My first intention for the Foodie Friday series of posts was to share only stories about local food, particular to place. Food that you really had to ‘be there’ for. Food that is shaped by the place in which its grown – by landscape, climate, culture, the French concept of ‘le terroir’. Food and culture seem to be a snake that’s eating itself, an ouroboros. I mean, the culture of a place shapes the food thats eaten; the food that’s eaten shapes the culture of a place.
So, Iceland. I thought of berries; foraged and pressed into service as juice, jam, sauce. Of fish, of course, in this nation with abundant seas. Of rich, fresh, organic butter, milk, cream, skyr. Rugged lambs raised on windy, verdant lands.
The uncomfortable truth I’m facing is that these foods are prohibitively expensive, to us at the moment. It is important to recognise my privilege here: Johann and I are not poor, in the global scale. We’re not even going to be poor on the Icelandic scale, once we have two salaries coming in next month. We have no disposable income by choice. We’re trying to save as much money as possible to enable us to spend next year travelling and learning, and get closer to our aim of buying land and starting our own small farm in some guise. When I talk about not being able to afford something now, it is in the full appreciation that that is a choice I have taken, and I want no sympathy. It is not the same as being without choice, truly having no access to good food. But lately I feel I am awakening to the existence of parallel food cultures. There is the Iceland of foraged berries, of geothermally baked rye bread, of whale steak: and there is also the Iceland I eat in most days which is closer in feel to the British supermarket chain. I feel that our current situation gives me a small and valuable insight into how it is to live and eat largely on a very restrictive budget.
In this nation of fishermen and sheep farmers, we eat most often vegetarian curry. We buy a fresh chicken occasionally: we get two meals from it and a stock if I can be bothered. We also buy bacon sometimes, little chunks, and tins of tuna. Fish, lamb, pork, beef: it’s all so expensive. Basically, most days we eat a combination of fresh, tinned and frozen veg, with eggs and beans for protein. Sometimes pasta. It’s all own brand, cheapest versions. We own a curry blend, a chicken spice blend, garam masala and oregano. From these few things we make food that nourishes, satisfies, pleases. Meals that I look forward to sitting and eating.
It seems obvious that to call curry an Icelandic food would be to deny its origins, and constitute cultural appropriation. Just because I eat it most here doesn’t make it of this place…it’s confusing though; when I look back at my time living here so far I smell the warmth of the spices of weeknight dinners. I have an inkling that when I leave Iceland and remember it, these cheaply made concoctions will come to mind as much as the isolated, few and far between times that I taste something of Iceland’s food heritage. So why do I tell half a story, writing only of heritage, organic foods, then go to the kitchen and eat something completely different? I want this blog to be honest and not one of the legion of glamorous travel accounts. By attempting to write every week about foods I can’t afford, I start to feel like I’m sharing a story that isn’t mine.
I feel guilty buying budget meat, knowing it’s welfare standards are likely low. I wonder if I can justify the end by the means: I can’t support organic producers now, but in five years I hope to be part of the revolution of small growers with an environmental and social conscience. We can’t see a way of getting to that stage without having money. Without independent wealth and high paying jobs – Johann’s doing building work, I start kitchen work next week – saving money means restrictions. Some days I’m full of the fire of the future, others I think: how can I pretend to be ethical while I hand over cash and support large-scale factory farming?
If only there was a kind of national gallery of food, where our most treasured tastes and culinary heritage would be saved and available to all free of charge. This is partly addressed by the Slow Food movement’s ‘Ark of Taste’ which aims to ‘preserve at-risk foods that are sustainably produced, unique in taste, and part of a distinct ecoregion’. I am all for saving them, though I would also like to see increased access to these foods. In my experience of English ‘ark of taste’ entrants, I’ve eaten Herdwick lamb on holiday and in the case of jersey royal potatoes, bought them in Marks and Spencers in times when I was being supported by my parents. But they cost a lot more than the average spud. Increased access – does it mean more people around the world get to taste that specific item, like the Chegworth Valley apple juice in my local farmers’ market here in Iceland? In my mind increased access to ark of food tastes means that people in the area where it is available are able to have it as part of their diet, even if they are not in the wealthiest sector of population. I guess in order to save it, any kind of increase in consumers is good. But wouldn’t it be great if the foods were accessible to the producers, locals, their families, not just wealthy people or tourists!
I don’t mean to highlight any negativity in my food experience here: only to remark on the existence of alternative experiences of Icelandic food, based on what’s available in the supermarkets, not only the boutiques. What truly constitutes ‘Icelandic food’? Is it a selection of items with the most established lineage, a traceable history? Or is it a snapshot of what the majority of inhabitants eat today? I am being a devil’s advocate to myself really, I believe wholeheartedly in the preservation of traditional food, but I also want to find a way to reconcile my experience as a food consumer in Iceland with the lichen, seaweed, crowberry, lamb of it’s heritage. My experience of food here is little islands of traditional Icelandic things in a sea of foods from elsewhere: produce grown abroad, recipes from far away jumbled up and adapted to here and now.
When we think of a country’s food culture, how useful is it to focus only on what was widely eaten in the past? How widely adopted and currently practiced does a certain food have to be, to be considered a mainstay of a place’s food culture? Is it important also to paint a picture of how people eat today, a picture shaped by container ships, globalisation, the polarity between consumers – the millions of tourists who come versus the 330,000 residents, and an increasing number of immigrants needed to support the growing volume of tourists.
I guess I think it is important to consider the whole, and to include the contemporary, the cheap, the mass experience, in accounts of a place’s culinary culture. I think if you tell a story, you have a responsibility to tell the whole story. But I’m in over my head really. I am just starting to think about these issues and share my thoughts as a means of starting a discussion, hopefully. And I have come to enjoy the discipline of writing this blog, so even if no one reads it, it has had the effect of crystallising my thoughts: giving a regular incentive to think deeply about things. I’m going to widen my remit of writing about Icelandic food; with the experimental definition of Icelandic food simply as anything and everything I’ve eaten in this land. As always, I would relish the thoughts of others: if anyone made it this far down the post, I salute you and would like to hear your take.