From Iceland — In Consideration of the Icelandic Vegetable

In Consideration of the Icelandic Vegetable

Published August 11, 2011

In Consideration of the Icelandic Vegetable

Reminiscing with Fungi
I recall once, while living in Zurich—where every Friday morning behind the Hauptbahnhof, vegetable vendors and their allies, cheese makers, sauce stirrers, picklers and curers, displayed their wares—falling deeply in love with food.  
I remember, we had to prise ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn, well before the beginnings of traffic, and after a smooth coffee and a freshly-baked croissant at a little bistro just down the hill, we’d take tramline number nine all the way to the open air market.  
Here were carts displaying 40 kinds of wild mushrooms and fungi, Chantrelles and Porcini, Black Trumpets and Truffles; homemade wild herb pestos; chutneys, jams and jellies made with alpine berries and flowers; hundreds of cheeses—from the softest Bries, to the most pungent Gruyeres; the air-dried meats, spiced sausages and salamis, dozens of them in all shapes and sizes, all cured to perfection by mountain breezes; and the breads baked with love by Swiss Farmer’s wives; and vegetables—almost anything your heart desired.  
All this now seems like a distant memory.  And I recall the mouth-watering seafood in the open-air markets of Barcelona, of Valencia; the pates, confits and cheeses of Paris and Lyon; the mad-sprawl of the Tokyo fish market; the weekend displays of epicurious delights in every single, little Tuscan village—the hundreds of shapes of pastas and homemade raviolis, the Mamas sautéing and stirring the pots; and in Corfu, the olives, the olives, always the olives.  
Sometimes when I wake up in Reykjavík, I wonder what on earth I’m doing here—virtually olive- and mushroom-less.
Of course, the development of a cuisine is a weather-beaten, historical thingy, and we the survivors of Iceland’s breezy / rainy summers well know that these are not exactly conducive to growing a slew of veg and picklings; but the fact is, even fifty years on, and even with geothermally-heated greenhouses, pickings are still slim.  
So what is an Icelandic Pot-a to, exactly?
With over fifteen years eating in Icelandic homes, I can firmly attest to the fact that at least half of the people I’ve met here have never even considered eating fresh asparagus, had the pleasure of fresh vinaigrette-dipped artichoke straight from the rumple—and baked potatoes?  Where in God’s name are the baked potatoes?
Granted, supermarkets like Bónus and Krónan flog potatoes, and they also sell five-packs of what they term ‘baking potatoes’ pre-wrapped in silver foil, for those of us who don’t know how to wrap; but quite honestly these are not baking potatoes.  
Ask any chef worth his salt, and he’ll tell you that a real baking potato is the King Edward or, at a pinch, a Maris Piper or a Golden Wonder.  As stated by British cook and food writer Nigel Slater, “To get a really fluffy baked potato you need ‘floury’, the sort that have white rather than yellow flesh and crumble when you cook them.”  And the skin should get crispy when baked in the oven.  
Honestly, I have yet to eat a serious baked potato in Iceland.
Potato research
Ask any member of staff at a local supermarket chain if he/she happens to know when he’ll get some King Edward potatoes in, and you’ll get a wide-berthed shrug; and quite frankly the sheer lack of designation on species of commercially-sold veg in Icelandic supermarkets has vexed this quasi-Icelander from day one.
Bearing this in mind, I conducted a little potato-research at the major ‘budget’ supermarket chains, Bónus and Krónan, in Reykjavík and here is what I discovered:
This week the two branches surveyed were stocking five different ‘types’ of potato:
1)    Large, thin-skinned ones, loosely called ‘Loose Baking Potatoes’
2)    Ones termed ‘Bónus New Foreign Potatoes’
3)    Potatoes in a neutral plastic bag pack of 2 kgs termed ‘Potatoes’
4)    Icelandic grown potatoes called ‘Red Potatoes’
5)    And, of course, the obligatory, foil-wrapped potato, called ‘Grill Potatoes’
