From Iceland — It's all in the algae

It’s all in the algae

Published October 4, 2011

It’s all in the algae

Mývatn: We’re sitting in what was once a cowshed overlooking clear blue skies and a rippling lake, eating one of the best kjötsúpa I’ve had in aeons. Waterfowl gently soak in the flickering sun’s rays, singular clouds hover over peaked islets. We seem to have more oxygen in our lungs here, we feel light-headed. My friend Gísli tells me that there are more species of duck here than anywhere else on earth.
In this beautifully renovated cowshed-come-bistro, unlike the kjötsúpa being touted in other tourist restaurants all along Iceland’s ring road, this one actually contains some serious hunks of lamb meat. It sticks between your teeth. And so it should, since a bowl here costs well over 1.500 krónur—even if it comes with home-baked rúgbrauð (traditional Icelandic rye bread) and a view to die for.
Yet, as I’m spooning this delight, a thought enters my head: Why the hell do they call it kjötsúpa?
Any Icelander knows that kjötsúpa is bite-sized chunks of lamb meat (probably shoulder), onion, potatoes, carrots, swede, perhaps cabbage, oats or barley—or, possibly as my mother-in-law makes it, with a handful of brown rice and couple of cloves of garlic. In essence kjötsúpa is very similar to Irish stew: a wholesome, warm protein-filled meal conducive to keeping farmers warm during blustery winds, but not a ‘meat soup,’ which is the literal translation into English.
All over the island, at tourist restaurants, roadside cafes, kjötsúpa hovers somewhere on the menu. You’ll find it served in delicate Rosenthal gold-edged bowls or in cheap polystyrene cups. It’s almost as common as the Icelandic pylsur (hot dog). And rightly so: it’s relatively easy to make, filling, generally tasty, and authentic Icelandic fare. Yet, more often than not Icelandic restaurateurs are chalking it on their blackboards as ‘Icelandic meat soup’—I mean, think about it? Is a tourist going to consider that appetising?
‘Meat soup’ sounds like something out of a can, sounds like something you might serve prison inmates. Campbell’s isn’t even in it.
Why not call it ‘Lamb and Rutabaga Stew with Wild Icelandic Herbs?’ throw in a sprig of Arctic thyme and a few juniper berries, offer it with a dollop of sour cream; or—for those on a higher budget—a dash of sweet sherry; a couple of cheesy crostinis on the side would certainly not go awry. Suggest the customer in question wash the whole thing down with fabulous Einstök Icelandic Toasted Porter ale. Now you’re bloody talking.
The view from here, of course, speaks for itself. No wonder those cows are looking so damn happy.
Gísli swears it’s the midges— tanytarsus gracilentus—or, in actual fact, the planktonic blue-green algae that the midge larvae swelling at the bottom of the lake find irresistible.
Talking about literal translations, Mývatn, means ‘midge lake’ and the fact of the matter is that some years, in July and August, the skies are black with the swarming buggers. In your wildest dreams you wouldn’t consider a walk around the lake without a midge head net firmly tucked into your collar. Imagine how the poor cows feel about it. At times the midges are so numerous they can even make breathing difficult. And forget painting a house near Mývatn in Summer. As Gísli found out, you might as well have your paint premixed with midges.
And in a cycle of life turn of events, the larvae and the midges are a huge draw for the vast array of waterfowl that come here across continents and oceans and for the trout, the Arctic char and the wild salmon.
Whether or not the fish smoked at little farm here really originates from the lake itself or its near tributary, the river Laxá, reputedly one of the best brown trout fishing rivers in the world, it tastes heavenly. Even though the young lad, who arrives at the smoking shed is still chewing his lunch and looks as if he goes fishing most days, it is possible that the trout, salmon and Arctic char on offer here is actually purchased en masse from one of Iceland’s largest fresh fish farmers, the Akureyri-based Samherji.
Today, Iceland is the largest producer of Arctic char with more than 50% of total world production, and Samherji owns the lion’s share. I put this thought aside and go with the myth of the lake. I convince myself what I’m eating comes directly from these idyllic pools.
So is it really midges that make the smoked trout here taste so great, or is it something else? Gísli smiles craftily as he places two different filets on the plate in front of me. “Taste the difference,” he says.
Both of these trout filets are cold-smoked. One is a light-yellow pink, the other a dark-pink-turning red. The light-yellow is superb. It has a creamy flavour, dry and with a distinct charcoal aftertaste. The reddish filet is the superior filet though—a deeper gout, a sweetness lingers that is irresistible with the Italian pinot grigio that Gísli is pouring.
“Both delicious,” I say, “but the red one is just a little better. So what’s the secret?”
“Well,” smiles Gísli, gently sipping his wine. “The lighter one is smoked with birch. The reddish one is smoked with dung. Everyone in Iceland knows the best smoked fish is dung-smoked.”


In other treeless places like Tibet, dung is used for burning, and apparently burns longer and better than wood. One might imagine that yak meat strung up in the traditional Tibetan yurt also takes on a dung-smoked flavour. One thing I can attest to, however, is that Tibetan food tastes like crap. And either way you look at it, faecal matter is faecal matter—shit is shit. So why in hell does it make fish taste so damn good?
“The dried dung is collected from the sheep pen together with some straw,” says Gísli, as he leads me to the farmers smoking shed, a turf shack made the old-fashioned way with stones and peat. “Before smoking, the farmer lightly salts the fish for a day or two. No other spices are added. The fire has to be kept low to achieve the most smoke,” he says. And why dung as opposed to wood? Well for one, it’s cheap—at least it used to be. But then there’s another reason. Sheep dung gives off an incredible amount of smoke so you don’t need that much of it.
I can only bear to stand in here for a minute. Tears, not of joy, but of mild ‘excremental’ pain stream down my cheeks. And as I’m standing there in a dung-daze wondering why the trout tastes that much better when it’s dung-smoked, it comes to me: the herbs. Smoking with dung is a cheap and efficient way to get all those wild Icelandic herbs those free-roaming sheep have been eating all those months infused into the fish.
Our scientists tell us that in the scheme of our galaxy, our little blue planet lies in the small band which is the habitable zone; not too far and not too near our sun, just right to create the conditions for life. In the same fashion, the unique ecology of Mývatn holds the ideal conditions for the best smoked trout.
In the end, I would agree with Gísli. It all begins with the algae. Isn’t that how everything started?
Next time: I find out why tomatoes love Icelandic volcanoes.

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