This is the second part of a series on Iceland, Tusker’s newest destination. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Iceland is a sensory journey.
Heirloom Lamb Running Wild
When ax-wielding Vikings came to Iceland over a thousand years ago they brought sheep and that was very kind of them. Today Iceland boasts perhaps the world’s best tasting lamb. After a thousand years running and free feeding on the island’s rich volcanic grasses, Iceland’s lamb is fine-grained, lean and not gamey. It’s just one tasty morsel among Iceland’s culinary smorgasbord.
Although the great ingredients were always there, the country had a reputation in Europe for turning its fauna and fish into gastro grotesqueries. Too much salt and weirdness were the knocks. Pickled ram’s testicles, putrefied shark and boiled puffin were traditional dishes that raised the hackles of Europe’s food snobs for decades. John Carlin, a food critic for England’s Guardian newspaper tried the puffin and wrote it tasted like, “burnt rubber marinated in diesel oil.”
Today’s travelers are enjoying an Iceland culinary revolution. In the last two decades Iceland’s menu makeover has made it a European foodie haven. The new Nordic taste movement stirred in the late 1970s when foreign themed restaurants started opening in Reykjavik. An infusion of foreign tastes led to many exciting restaurant openings combining local ingredients with a worldly flair. Iceland has perhaps the world’s best butter, and when combined with fish, lamb and the countryside’s moss, wild mushrooms, herbs and berries, good things started happening. When you add global fusion to the pot, amazing happened.
Today Reykjavik’s streets run a gamut from Thai hole-in-the-walls to romantic French bistros. Among the recent openings include Sushi Samba, a Japanese South American fusion haunt that combines fresh fish with south of the border flavor. At Hradlestin, a Bollywood- themed restaurant, you can have smoked lamb samosas and cod curry, and that’s just the tip of the Iceland food scene.
A cadre of world class home grown chefs is working in Reykjavik to take Iceland’s fish and game to the next culinary level. The renowned chef, Siggi Hall is noted for his Spanish influenced dishes, but is cognizant of the past. “We were barbarians; our traditional dishes were boiled sheep’s head, liver pudding and raw fish and sea birds of one type or another. At home we ate boiled haddock and for a real treat such as an anniversary out it was chicken in a basket,” recalled Hall to The Guardian.
At his namesake restaurant within the Odinsve Hotel’s sunroom, Hall serves up slightly more refined faire today such as his Spanish influenced fish bacalao. His smoke salmon marinated in gin and tonic and his lamb with blueberry sauce are other signature dishes. Hall’s cooking TV show on Icelandic TV catapulted him to celebrity status during the 1990’s. And he is tight with the country’s president Olafur Grimsson who has been in power since 1996. Grimsson considers the country’s food revolution to be a metaphor for Iceland’s cultural and economic success over the last 20 years.
With just 1% of Iceland’s land characterized as arable, its farmers and chefs have had to be creative to produce world class grub. Green energy technology has given them a boost. Most of the vegetables and spices are grown in geothermally heated glass enclosed greenhouses that use volcanic scoria and geo steam to boil and disinfect the veggies. The greenhouses went up in the 1920s and contain banana groves.
The most bountiful crop comes from the rivers and the sea. There are 100 fishing rivers that contain North Atlantic and Grilse Salmon which are a local delicacy, because of their high fat content. You can drink the water without treating it out of many rivers and that purity yields a healthy salmon stock. Most of the world’s wild salmon catches are dwindling, but in Iceland they are increasing since the government banned salmon fishing in the ocean. The government still allows whaling and don’t be surprised to see Minke whale on the menu at many restaurants.
The country banned industrial fishing practices and the cod and haddock catches are made with “old school” hook and line from small fishing boats launched from tiny fishing villages. In many ways Iceland is a throwback to a pre-industrial, artisanal time and the food tastes like it.
Iceland does not allow cross-breeding of its sheep with imported species so you’re enjoying that same aromatic sheep the Vikings devoured. It is the lamb that is entwined with Icelandic lore – when every September the Rettir is held. It’s a four day sheep roundup festival where farmers mount Icelandic horses and ride into the mountains in search of their sheep. For five months the sheep have been running wild in the mountains and along the coast feeding on volcanic grasses, herbs, wild berries and seaweed. In the near 24 hours of summer’s light the sheep eat a lot more and get to a market weight of 30 pounds – in half the time compared to sheep in less pristine settings.
Its takes several days for the sheepdogs to find the sheep and bring them down to a central area for sorting. Each family has its own tag on each sheep and after sorting and slaughtering there is a fabulous feast among the families gathered. Often four generations are represented at these feasts where stories of the past are shared and plenty of beer and schnapps poured. Traditional singing and dancing overflows and everybody has a blast except the sheep.
Tusker founder Eddie Frank never liked lamb until he and Amy Frank came to Iceland recently. Now he’s sold on it. Since discovering the fine-tasting Icelandic lamb, he has found an Icelandic lamb ranch in Montana that satisfies his craving when he is stateside.
“The Icelandic lamb is like nothing else on earth. I couldn’t stand lamb, now I’ll eat nothing but…when I’m in Iceland. The modern cuisine in Reykjavik is nothing short of spectacular, and some of the finest dining I’ve experienced worldwide. The chefs are known for their culinary adventure,” Eddie said.
When in the capital, Eddie and Amy take their Tusker guests to The Seafood Grill and The Grill Market. Founded in 2011 by young chef Axel Gunnlaugsson and master chef Larus Gunnar Jonasson, Seafood Grill is like stepping onto an Icelandic fishing boat with its tall timber columns and wide floor planks. But no Icelandic fisherman ever ate this splendidly. The restaurant’s signature dishes include its Grill Party and its Lobster Feast. Both are fantastic three course affairs.
Grill Market’s owners Hrefna Saetron and her partner Gulli Frimansson have handcrafted a sophisticated, high quality restaurant that is both personal and purely Icelandic. Their relationship with a half dozen Icelandic farmers makes the food special. Among their farmers is Halla Sigriour Steinolfsdottir who raises her lamb on a diet of the plant, Angelica, to give it a special taste. When Halla’s lamb hits Grill Market’s custom grill at 1200 degrees, you will be hard pressed to find any better.
Hrefna’s interest in design gives the restaurant its Icelandic core with touches of tanned skins of spotted wolfish, columnar basalt, moss and trestles. Teamwork makes the place go. “We’ve known each other and have worked together for a very long time and can finish each other’s sentences. It’s the same when we cook, we hardly need to speak – it’s almost like magic,” Hrefna said.
And maybe that’s partially why Iceland is special. It has retained its historical magic while updating its natural ingredients in the hands of today’s culinary Vikings who are as adventuresome as their ancestors.
Find out what else you’ll do (in addition to eating delicious food) on Tusker’s Iceland Adventure