Ah, plokkfiskur, that most reliable of Icelandic comfort foods. Take some delicious hunks of fresh white fish, mash it together with steaming-hot potatoes and a bit of butter and milk, season to taste, and you’re good to go.
Seems simple enough, right? But like many national staples, plokkfiskur (“plucked fish,” translated literally) is easy to make but difficult to perfect. It has also been endlessly bastardised over the years. There are the dairy queen versions, creamed to death in an attempted shortcut to comfort-food satisfaction; the UK-style fisherman’s pie with the wanton addition of smoked fish, prawns and bechamel sauce; and peppered-for-the-gods remixes, in which spice hides the flavour (or, often, the lack thereof).
You’ll find no such populism, however, at the Fisherman café in Suðureyri. Billed as “A simple gourmet meal made exclusively from first-class produce,” their take on this Icelandic classic is about as traditional as you can get.
Cruising into the tiny Westfjords town of Suðureyri, the Fisherman empire seems to have taken over the town. Hotel apartment buildings bear the Fisherman logo on both sides of the high street, and there’s a Fisherman café and welcome centre on one side of the street, and an equally pristine canteen on the other.
We’re the only people in the café on a cloudy July afternoon. The airy space is dotted with shelves full of Fisherman products: dried cod fillets, monkfish and cod liver, and other mysterious ingredients that most passers-by probably wouldn’t know what to do with. The menu, however, is simple: carrot soup, plokkfiskur, a plokkfiskur sandwich, or fishcakes.
This well-designed and whiskery, callous-handed, still-smelling-like-the-harbour, no messin’ brand has clearly brainwashed me, because I order without even considering the options. It has to be the original, the best, the comfort-food champion of Iceland: the plokkfiskur.
The dish arrives quickly, steaming hot from the kitchen, served with a humble salad, a thick slice of ruðbrauð—Icelandic rye bread—and a side of tartar sauce. It is, of course, as understated as can be. The strands of cods are fine, and the potato smooth and buttery, with occasional fragments for texture. The seasoning is light, and the racy inclusion of the tartare adds an acidic zip to each forkful.
Finishing the plate is like coming out of a plokkfiskur-induced trance. How, I wonder, could such a truly basic dish be quite so absorbing? In this case, less, it seems, is more. Without a load of flavourless cheese melted on top, the taste of the fresh cod and potatoes were allowed to stand on their own considerable merits.
After making conversation with the waitress, I dare to ask the secret Fisherman plokkfiskur recipe. She smiles and walks me through to a back room, where it’s displayed proudly on the wall in giant type: 500g haddock, 400g potato, half an onion, 100ml milk, 50g butter, 20g flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, and half a teaspoon of pepper.
Nothing, I think to myself, says confidence quite like giving away the recipe. Because even if it was followed to perfection, this simple, arresting dish would never taste quite like it does here, just a hundred metres from the bustling fishing dock of Suðureyri.
Fisherman is on Aðalgata in Suðureyri, with a Reykjavík branch on Hagamelur in Vesturbær. Their products are on sale in Hagkaup and Super 1. Get more info at fisherman.is. Read more about plokkfiskur here.
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