When I first started to think about what my annual end of the year food retrospective would look like for 2022, I imagined I’d say something along the lines of having firmly put the pandemic behind us, bright hopes for 2023, etc etc. But with an active war in Europe, whispers of the pandemic swirling again and a fluctuating economy that has the island on edge, that optimism has been tampered with the reality of the foodscape — 2022 was a year of many highs and many lows and 2023 looks like a tightrope walk between hope and fear.
Michelin comes to Iceland again
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Óx earned its first Michelin star, bringing Iceland’s count of recognised establishments to two. The once 11-seater only dining experience has found new digs just down the main street and accommodates a handful more, just in time for star-hungry diners. Dill not only held onto its star, but also received a ‘green star’ for Chef Gunnar Karl’s circular practices in the kitchen that take centre stage on the menu.
Not just restaurants, but their respective wine menus too garnered international acclaim. At the Star Wine List Nordic awards, Brút snagged silver in three categories: sparkling wine, Austrian wine and the medium-sized list of the year. Dill took home silver for both sustainable wine list of the year and best short list of the year. The wine bar revolution is firmly afoot and just when one was starting to lament the lack of one that didn’t push just natural wines, Apéro opened its doors, with a scrumptious menu to boot.
A seafood festival for a seafaring nation
The year saw the birth of Matey Seafood Festival, a homegrown food festival from the Westman Islands that brought together producers, restaurateurs, chefs local and international, and diners over an entire weekend, showcasing the very best of Icelandic seafood. The organisers also get brownie points for cleverly timing the gastronomic affair with the peak of puffling season which made it an enviable two-for-one destination getaway. I’d make those 2023 hotel reservations stat, as we learned just how full all of Vestmannaeyjar was during the festival.
Homegrown products, international acclaim
It continued to be a big year for local producers: Himbrimi Gin launched in the United States, receiving an enviable New York Times byline that said, “This Icelandic gin will win over whiskey fans.” Westfjörd based salt producers Saltverk created waves for their flaky seasoning, and family run businesses like Islenskt Hollusta and Og Nattura regularly showcased their wares in forums abroad. Nordic Wasabi continues to wow customers here and overseas, frequently appearing on plates from Scandi hotspots. Their downtown store now offers fun group sessions centred around wasabi and you can buy the fresh stem for a delicious souvenir.
Suffering from Success: Mathölls
Mathölls are the new ‘videosjóppa.’ At the onset of the VHS revolution, video rentals mushroomed on practically every street corner. This get-rich-quick, short-term thinking coupled with “þetta reddast” is how you end up with no less than nine food halls (soon to be 10) in a country of 370,000 people — that’s one mathöll for every 35,555 Icelanders!
Video stores met their demise pretty swiftly. Mathölls aren’t tracing a different trajectory either — Grandi has struggled but sluggishly chugs on thanks to the mercy of its investors, as does Höfði. Vera Groska, not even a year old, consistently smells of a mystery spice and has none of the chutzpah of its interior design in its food offerings. Barring the novelty of the initial days of opening, every mathöll is a jigsaw puzzle of the usual suspects — both in ownership and restaurant choices. A smashed burger-pizza-some token Asian joint with an emphasis on deep fried food seems to be the magic mantra. And if you are worried that the cracks are showing, there is always mayo — so much mayo — to the rescue.
Diners are repeatedly subjected to cut from the same cloth monotonicity — if they haven’t fled already thanks to beepers that vibrate on every tabletop. It’s a free for all buffet of mediocrity marketed as a unique dining experience, when in fact it is a cost cutting business model at the expense of quality. One that poor planning by local authorities exacerbates (there are three food halls in a 600m radius).
“In my mind, there is a lack of understanding and support from the government, investors in the business and often, restaurant owners themselves,” chef Ólafur Águstsson is frank on the subject. “It adds to the lack of understanding of the opportunities that come with extremely high quality and diversity in the restaurant world,” he adds, thoroughly capturing the despair of what can only be described as mathöll madness.
In 2023 please spare us more mindless food halls. Let’s work on a food market in one of the already existing ones. Grandi, I reckon, is ready for such a fitting overhaul.
MS and its reign of mediocrity
MS (Iceland’s dairy organisation) continues to contribute to the collective dumbing down of culinary appreciation in the country by introducing brand new flavour fails practically every month. Cream cheese spread, that beloved lazy sauce shortcut is now available in a ‘camembert’ flavour, you know, for those I-don’t-want-camembert-just-its-flavour moments that so often confronts us. There is also a brand new ‘Italian’ flavour. To go with your ‘Mexican’ cheese. When they drop an Indian flavour, we riot. MS, you’ve literally got the country by its udders, don’t we deserve better?
