There have been many little moments where Johann and I realise our food backgrounds are quite different. We’d be in a supermarket buying potatoes and I’m looking for the variety best suited to what we’re making: a waxy small one, perhaps a Charlotte, for a mediterranean vegetable roast, new potatoes for boiling with lamb, maybe a Maris Piper for roasting with a chicken and getting that crackled, flaking, rich skin. I look for a second opinion and get a blank look. In Iceland there are two kinds of potatoes, he says. Red ones, and white ones.
Then we move to the fruit aisle and I’m scanning for cooking apples. I’m after Bramleys, but I will settle for Granny Smiths. I want acid bright ones so big they barely fit in my palm. These okay? Another look. In Iceland, there are two kinds of apple, he says. Red ones, and green ones.
These episodes gave me a feeling of trepidation about moving to Iceland. I have been into growing food for two years now. I like to sit down with a seed catalogue and read about different varieties of crops, their needs, tastes and characteristics. And although I eat meat, I am used to cooking meals where vegetables are the largest component.
Thankfully things have changed in Iceland since Johann grew up here. My first trip to Bonus, a budget supermarket here, revealed that you can now choose Pink Ladies, or Cox, or Braeburn, or Jazz apples. Red, green and in-between. So there’s variety, but where’s it all come from?
I am by no means an expert in knowing what is best to eat, for people, and planet. I’m at the beginning of the ladder, with a lot to learn. But in the UK, I felt like I knew where to start. I would be conscious of food miles and try to buy British produce where there was an easy choice to. I thought of what was in season and generally avoided the most outlandish of purchases – asparagus in October, for example. Strawberries in December. I tried to eat less meat and more vegetables.
But how do I eat best in Iceland? It’s an island. It’s rather north, rather cold, and rather dark most of the year. I guess a lot of food is flown in. Is it better to eat local meat here than air-freighted vegetables and grains? That feels like an academic question because meat is very expensive, and we are on a budget, so I expect we could only afford frozen, flown in, low welfare meat, too. Are apples now in the same guilt category as bananas were, when I was in the UK? And of course there’s the big question of whether it is ethical eating meat and dairy at all, which I haven’t resolved for myself. I have so much research to do, and I hope to learn a lot over the next few months. I want to make educated choices. Any recommendations for books/blogs/sites, send them this way.
Sunday before last, I was lucky enough to catch Iceland’s biggest ‘artisanal food fayre’, as it so quaintly calls itself. It was held at Harpa, that glittering honeycomb on the waterfront in Reykjavik. I was curious as to what products we’d find there, and suspected there wouldn’t be so many vegetables and fruit as I’d find in a farmer’s market in the UK. I was excited to be able to taste some high quality Icelandic food, because there’s no way we can afford to go to any fancy restaurants while we’re here, so I had thought I might not have the opportunity to taste anything beyond what’s cheap in the supermarkets. It was absolutely brilliant and we spent a couple of hours wandering around tasting everything we could.
As I thought, there was an emphasis on secondary products, rather than raw produce. There was a lot of cured meat. Hangikjot (smoked lamb) and smoked veal. Sausages made from horse meat, goat salami. Smoked mackerel. There were jars of preserves galore, from the few fruits Iceland grows – blueberry, crowberry, rhubarb with angelica, all to be tasted on crackers from rye and herbs. Fruit as juice, jam, chutney. There was coffee and chocolate, ingredients obviously not produced here, but items highly prized by Icelanders.There was seaweed, different varieties, baked to a crisp, or dried out. There was a mustard stall that was fantastic.
Through all ran the sharp, strong flavours of fermentation, and preservation: salt, smoke, sweet. Present even in such tiny titbits put out for tasting, spiked on the end of a cocktail stick. Though it was by far the smartest food fair I’ve ever been to – minimalist black shelving, exquisitely simple but cool branding at every stall, being in a blooming world class concert hall, it was not style over substance, but amazing tastes being honoured with thoughtful presentation. I left thinking about how the land shapes the taste – the French concept of ‘terroir’ as the combination of soil, weather, local culture that gives rise to a certain delicacy that would be different anywhere else.
Historically, there were a number of constraints to Iceland’s food culture. Super cool awesome food writer Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir calls it ‘ a cuisine of wants’ for almost a thousand years. A want of grain – after the ‘Little Ice Age’ in the 14th century no grain would grow in Iceland, and imports were few in the middle ages. A want of fresh produce – along with grain, very little fruit and vegetables could grow here. Dark, cold, windy land. A want even of salt, because the climate is too cold and wet for it to evaporate naturally from the sea, and the lack of firewood meant it was prohibitively expensive to boil seawater to get salt. Yes – there were so few trees in Iceland, that most cooking used dried sheep manure as a fuel. Ovens were not present until the 20th century. Lastly, there was a want of cooking vessels and utensils, as there are no metals naturally found in Iceland, and no clay suitable for pottery. She gleefully recounts: ‘In AD 1345, the bishop of Skálholt found it necessary to issue a ban on using baptismal fonts and bowls for non-sacramental use, presumably meaning to cook soups and stews.’.
Things changed in the 20th century, with influence from Denmark, greater imports and heating and electricity. But I have been musing that those wants, embedded in traditional cuisine, are still discernible in the tastes of today. I am so excited to be taking my first steps in learning about the food culture of my new home and feel I’ve barely touched the surface. For those who are interested (and you probably wouldn’t have got to the end of this lengthy diatribe if you weren’t, right?), I urge you to visit Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir’s blog where you can read a really interesting summary of her food history of Iceland.
It looks like the market I went to is sadly only on once a year! But I’m going to write about some of the makers in more detail in later posts, maybe a series. If you’ve been to Iceland, or you are from Iceland, and have a tip for a place I should know about, please let me know! The link to comment is at the top of each post. Thanks for reading my foodie rambles!