Foodie Fridays: growing in the far north

It gives us a lot of happiness to watch our plants grow. The windowsill garden is lush now. I’m really surprised how fast everything came up – rocket, mustard, dill, coriander, and chives within days. The parsley hung about and took a week at least; still far quicker than I thought! Then again, the days are getting longer than I’ve ever experienced before. The sun is up around 4 and sets at about 10.30, with light still in the sky a while longer. Our plants are on our bedroom indoor windowsill, between the window and the curtain so they soak up all that light. They’re also advantageously placed over a radiator. In the first week of their little lives it was snowing and cold outside, we had the window open to get air into the room and I feared for them. But with some radiator heat and the overall warmth of our flat (permanently toasty) they did fine.

2017-05-12-06.40.11-1.jpg.jpgAt first they all seemed quite leggy but they don’t look so bad now, maybe as we’ve had some actual sun lately. We are yet to eat them: I think this weekend I will start snipping the rocket. All this grew in three weeks. The basil and tomato we bought as plants, as I thought we wouldn’t be able to grow from seed and get them to fruit before winter sets in, given that we started this tiny plot at the end of April.

This is about food, yet these plants are worth so much more than just their nutritional value. In a city where the trees are straining to open their buds, still, in mid-May: I can see green leaves soon as I wake up. When I stand over them the basil releases its scent first, reminding me of warmth. Having something to look after is a balm for the soul too, telling me in small but profound ways, that my actions matter. The water I give them is gratefully received. I turn the pots sporadically so they grow straighter and stronger. I will learn to care for myself the way I care for others.

2017-05-01-07.00.31-1.jpg.jpgI love the way the chive seeds sprout, sending up one tall limb that holds its own seed aloft; look what I came from. We have so many of each plant that we can conduct experiments, which was half the purpose of growing things here, to learn. Some chives might make it outdoors where our landlady has, to my delight, given over a couple metres squared growing space to us. It’s tucked around the corner so I hadn’t seen it. There’s even two compost bays! I was so gleeful to find out. So, this weekend I hope to have a look at the patch, do some weeding and get things going.

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Japanese giant mustard

When you’re staring at empty pots and full seed packets, when the garden is an idea not a touchable reality, it is so hard to imagine that anything really, truly, grows. And yet, it does. That is a thought I need to take to heart, for the times I fall into a gloom and can’t see past it. Day always follows night. Small seeds turn into plants with fruit and flowers to seeds again. I know this; I lose it, find it, lose it but I know it deep down. I will grow to know it always, I hope.

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Foodie Friday: exploring priorities

I’ve been thinking about priorities a lot this week, as it has become apparent that I don’t really make any. This came to light after writing last Sunday’s belated Foodie Friday post. I sat down for dinner with Johann, chef of the day, and he asked how the writing was going. I grumbled that it was almost finished, but I was feeling frustrated that I’d spent a couple of hours on it and so didn’t get other things done that I wanted to. As I explained this, it dawned on me how ridiculous a thought that is. I had just achieved a task I wasn’t sure I’d manage, and all I could think of, instantly, was everything else I hadn’t yet done. Change is needed.

Johann explained the radical idea of priorities to me. That you can set yourself the single, most important goal, and then work out if everything else you want to do works towards it or not. And prioritise the activities that lead to the goal. Crucially, the second step is to get rid of the guilt over not doing anything or doing the ‘wrong’ things.

Musing on this is helpful to me, and the concept has overlapped with our thoughts about food this week too. We went to see a brilliant documentary called A Quest For Meaning last week, in which two French men go on a journey to find out how to live. Ok, that summation makes it sound a bit terrible, but it covered some really cool ground, they spoke to some very inspirational figures and it had an impact on us.

One super cool amazing person I need to research more is Vandana Shiva. She said something that’s rattled round my mind ever since: that we can buy cheap food, but we are not paying the true cost. I take this to mean: the true cost of industrial agriculture is paid by the earth, and by workers, and with our health. Someone, or something, else is paying for our choices while we save money.

This made us revisit what I vowed in a previous post: that we are saving money by buying cheap low quality food now, in order to make a difference later. Reconsidering this means deciding to begin to stop shifting the cost and responsibility, and start prioritising organic, local food. I begin to think we have a responsibility to accept nothing less than good quality organic food, and to see cheap meat, cheap dairy, cheap, processed anything as unacceptable. Surely we can find other areas to economise in (I think of my trips to the ice cream shop and gulp in fear).

So, this week we have bought some dried organic kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, some organic versions of things we already buy. It’s by no means a total transformation, we are rather dipping our toes in and changing a few products at a time. But it feels good to decide that good food is a priority now, not later.

