Prikið, Reykjavík. Sunday morning. My favourite hangover food spot in the city. I am sitting at a table with two Icelanders. Those damn delicious sweet potato fries have just arrived.
However, something is missing. The salt. The special salt.
I grimace as my tablemate begins to unscrew the top of the upended shaker over his fries. The salt floods out until the fries are completely drowned in a salty malaise. The crimson salt flakes gleam in the mid-morning light. My lips wrinkle as he swallows his fry whole.
The shaker clatters to the table like the spent sword of Damocles, the silence punctuated only by salty chewing sounds of this flavour roulette: who will be next to shake the special salt?
The bringer of heartache
Salt. It tastes good. Too sweet? Add salt. Too sour? Add salt. Too salty? Well, game over. Nobody has ever fixed a problem like that. Salt might send people to heaven—human people, on a flavour holiday—but 100% of Icelanders polled said they “liked” or “loved” salt. Conclusive evidence? Who knows?
If anyone apart from me does, it’s probably the World Health Organisation. A 2013 report on nutrition in Iceland found that, from 2010-2011, the salt intake for the average Icelander was 9.5 grams per day for men and 6.5 grams per day for women.
This places daily salt consumption for Icelandic men at 4.5g above the WHO’s recommended 5g per day, and women 1.5g above the recommended level—which would place Iceland at #26 in the list of countries surveyed. On the surface, then, it looks like Icelanders don’t really like salt that much, consuming less per day than Norwegians, Danes, or Swedes, but still consume unhealthy amounts.
However, WHO’s research looked mainly at salt content in supermarket food and the health initiatives taken to reduce salt content. Rather than telling us clearly that Icelanders don’t actually eat that much salt, all this really tells us is that the salt content of most of our groceries is lower than that of other countries.
While there might be less salt added to store-bought goods, WHO clearly ignore the major culprit of salt consumption in Iceland: the shaker.
So who’s behind it all?
The salt people move in mysterious ways. I had a hard tracking anyone from the salt industry down—until I finally managed to get in touch with Søren Rosenkilde, co-founder of gourmet Icelandic sea salt start-up, Norður & Co. Norður produce flaky, fancy sea salt using what they call a “traditional Icelandic / Danish method dating back to 1753”. Their gourmet product is something your mum might buy, and is far removed from the red-speckled world of special salt.
“I think [salt’s popularity] has a lot to do with Iceland’s history and food culture,” Søren argues. “Salted meat and fish have been a big part of the Icelandic ‘cuisine.’ Our traditional smoked lamb has a very salty taste. With rough conditions and few possibilities of growing fruit and vegetables, if we hadn’t been able to salt our food, we would have just had to eat a lot more porridge than we already did. Icelanders have got used to a salty taste and that still impacts what we think tastes good today.”
“You need salt to survive! If you do not get salt, you die. That’s a fact,” Søren claims. However, he’s no salt apologist: “Many people eat more than twice as much salt as they are supposed to from so many sources they are not aware of. Rather than thinking about how much salt you add to your dinner, you should rather consider the things you do not cook yourself.”
Even if it does somewhat skirt past the large volumes of scientific research which suggest that salt is as chemically addictive as nicotine or alcohol, this clearly links salt to food culture here. Is everyone in Iceland addicted to salt, or do they just choose to like it because it’s kickass and delicious? You decide. Me? I’m left with more questions than ever before—but I was always more of a pepper guy anyway.