The Gróðurhús Mathöll (yes, another one) and hotel combo in Hveragerði, backed by Kormakur og Skjaldur, is bookended by Sambó on shelves (amidst other curated gourmet goodies, this addition stands out), and ‘Colonial Bar’ on the other; the otherwise beautiful space is marred by the insensitivity on display.
While easy to dismiss this as lazy copywriting or lack thereof, the impact of language and how we engage with food is deeply intertwined. As policy analyst and inclusion advocate Achola Otiene stirringly asks, ‘’Can you really say you’re offering ‘Colonial Classics’ when there is no genocide, enslavement or plundering on the list?’’
Just a few years ago, it took Twitter outrage for a cocktail named Apartheid to be taken down. The only indication that Nýlendubar (“colonial bar”) are aware this is problematic is the tactic they have borrowed from Sambó — changing their Instagram handle to Nýlundubar while resolutely ignoring requests to engage since day one of their operations. Hiding behind an Icelandic word does not legitimise suffering, not when the stuffed peacock tells you otherwise.
In somewhat of a small win earlier in the year, ATVR had to concede to Santé and Björland in their tussle for the legitimacy of online alcohol sales. But hopes for alcohol sales reform were short lived as the State yet again raised alcohol taxes by 7,7%.
This time around, even the duty free hasn’t been spared and those taxes are now raised from 10% last year to an astronomical 25% hike. Despite repeated calls for revision by the industry, the State holds to its steadfast belligerent belief that we simply cannot be trusted with liquor.
Family run business Coocoo’s Nest closed its doors on NYE after having served us the country’s best sourdough, Cali-style pizzas and the most sought after brunches, for 10 long years. Makake too, another family run venture just down the street, shuttered after only a few years of operation.
With covid relief measure paybacks now kicking in (interest rates went from 1 to 9%) this first quarter will be a long-drawn turning point until the summer tourists can bail out those still left standing.
Iceland, a dining destination: an overlooked opportunity
Research shows that 95% of global travellers today consider themselves ‘food travellers,’ with 70% of them picking a destination based on food and drink choices. Interestingly, 59% believe that food choices are more important now than they were five years ago.
The 2022 report by the Nordic Ministers under Icelandic presidency, ‘Nordic Food in Future Tourism,’ highlights the intersection of restaurants, food producers, farmers and animal husbandry as essential to attaining its common goal of being an attractive destination where “eating and travelling in harmony with nature and local culture is a desirable lifestyle.”
The same report outlines the challenges they studied over a three-year period: an absence of strategic planning for the role of food in tourism and glaringly limited food tourism services when compared to our Nordic neighbours. The report called out the government’s lack of flexibility and its reluctance to adapt to changing expectations of the industry. Simplifying licence applications for small producers, making it easier for small boat fishermen to directly sell their catch to local communities, restaurants and shops would vastly change the culinary landscape for everyone. As chef Gísli Matthías puts it, “fish and lamb aren’t commodities, they are our culture.”
Undeterred by shackling restrictions the Icelandic restaurant industry is a tale of making the most out of very little. An impressive 100 billion ISK industry, it is also a sector riddled with labour challenges. For one, the industry is not recognised as a standalone player but is vaguely splintered across tourism and food production without a seat at the table to negotiate ably.
When governments are invested, the results speak for themselves. In 2019, the Danish government launched a public-private partnership, Gastro 2025, an initiative to attract gastronomic tourists to raise the country’s status as a destination. At its launch, Denmark had 35 Michelin stars over 28 restaurants. In 2022, the country boasted 39 stars for 28 restaurants. Iceland, by comparison, has the least culinary recognition amongst Nordic countries. Five places are recommended here, compared to 48 in Norway, 73 in Sweden and 100 places in Denmark. And all these efforts don’t just cater to hungry, well heeled tourists. Planned frameworks like these improve the standard of life for local communities and businesses.
The impact of lack of policies has been felt for a while in the form of shortened operating hours, dipping customer service, lack of competitive quality and variety and, more seriously, family run businesses being edged out by bottomline focussed investors.
Food isn’t just a physical necessity, it is also a psychological one. “Sure tourists may come here for the waterfalls and the horses, but it is that hot chocolate later, that bowl of kjötsúpa after that they remember too,” says Erna Petúrsdóttir of Makake. “People may come for the scenery, but on each day of those visits, it is the restaurants big and small that make for memories.”
A vibrant nation is not a happenstance. Iceland holds promise as an attractive culinary destination but without sustained efforts to nurture our food culture, it may as well remain a pipedream.
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