameness, being on this island, in close proximity to ingredients that are a wet dream for chefs anywhere else in the world, taken here for granted, or worse, ignored, is but the ideal place to have conversations about the state of Icelandic food and the bounty we are sitting on that is in need of nurturing.
Whats next for Matey
While most food festivals may seem to be cut form the same cloth, what Matey is doing is bringing the visible and the invisible together. For consumers who never see fish whole in the store, let alone understand the politics and commercial mining of what really is a national treasure, festivals like Matey bring us one step closer to the fishermen, the producers, the purveyors who otherwise remain distant and therefore non-existent. The reverse is true for the producer, too. Consumer needs are rarely a factor in their determination of what is valuable fish over the other, with profits driving much, if not all of their decision making, right from the cuts of fish available, to what kinds of fish are being caught.
What I hope to see from Matey – and what the organisers themselves are keen to as well – would be a more democratic, down to earth approach to this co-mingling. Instead of only set menu formats, it’d be nice to see more a la carte options that would allow visitors to hop from one restaurant to another in a heady weekend of indulgence. Or perhaps a showcase of a few hero ingredients, literally taken to the street. Perhaps a show and tell of how our fish is processed, pulling back the curtains of commerce to really talk about the story of how seafood really is an integral part of the cultural fabric of Iceland.
The strength of Matey (other than its delightful name — Mat means food, and ey is island) lies in its focus and ambition to bring the many components of the food cycle together. But it’s real impact will be in reminding Iceland and Icelanders about their own ingenuities as gifts, reigniting pride in what was once considered pitiful.
The Matey Seafood Festival took place September 21 to 23 on Heimaey. Look for details of next year’s event at visitvestmannaeyjar.is/matey
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