Krónan scored a little higher than Bónus on variety (six ‘types’ in all), but were also entirely unsure as to what potatoes they were really selling.  Here’s the low down:
1)    ‘Small white foreign potatoes’—after close examination, I found these to be Maris Piper potatoes (aha, a possible baking potato) from Mallorca, Spain
2)    So-called large ‘Baking Potatoes’
3)    The same large, thin-skinned ones as in Bonus, also termed, ‘Loose Baking Potatoes’
4)    Icelandic grown ‘Red Potatoes’
5)    Icelandic grown ‘Goldeneye Potatoes’ (perhaps a derivative of  the ‘Golden Wonder?’)
6)    ‘Helga’ potatoes from Hornafjörður
Strangely, not a single potato was designated according to species (at least any internationally known classification), and there was not a single King Edward (baking potato among them). Of course, we all know that the potato originated in the New World and saved the Irish nation from starvation at the turn of the last century, but in actual fact, there are over 4000 varieties of commercial potato, from the Adirondack Blue to the Bamberg to the Fingerling all the way to the Yukon Gold.  
Can anybody out there tell me what a ‘Red Potato’ or a ‘Loose Baking Potato’ is?
You say Tom-ayto I say tom-ahto
And then, the tomato—possibly the only Icelandic grown vegetable (actually really classified as a fruit—but we won’t pull hairs here) that always appears to be in stock.  Grown in greenhouses in places like Flúðir and Hveragerði, there are pretty much only three (scratch that—four) ‘types’ of tomato on offer in Bónus and Krónan:
1)    Cherry tomatoes
2)    Plum tomatoes
3)    So-called ‘Icelandic’ tomatoes
4)    And now, available in Bónus for a limited period, ‘Health tomatoes,’ supposedly grown with more oxygen…(we’ll get to the bottom of that another time)
The tomato plant, also originally from the New World, boasts over 7500 cultivated varieties, the most popular of which are the Heirloom tomatoes—except in Iceland.  But even here at least two out of four tomato ‘types’ do meet with some sort of internationally recognisable variety—the cherry and the plum—though true designation is lacking here too.  Internationally—among many others, plum tomatoes are sub-classified as the San Marzano or Big Mama—each with its own characteristics.  A cherry tomato, too, is not just a cherry tomato.  Sometimes referred to as tomatinas, varieties vary widely, from the supposed original cherry tomato cultivated in the Greek Santori Islands to the cherry tomato popular in the US and Britain, the ‘Sweet 100.’  And there are others too.
And there’s a rumour going around that the so-called ‘Icelandic’ tomato is possibly its own cross-breed; one avid gardener told me that in the early days the seeds got all mixed up, so we’re really not quite sure what variety an ‘Icelandic’ tomato is.  Someone get out their DNA test already.
So, folks, do any of you know what exactly you are slicing into your salads?  Do you have a clue what you’re potato-baking in your ovens?
Honestly speaking, unless you can afford to splurge on Hagkaup or one of the newer ‘organic’ places, as a serious vegetarian, you’d be looking at an extremely meagre pickings indeed.  And fresh mushrooms?  Well, I have heard tell of Icelanders plucking wild ones in the countryside, and occasionally you do come across them in the higher-brow restaurants, but for your budget consumer it appears there’s only one local variety—commercially-grown button mushroom that don’t have an ounce of flavour at all—unless you smother them in ‘Pepper Cheese.’
I know some of you are thinking what’s the big deal? a potato is a potato, a tomato a tomato.  No, folks.  Try a gazpacho in Andalusia or a stuffed tomato in Umbria and tell me there isn’t a mile of a difference. I’d have to say, praise the ‘Icelandic’ tomato for being something the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue about.  
Next time:  I gorge on Iceland’s finest smoked delicacies, and get into a punch-out with the Icelandic Horticultural Society.

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