Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Icelandic food I: produce

Just over a week ago I had the great pleasure of visiting Reykjavík for a week. I was attending a friend's wedding, and we stayed in a lavish (but amazingly cheap) city centre apartment. It was billed as a largely self-catering affair, chiefly to save money. The kitchen was amazing - gorgeous, modern, sleek and well-appointed, with a large fridge-freezer (with a pointless built-in radio and LCD recipe book), dishwasher, microwave, fan oven (again with an unnecessarily complicated computerised control panel), filter coffee maker, toaster, kettle and lots of drawers full of utensils and cookware.

In fact, we ate out more than planned, sometimes in groups, sometimes separately, although we did cook a fair bit too. So here are my impressions of Icelandic food and produce. It's very subjective, but as I knew very little about their food before I went (and virtually nothing before I read a guide book), it might be helpful to anyone thinking of going.

This is by far the best uncontroversial Icelandic delicacy I can think of. I guess you can make it vegetarian/vegan, although as it may be curdled by rennet, much of it may well not be (I honestly don't know what kind they use there). It is a dairy product, that comes in pots, plain or flavoured with fruit, vanilla, etc, sometimes with a crunchy topping. If that makes it sound just like yoghurt, that's exactly what it seemed to be, to begin with. However, Icelandic supermarkets also have yoghurt on their shelves, alongside the pots of skyr. It turns out, that the production of skyr is a hybrid process between yoghurt and cheese, as it is produced both by souring the milk with lactic acid bacteria and by curdling it with rennet. The curds and whey are separated, and the former constitute the skyr. I first accidentally bought (blueberry) skyr drink, which was delicious but rather missed the point. So next I got regular blueberry skyr, and I was instantly converted. I didn't try and of the other flavours until I left, when I brought back a pot of plain skyr so I could make my own (see next entry) - it was good, but the blueberry was sublime. What's more, everyone else agreed - skyr is a winner.

One notable aspect of Icelandic cuisine - both in "traditional-style" (i.e. tourist-oriented, Icelandic-themed) restaurants, and supermarkets - which is definitely NOT for everyone, is the number of meats available that would be considered distasteful or even immoral in the UK. Puffin, guillemot, minke whale, horse, and even (apparently, in rural locations) seal. I didn't go to the Icelandic restaurant my friends visited, where they had puffin, whale and foal, but I did buy a smoked, herb-crusted guillemot breast from a delicatessen in the city centre. Everyone agreed it was delicious, and so it was - dense, lean, and rather like pigeon. And since I was asked by most people what it was, I must tell you that a guillemot is a sea bird, black and white and a bit like an auk. Expensive, but nice. As for whale, I saw huge cubic slabs of whale blubber which, I must say, looked disgusting (I've seen its texture described as "stringy"). Horse was widely available, in steak and sausage form, but I didn't have time to try it, sadly. It resembled beef.

It turned out that we were there during the closest thing Iceland has to a food festival. In fact, it's derived from an old Norse month, dedicated to Thor, and is now a roughly two week period when Icelanders are most inclined to eat their ancestral delicacies. It must be said that most of these sound repulsive - mostly fish and meat products that have been pickled or fermented to allow them to keep through the long sub-Arctic winter. Whether this was the reason we saw so much hákarl (fermented shark), I don't know. My friend, whose wedding we were there to celebrate, really wanted to try this particular experience, so I bought a small pot of cubes of the white shark meat. On opening, the smell we'd read so much about was impossible to ignore - truly vile, retch-inducing, ammoniac. I had no inclination to try it, but those who did said it was unremarkable once it was in your mouth (though nose-pinching was recommended). The only seasonal produce I tried was a number of Þorrablót beers. In fact, these were only a little more interesting than standard Icelandic beer, which was golden, clean and all the same - pretty boring.

The star of the show, besides skyr, was the fish. Smoked and cured salmon was so much cheaper than in the UK, and the smoked examples I bought (just basic supermarket stuff, between 600 and 1200ISK, around £3.50-7.00) were delicious. I mostly cooked them with creamy pasta sauces, with Icelandic mascarpone (again excellent), and alternations of herbs, mushrooms, cheese and lemon. Thinly sliced on rye bread was a good way of serving it too. The Icelanders also like dried white fish, but it was really expensive, so I didn't try any. I also bought quite a few pre-made fishcakes. Some were excellent - those that resembled our version - while others were rather bland.