In the spirit of priorities I am also writing this in my lunch break at work, which accounts for any dodgy sentences I haven’t had time to proof. I’ve worked all week, we have family and friends visiting today – hooray! So I know this is my only time, and I want to stick writing, so I am trying to take little snippets of time.

Priorities also means today making fresh pizzas for all the staff at work. Such a good Friday tradition, that stretches my ability to coordinate all my other jobs but is so worth the effort.

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Time to go back and roll out some dough. Maybe next week I’ll have time for some drawing and a proper review of something food related! Happy weekend.

Foodie Fridays: okay, it’s Sunday, but here’s a catch up anyway

Typically, the week I spend completely immersed in food (not literally, or perhaps I wouldn’t still have the job) is the week I don’t manage to get fingers to keyboard to write about it. So here is a compensatory, quick little jotting of thoughts. It was my training week at my new job in the kitchen of a lovely cafe here in Reykjavik. I’ve been learning recipes, tasting, adjusting, tasting again. I’m used to cooking for just friends and family so it’s been cool to scale up and learn how to prepare large amounts of things. I’ve worked as a kitchen assistant before, in summer as a student, but this job’s a little different, it’s a one person kitchen – for two branches of the coffee shop! So it’s a really interesting challenge for me.

I’ve spent a couple of years growing food, first on a little allotment, then working at a herb farm, then as a long-term wwoof volunteer in the UK. When I came to Iceland, I considered finding work as a gardener: but after some pondering realised that I’d rather like to follow my passion for good food, rather than end up gardening commercially with only ornamental plants, and non-organically. I want to experience the other end of the food chain! To be in between producer and consumer. I have a feeling running the kitchen will inform my future food growing, and be a great opportunity to develop new skills.

As it turned out, I am super lucky to be working at a really great company. Everyone has been friendly and welcoming, and everything I learned to make was delicious. Fresh hummus, pesto, tuna salad…almond and coconut milk from scratch…toasted granola mixes…tip top spiced chai. I have enjoyed the variety of processes, and the focus of my week has really been getting my head around multi-tasking. Cooking dinner for me and Johann is a relaxed process, where I can usually just focus on one thing at a time. Preparing food at work means making the best use of time, which has often meant working on a couple of dishes at once. On quieter days I was able to plod through my to-do list one at a time – maybe four tuna, two hummus. Simple. But some days it’s necessary to get one thing going first, then hop in between various stages of the process, getting other things done too. That really taxes my mind and will be a skill to develop!

Often while I was stirring the chai and inhaling the spicy aroma, or zesting lemons, or getting a waft of toasted maple syrup as I took the granola out of the oven, I would catch myself and think happily, ‘hey! this is WORK!’ because it felt like play. I enjoy cooking. My learning curve next week will be being in charge of my time, having to decide what to make when, and co-ordinating everything. The time I spent in Calais co-ordinating the packing of food parcels has given me some confidence in organisation, and although undoubtedly it sometimes feels strange to be preparing gourmet breakfasts, not bags of tins for hungry people, I think to myself that this is part of my journey towards helping other people again sometime in the future. This is time that I am allowed to take for myself, to recover financially by working full-time, and also recover mentally, by doing something that I enjoy and that has a lower stress factor. Actually, in the past I’d have been a little furious ball of stress having to organise the volume of food needed for our busy cafes, now I feel it’s a do-able task – after all, there aren’t 10,000 customers. And I understand a little more the kind of attitude that gets things done: it’s not the hare-brained worrier! So I try to cultivate the confidence, and savour the enjoyment, and remember to be grateful.

So, just a small post to make up for missing Friday. My other challenge coming up is keeping up writing and posting here twice a week , which has been really easy whilst not working, but harder to stick to after an 8 hour shift! I’m going to have to accept that not every post can be a 1000 word opinion piece…actually, maybe that’s a good thing. Let’s see how it goes.

 

 

 

Foodie Fridays: keeping it real.

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.

Good, cheap, colourful dinner

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?

Everyday curry

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.

A kind of ‘Afghan eggs’, a meal learnt during our time volunteering in Calais

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.

Happy weekend!

Foodie Fridays: Mira, you make good bread

The door to the house in Hafnarfjörður opens and I’m welcomed in by Mira’s husband Boby. The smell of fresh bread wraps around me like a comfort blanket. Coffee is made, introductions given, and smiles all round.

