The country, people. Not the frozen foods supermarket. Firstly, dodgy photo alert! If your sensitive little eyes are easily offended by shockingly bad photography then look away when you get half way through this post. In my defence, I didn’t take my good camera, was for some reason focus-challenged throughout and I fully admit to being worse for wear (read: drunken), for a good part of the holiday these meals.
Secondly, I just need to gush about Iceland before we begin. Quite simply, it is breathtaking. I have never visited a country where I’ve seen volcanoes, stunning blue mineral filled waters, glaciers, mountains, geysers, springs and lush greenery all at the same time. Everywhere you look there is a truly amazing landscape. Just go.
So, I expect you are here to learn about the food then? We only visited for four days but we did get a fair amount of eating and drinking done in that time. Of course, it was all about the fish. Icelanders have to make do with what they can glean from the surrounding environment as all other foods must be imported like everything else, which is why the place is so damn expensive. They have fish aplenty though and prize their mountain lamb and skyr (an Icelandic yoghurt), and very good it all is too.
I thought I would begin by showing you what we ate in the restaurants we visited before moving on to the more impromptu stuff in my next post. Our first meal was actually in our hotel restaurant (Panorama Restaurant at Hotel Arnarhvoll, Ingolfsstraeti 1, IS-101 Reykjavík, Tel.: (+354) 595 8540), overlooking the Atlantic, black lava formed mountains looming in the background. The photo above is a little amuse bouche which we remember was delicious but can’t be certain that it was flavoured with white onion and fennel. Whatever, the mandarin oil on top was gorgeous.
Next, I opted for the soup which described itself as “Langoustine Soup – Fennel – Citrus”, which is exactly what arrived. The manner of serving it was a little less predictable however as first the bowl arrived with lid as above – Chris took a sneaky peek inside his bowl and was promptly told ‘no!’ by the waiter. Then came some rather ominous looking black flasks, which we were to find out contained the langoustine soup. It all seems like more washing up to me but the whole palaver did have a fun element to it.
Oh, how that soup is rich, very rich. The bisque type soup with intensely rich and flavoursome but someone definitely had a heavy hand with the cream. We were to learn over the next few days that much Icelandic cuisine is rich, at least in restaurants anyway. You might speculate that this was once to provide hearty sustenance in a cold climate but Iceland actually has a very temperate climate, despite it’s Arctic location (due to the Gulf stream).
Next I ordered the Arctic Char with parsley root, horseradish and ratte potatoes. That breaded morsel in the foreground is a succulent langoustine. I asked the waiter beforehand what Arctic Char tastes like and he described it as a cross between salmon and trout which describes it pretty damn well actually. It’s got a bit of oiliness like a salmon and has the delicate flakiness of a trout. It was sort of creamy, salty and really rather delicious with perfect crispy skin. My favourite bit. Again though, the dish was really rich. So much so, I couldn’t even order cheese. Absolutely unheard of for me. I am still disappointed with myself and my stomach as we speak.
Next up, our traditional Icelandic 7 course meal at Einar Ben Restaurant, (Veltusund 1, IS-101 Reykjavik, Iceland, Tel. + 354 511-5090). Einar Ben describes itself as ‘pure Icelandic’ and is housed in an 18th century building just off the main square in central Reykjavik. You can see here that many of the buildings in Iceland are clad with corrugated metal. This is not hugely attractive but is highly effective at fending off extreme weather conditions such as strong winds and the occasional hurricane.
For some reason I do not have a photo of the first course and I do not know why. A little salad of marinated scallops with radishes, chilli and carrot juice. The scallops were uncooked, sliced finely and delicately flavoured. I could have eaten a big fat plateful but then I had another six courses to go so..
Next, a shellfish-soup with curry, coriander and cumin, served with scallops and langoustine, which was rich (surprise) but also sensitively curried so that it was still predominantly fishy.
My sincerest apologies for the photos, the above and also from this point forward. Next, arrived a piece of cod fillet with fried cauliflower, artichoke purée and truffle oil. They were totally stingy on the truffle oil to the point where I think it wasn’t actually on there BUT, the cod, oh, the cod! The most perfectly cooked, flakiest, succulent piece of cod I have ever ever eaten. Chris agreed. I didn’t really care about the rest.
Does someone at Einar Ben have a parmesan fetish? This is “carpaccio with mixed nut-salad, ginger and fresh parmesan”. Carpaccio of what I hear you ask? Well, it must be beef I guess, thing is, it was so doused in parmesan and cut so unbelievably thin, it was near impossible to taste anything at all. It was a bit like eating one of those flying saucer sweets as a child, sugar paper that just instantly vanished into nothing on your tongue and then a hit of sourness from the sherbet or in this case, a hit of salt form the parmesan. The only good thing about it was crispy ginger slices on top. I’ll definitely be having a go at those myself.
As I said, the Icelanders are proud of their mountain lambs, and so they should be. Small, sturdy, hairy and curly horned, they taste bloomin fantastic. The dish consisted of a juicy fillet with green peas, garlic confit, parsnip and thyme. If your creative imagination can photoshop that picture then you must marvel at how perfectly that fillet is cooked. Imagine your knife slicing through the juicy cut and then melting in your mouth like a dream.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s (nearly) always room for cheese. I was pretty full by this point but I soldiered on regardless (oh, the trauma). Unfortunately, I had consumed a large amount of wine too by the sixth course and I cannot for the life of me remember the names of these traditional Icelandic cheeses. I’m pretty sure that the holey one is a cow’s milk cheese and the other two were akin to brie and camembert in style but I am open to suggestions.
To finish the meal, a skyr crème brûlée with strawberries and vanilla. This was not very successful. I’m not sure if it was the yoghurt that didn’t work but the brûlée had a strange, grainy texture and a very thin and unsatisfying crust. For me, there needs to be a cracking moment when you plunge the spoon through the caramelised sugar and into the vanilla scented cream below. Perhaps a slightly misguided attempt at adapting a classic French dessert using an Icelandic ingredient. The skyr itself is a fantastic product – I would have been happy with a bowl of skyr with fruit.
Although not perfect, the meals had some fantastic elements and I think that keeping it traditional really gives an exciting introduction to a new country. For me though, it’s always the little meals, the impromptu snacks and lunches that really open your eyes to a new way of life so that’s coming next.
Last but not least, I would like to thank Farida of Farida’s Azerbaijani Cookbook for passing on the Yum-Yum blog award to Food Stories. I am very flattered Farida. You know I am a big fan of your blog. You can see all my awards on my, ‘Show Me Some Love!’ page. I’ll pass the award onto anyone who enjoys reading Food Stories. Not because I am lazy but because I have tried and failed to choose…