Think of Icelandic food culture, and few things spring to mind—and not all of them pleasant. Sheep heads, salted cod, fermented shark, brennivín; for centuries food consumption in Iceland reflected the reality of living on an isolated wind-blown island in the middle of the north Atlantic where very little survives, let alone thrives.
However, there are some clear misconceptions about this time in Icelandic culinary history. Despite the hardship of life and the lack of variety of food available, the challenging conditions forced our ancestors to be incredibly creative when it came to foraging, harvesting, preserving and enjoying food. What’s more, the quality of certain Icelandic ingredients —fish being the obvious contender, but there are more—is unparalleled. The special knowledge and techniques required to get the best out of Icelandic ingredients has been quietly lost over the last 100 years with increased imports and the eventual arrival of microwave meals.
At the forefront of a new resurgence of interest in returning to some of these culinary traditions is restaurant Slippurinn, and its head chef and co-owner, Gísli Matthías Auðunsson. He is also one of the main architects behind a new and exciting food event: MATEY Seafood Festival, which is set to be an annual occasion, bringing together food purveyors, restaurateurs and diners.
On Gísli’s invitation we travel to Vestmannaeyjar to check out the festival, and the burgeoning food culture developing on Heimaey. In the surprising sunshine of early September, the trip from Reykjavík is glorious. It also has the feel of being a pilgrimage of sorts. As Gísli Matt’s star has continued to rise in the last few years, with the release of the Slippurinn cookbook, TV appearances and a glowing BBC article to name but a few key moments, Vestmannaeyjar has begun to form an identity as the food destination of Iceland.
It’s an odd location for such a thing in some ways—the archipelago is about a three-hour journey from the capital, and bad weather can make getting there at all a challenge in the winter months. However, it can also be seen as a microcosm of the best of Icelandic food culture. The islands’ volcanic past and extensive shoreline combine to provide the perfect environment for plants, seaweeds and fungi, and there is fresh fish galore.
It’s the latter that MATEY Seafood Festival seeks to celebrate. The four-day event is a collaboration between local restaurants, food producers and business, with the aim of honouring the islands’ intrinsic link with the ocean and the nourishment it provides. The main attraction this weekend is the hosting of five international guest chefs at four Heimaey restaurants, all delivering multiple-course meals with a focus on seafood and other local produce—and we’re here to try them all.
Nice to be Næs
Our first stop on day one is Næs, Slippurinn’s sister restaurant. It has the cosy, down-to-earth atmosphere of a steadfast local spot. Tonight it is home to guest chefs Fjölla Sheholli and Junayd Juman of Honey Badger in Brooklyn, New York, which describes itself as a “wild to table restaurant,” with a strong focus on foraged ingredients.
Fjölla and Junayd—who, dressed impeccably, are somehow cooking, plating and serving all at once—immediately bring the drama with a three-part entrée that consists of a homemade vegan walnut ‘cheese’, a candied fish, and a flower. Fjölla explains to us to eat the flower first, and enjoy the sensations it creates. “It will even make your tap water effervescent,” she says, and I am deeply sceptical. But god, she is right! The native American flower contains similar chemicals as Sichuan peppercorns, numbing your mouth but also heightening certain tastes. As introductions to a meal go, it’s a pretty wild ride.
Our meal continues at a gallant pace, with excellent wine pairings to match. Highlights include a reworking of the famous Slippurinn eggs—a dish that appears in some form or another on Slippurinn’s menu every year. This time fresh guillemot eggs are out of season so the chefs employed the use of chicken eggs as a stand-in to create a creamy, savoury custard, still served in the brilliant blue guillemot egg shells. They are as much a joy to look at as they are to eat.
If you like pina coladas…
Already dangerously full, we trot across the road to Slippurinn, which is humming with activity. The guest chef here is a little more locally sourced: Leif Sørensen, New Nordic pioneer and previously the force behind Michelin starred Faroese restaurant Koks. He and Gísli Matt are long-time collaborators, and their individual identities shine through the dishes they present us with. The first course, a dish of beautiful raw cod crudo—but served ice-cold, almost like a granita—has Leif written all over it, whereas a tray of different seaweeds, treated so that they can be consumed like bar snacks, showcases Gísli’s creative approach to foraged ingredients.
The drinks pairing, curated by David Hood, is expertly thought out, and includes a special angelica beer created by Vestmannaeyjar brewery Brothers Brewery. The Slippurrin cocktails are also not to be missed: there is a version of a pina colada, made with foraged pineapple weed, that is so convincingly coconutty that it’s hard to believe something else hasn’t been added. It’s the tabasco-aged brennivín and carrot number that guest bartender Martin Cabejšek has designed especially for MATEY that gets our top score however, with its inspired lick of white chocolate on the rim.
…And getting lost in the rain
Unbelievably full—in both the English and Icelandic senses of the word—we roll into bed with the promise of a foraging session with Gísli the next day. To my disbelief he is true to his word and, after a small interlude where we join the local children in releasing lost baby puffins back into the wild (a Vestmannaeyjar tradition), we join Gísli and two of his sous chefs on the beach. Somehow they are all in remarkably good shape, considering how late we are led to believe the previous night’s party continued, and they cheerfully show us how to identify the different seaweeds as the rain pours down.
Refreshed and dried off, we return to the fray with our first stop of the evening being Einsi Kaldi, where Canadian chef Ron Mckinlay is stationed. We are blown away by the raw mackerel, served with a lobster-cauliflower bisque—easily one of the best dishes of the weekend. But there are misses here as well as hits: the menu advertises ‘wild’ Icelandic tomatoes, which raises eyebrows in our party. These are served mostly raw within a dish of whipped capelin roe and langoustine pieces, which does them no favours. In addition, the wine pairing is disappointedly mediocre, consisting of standard low-range bottles that provide no thrill.
A Gott ending
Finally, and at this point with great difficulty, we arrive at the last restaurant of the weekend. It’s Gott—by name and by nature—and the guest chef is the wonderful Chris Golding from London. He warmly invites us into the kitchen and talks us through the dishes. A cheeky, scribbled note on the whiteboard reminds people, “don’t be a dick,” and it seems, from the outside at least, like this advice is being followed. The kitchen staff are all smiles, and despite the fact that the restaurant is stowed out, the service is impeccable—a rare treat in Iceland.
Chris’s creations are also a delight. His are by far the most generous portions of the lot, and each dish shows deep thoughtfulness and respect for his ingredients. White fish cooked beautifully en papillote is the best example of letting food speak for itself. With this level of freshness and quality, the less messing around the better. I leave Gott fully convinced by the concept of MATEY Food Festival, and vowing to return next year—hopefully with a little more room for dessert.
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