Mira is the master of this ship, her kitchen is small and kept spotlessly shipshape despite the heavy load of baking she has to do. It’s Good Friday today. There’s páskabrauð in various stages around the room. One turning golden in the oven, next to which I am perched with my sketchbook. One out and resting under a white cloth. One is just a glimmer in Mira’s eye, so far, and I am here to watch it come into being.

wp-1492204958911.jpgLooking at the proving dough, the baking bread, the flour and egg and milk yet to be combined I wonder how Mira can hold the threads in her mind, remember what needs to be done next for each of them. I relax any idea of trying to record a recipe in linear form – this magic is beyond my ken – and anyway, we agree that every cook has their secrets.

Everything made here is baked to order for local people: Mira is a home baker who recently posted in a facebook group (‘away from home: living in iceland’, I have a lot to thank you for) that she can produce homemade bread to order. Photos of complex patterns in plump dough, twists and folds and symmetry: this was bread but not as I knew it. Nosy as ever, I sent her a message asking if I could come and draw while she baked. She accepted, agreed to be on the blog, and here we are.

wp-1492204974242.jpgMilk, warmed slightly, is added to fresh yeast, to activate it. There is no water in this easter bread; lard is used in place of butter, if the customer has no objection. While I ask questions the yeast balloons in size, and Mira knows just when it is right. How could I hope simply to record her recipe in an afternoon and pass it on? There is a deftness to the way she holds the bowls and folds the dough. Movements learned over years, her own lifetime but there’s also the generations before her that made these shapes with their hands too. Family. Mira is Bulgarian,  and though I am hitherto completely ignorant of Bulgaria and its culture, I start to learn this afternoon.

Easter bread is being made today, sweet knots of sugar encrusted dough. In Iceland, Mira says, there are three or four special holidays a year, with special foods ascribed to them. In Bulgaria, there are five or six a month. A month! And all with significant things to eat. Some of Mira’s customers are Bulgarians living in Iceland; others are from other European nations that have similar traditions of eating sweet breads at certain holidays: Mira’s recipes, adapted to customers’ requests, fill a gap for many a transplanted and homesick foreigner. Icelanders too, they’re notoriously sweet toothed. Though Mira makes savoury bread and pastries too, showing me photos of filo parcels filled with spinach and cheese, something I’ve eaten in Greece and we all agree is delicious.

wp-1492204962843.jpgThere is in fact such an appetite for bread that this past week, as well as working full-time at a hotel, Mira has had only two or three hours of sleep some nights, baking, always baking. This Easter bread is a special case: I’m told because it has sugar in the dough it takes a long time to prove, or rise. Each one proves twice. The dough is kneaded – Mira has a friend round today and she takes over for a while, slapping it down on the counter and pushing it about expertly. This bread is hard work, but Mira’s grandmother is still making it at 82.

Food seems embedded in Bulgarian culture in a way that I feel we have slightly lost in my own British culture. Mira tells me of a facebook group in which Bulgarians post photographs of what they make for dinner each night. We have this act, of course, in the form of an endless ‘look at my bowl of colour and health and cleverness’, but my grandma would never do it. Posting what we eat online seems to be a vehicle for propagandising our view on food, or inflating our self-esteem and social standing, look what I did, look what a good person I am. Of course, I am guilty of it! But it wasn’t til we scrolled through the Bulgarian group that I became aware of the way in which I’m accustomed to doing things, without thought. In this group are normal dinners, these are people who wouldn’t define themselves as ‘foodies’, or make it part of their identity in a constructed way, like I do. it’s just what they do. They share what they eat every day, and perhaps I’ve got my rose-tinted glasses on again but it seemed less contrived, and more an honest celebration and intense interest in food.

wp-1492204955062.jpgShe’s not taking any more orders for Easter and tomorrow will be spent instead painting eggs. It is Bulgarian tradition to boil eggs then paint the shells (with food-grade paint), then the children fight with them, then eat the eggs. Of course it makes sense to eat the insides! I only ever remember painting eggs after emptying the egg of its contents, what a waste. And there’s one more tradition of spring that I would like to adopt next year. Mira and Boby had red and white plaited bracelets, worn from the first of March. When the wearer sees the first stork, or the first blossom on a fruit tree, the bracelet is taken off and put on that tree. Boby wistfully pointed out that since there are no storks and no fruit trees in Iceland, they’d be wearing their bracelets a long time.

After a couple of hours bustling round the kitchen, we have a break. Boby shows me his Bulgarian-English phrasebook from which he is teaching himself English. He has naturally made more progress in that time than many English people would in a lifetime of learning, or not, other languages. We’re a lazy bunch. I flick through and find the word for bread, say it again and again, struggling with the harsh sound. Then we get ambitious and he teaches me to say ‘You make good bread’. Mira gets back and I test out my new phrase. They collapse in laughter. She gets out her phone and starts live streaming, talking about what she’s been making today, me grinning uncomprehendingly by her side, waiting for my star role:

‘направите добър хляб’

You make good bread!

