A true winter wonderland

SONY DSCIt seems appropriate that before that last of the snow is trodden into slush, I will share these photos I took on Friday, the first fresh morning of carpeted white. Though several of these pictures have a decidedly blue shadow cast over them. I could really do with some photo editing skills, I should get Johann to teach me some tricks. I dallied with altered the levels and saturation but I can’t do a good job so for now they come to you as raw and blue as I took them.

We are taking a walk to and through the botanical gardens. They are just twenty minutes walk from our flat and have been a source of pleasure since we moved here in April. Soon I’m going to put together a review of the gardens through the seasons, as I have more photos of them than anything else here in Iceland (brace yourselves). For now we will stay in one snowy morning. The path I take sneaks along the side of the hostel and into the park. It’s an arched tunnel of joy through which it’s possible to glimpse the spire of Hallgrimskirkja. If I were a better photographer you would be glimpsing it in focus and not over-exposed. Just imagine it sharp through the maze of frosted branches. It was a glorious sight. To have the familiar transformed, that is the wonder of snow.

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The sun begins to shift onto the tops of trees and through narrow passageways. It rises later than I have ever experienced, on this particular day at 9.37 to be precise. The sun is above the horizon by then but the gloaming persists and it’s later still before it really feels like daytime.

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We reach the gardens now. We are greeted by this first in the series of ponds, frozen solid, reflecting pink dawn. The edges seem unclear and I stay away fearing I’ll slip in. There is no-one else here at this hour who would hear my screams. The only sound the creaking of compacting snow beneath my boots.

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The church picked out in the glow is a stairway to heaven, or perhaps a steep slide from grace.

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For once there is no wind and the snow is free to cling in thick layers on the littlest of twigs.

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It is a thrill (maybe only to the botanically minded) to see the buds of rhododendrons already. They hold the promise of spring within them and it seems incredible that they can withstand this winter to bloom their vivid red, months and months away. Just hold on, they whisper to me, this too shall pass. But today I am not eager for the season to pass because it is beautiful and calm and strange.

In the garden already intricate scenes crystallise and edges multiply. It reminds me of a visit to the silver vaults in London: curlicue and flourish on filigree limbs packed close and bearing down on you. Here the bite of cold air and views through rescue you from the discomfort of a small space crammed with detail.

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The rock garden is my favourite part of the garden and it is transformed by the soft drifting curves. A jagged mountainscape becoming pillowy, undulating, soft. The skeletons of the alpine plants persist here and there supporting an impossible weight of snow. How can it be so beautiful!?

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It’s time to go home, I haven’t worn these boots since last winter and the heels are rubbing painfully. As a parting shot the sun hauls itself over the far side of the park and lights up whole bodies of trees. This snow was a gift I didn’t expect. It rarely settles here before Christmas, so I’m told. It’s good to feel this rush of affection and to look with fresh eyes on the same old sights because we are leaving soon; a story for another day.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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!