I’m fairly certain what I just wrote isn’t what I said but the unfamiliar words have swirled out of my head since this afternoon, with all I was trying to remember of the tales I was told and the laughs we shared. What sticks, more than process, more than weights and measures of ingredients, is the warmth. The openness and generosity of Mira for welcoming me into her home. The pride and love they all have for the traditions of their home country. And the taste of the sweet, moist curl of paskabraud I’m given before I leave.

wp-1492204966425.jpgI’d like to encourage any locals to order some bread from Mira, which you can do via her facebook page. I’d also like to impress upon any body who reads this, anywhere in the world, how amazing it is to meet and connect with people from other places and cultures. I confess, drawing is a blooming easy way of inviting yourself to a new place, but maybe there are other ways. Community events that you can go to. Conversations you can start. Neighbours you can have a cup of tea with. I find the joy of learning and laughing with people that were once strangers is one of the best joys of all.

Foodie Fridays – Frú Lauga, shop of dreams

We have the good fortune of living round the corner from Frú Lauga. It is described as a farmers’ market, which intrigued me as I’ve never heard the term used for a permanent shop before. But it seems to be the best word for it, or at least the most concise, otherwise you’d be calling this petite place ‘grocer – deli – bakery – butcher’, and you’d come expecting a supermarket sized affair.

It is the kind of shop that, despite it’s size, you could lose an hour in, pacing the three aisles and outer shelves, inspecting all the pots, jars, boxes, and bottles. My attention goes first to the fruit and vegetables piled in their cardboard boxes. I love snooping in grocers away from my home and seeing the difference in produce. Here there is lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, even sweet peppers from Iceland. The sweet peppers are red and small and along with the toms and cucs will have been grown in a greenhouse heated geothermally. Oh how I wish to go and visit one of them! In fact, I could gleefully visit each and every producer of the food in Frú Lauga, to observe, explore and draw. I might have to make some enquiries.

There are yellow tulips just opening, nestled in a bucket between pots of mint and basil-purple, green and greek it looked like! – and the crates of carrots. Purple-tinged fat bulbs of garlic. Compact hands of ginger from Peru that make your average piece look like it’s on steroids. Handwritten cardboard labels standing everywhere. It’s no surprise that the prices are more expensive here than in my usual supermarket. I don’t begrudge them that. You pay to know where your food has come from, to know in some cases that it hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, that it has supported local people with jobs, and kept local crafts and traditions alive. I am so happy that these shops exist, I only wish more people could access their offerings. But I am fairly sure the small enterprise shopkeeper can’t shoulder the burden of lowering their prices to meet the behemoth supermarkets. Whose shoulders, then, does the responsibility of increasing access to quality food fall on? I have no answers but this question is on my mind a lot.

I’d feel confident saying that generally, the kind of high quality produce on offer at Frú Lauga costs more to produce than mass market fare. There is less economy of scale, the ingredients are higher quality,  the staff must be more skilled -and most definitely higher paid if it’s made in Iceland! – to produce it. I feel a bit embarrassed to admit this, in this post about the world’s dreamiest deli, but as an illustration, I bought honey yesterday in Bonus for 298 kr (£2.15). It’s labelled ‘a blend of EU and non-EU honey’. My mind boggles at that indication of the scale of production. In contrast, I remembered tasting a honey made in Iceland at the Harpa food fair a few weeks ago. It was creamy, strong and delicious, and Johann pointed out that it reminded him of the honey we ate in Shropshire over winter staying at Pam’s Pools, a wonderful permaculture site. Fierce tastes, particular to place. There were only a few jars left of a small yield, the maker (whose name I woefully forget) said. Winters are long in Iceland and the summers not so hot, affecting the hives. It is a challenging place to keep bees, but also a rewarding one, because of diverse wild flora and lack of disease. The bees that made my Bonus honey were more than likely plied with copious antibiotics. You can read a bit more about beekeeping in Iceland here, but I’ve digressed. I could talk about bees a lot but that will be another day. What I mean to say is; food has a real cost, and I respect the small makers needing to support themselves. At this stage in our travels -for which read, trying to save as much money as possible so that we can travel and learn for a significant time without working – we have to be content with looking and perhaps  treating ourselves occasionally.

Stacks and stacks of jams, chutneys, sauces, preserves of all kinds line the shelves around the edges of the shop. I notice several brands I tasted at the Harpa food fair, so if you’re visiting and it’s not on, here is great place to come to explore artisan, local food. Sadly you can’t taste everything! There’s also a surprising range of foods from around Europe, that look like the best version of each thing. Italian flour in beautiful bags. Sicilian olive oil in a metal urn, I guess you can fill your own bottle, wonderful. Even if you aren’t that bothered about your food, you could merrily spend time admiring the packaging designs from all over. There’s bread, a large fridge of meat and fish, dairy products…the list goes on.

The shop is still owned by the same owners as before, but since one month ago is now being run by some friendly new people, who were happy to let me draw and have a chat. Thanks, Guðny! Frú Lauga is really close to the Laugardalur pool, so if you’re on holiday in Reykjavik and going for a swim and steam, you should pop in after and buy some treats for your friends and family and yourself. For remote admirers of nice food shops, you can have a taste of their vibe at the website frulaugu.is, and for regular updates with sweet pictures of produce follow them on facebook.

PS. I’ve just noticed it looks like there’s a cow through the window in my drawing. It is, in fact, a vinyl illustration looking out onto a car park.

 

 

 

Foodie Fridays – the goat, the whole goat, and nothing but the goat

Today is the first in what I hope will be an interesting series on local food. While we’re in Iceland, we will be looking at Icelandic food and drink, from traditional, artisan, niche tastes to contemporary food culture. When we set off on the next chapter of our travels across Europe, it will be nice for the focus to shift to wherever we are that week.

We’re starting with the humble goat. Háafell Goat Farm had a stand at the food market we went to a couple of weeks ago in Harpa, and wrote about in this post. We wander up to their stand, beady eyes looking for bits to taste, and are introduced to their stock, which starts with boiled goat and gets progressively more interesting. I feign interest in the boiled goat because my English sensibilities forbid me from ever being honest and saying: hmm, i don’t really fancy that. It was ok, surprisingly tender. Next up, goat salami. Full of flavour, now I’m intrigued.  Beyond the meats are two types of cheese made from goats’ milk, one is feta swimming in oil, herbs and tomatoes. There is even ice cream, vanilla and chocolate, made from goats’ milk too, with none of the harshness I expect. There are lotions and hand creams made from tallow. Many yields from one source.

It feels to me that there is a respect for the animal when all parts are used, not just the most profitable cuts extracted and the rest dumped. It seems far from factory farming. I was surprised to read on the Grapevine that most meat produced in Iceland is produced under factory conditions. My surprise is, I think, due to two things. First, my rosy tinted new-country glasses, through which everything is wonderful. Second, Johann’s stories. His memories of sheep farming and horse-training tell of rugged animals, tough enough to survive the winter in the mountain. Of sheep that lamb without help. I think I will have to quiz him further on the matter. I guess things have changed.

But in other ways, they haven’t. Iceland has just one breed of each farm animal, directly descended from those the Vikings brought over on ships at the time of Settlement. One cow, smaller than usual, with much lower production of milk than British cows. One sheep; and of course one horse, the iconic, petite but strong Icelandic horse. The Icelandic goat is an endangered breed, the smallest in Europe. It’s very rare outside of Iceland, and pretty rare in Iceland too: it’s the only farm animal sponsored by the government to ensure its survival ($36 a goat as of 2014). When we were wwoofing in West Sussex, we walked past a neighbour’s smallholding. What are they? asks Johann, looking at the scattered animals grazing. Goats, obviously, I laugh. They are the most enormous goats I’ve ever seen! he says. To me, they just looked like your average goat. I hope I get a chance to go and visit Háafell sometime, to see what he means.

You can visit Háafell Goat Farm year round by agreement; though it’s main opening hours are in the tourist season, June 1st – August 31st, 1pm to 6pm. They say that most of their products are seasonal, handmade in small amounts and with no guarantee they’re always in stock. Háafell Goat Farm (Geitfjársetur Íslands, Háafelli) is north-east of Reykjavik: Háafell, 311 Borgarbyggð. You can follow their facebook page (in Icelandic, but cute pictures of goats that transcend language barriers). Website is geitur.is . There’s also a great, more-in detail, history of the goat farm here, which tells the story of their near collapse, and being saved by a crowdfunding campaign and a little help from Game of Thrones.

There we go, short and sweet like the goats themselves, our first Foodie Friday. I’d love to hear about any food tips for Iceland that I should investigate. What have you eaten here that’s special, or different to anywhere else? I’m thinking both traditional delicacies, and food you can get elsewhere that has its own particular customs here: ice cream, I’m looking at you.

 

first steps in food cultures

img_20170319_134252578.jpgThere 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.

img_20170319_141803028.jpgSunday 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.

img_20170319_135953661.jpgThrough 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!