By Lucy Waverman
Iceland has been on our travel radar for sometime now as a unique European destination. While camping, waterfall treks and glacier hikes are commonplace, the country's cuisine rarely takes the spotlight, On a recent visit, as guests of IcelandAir and Promote Iceland, I had the opportunity to experience how Iceland merges traditional practises with modern trends.
Being an island nation, it makes sense that seafood is one of Iceland's strengths. On our second day in Iceland we visited HB Grandi, Iceland's largest fishery, to learn about how the company has adapted its practises to be more sustainable. For example, HB Grandi has consolidated its fleet, combining fishing quotas to minimize the number of ships operating in Icelandic waters while still maintaining productivity and profitability.
Cod is a common fish found in Icelandic waters. You can even find Icelandic cod in grocery stores in Toronto. While I typically favour the fillet, HB Grandi's Marketing Director Brynjólfur Eyjólfssonprefers the loin – a more muscular, denser cut owing to its location further down the fish's body, closer to the tail. As a less revered cut, loin is typically cheaper than fillet and I'll be seeking it when I'm shopping for seafood next.
During our visit, we climbed aboard a docked fishing trawler, the Akurey, to get a glimpse into life at sea. After fish are caught, they're immediately cooled and frozen using an innovative cooling technique that passes fish through a corkscrew-like mechanism. We witnessed fishermen testing a new robotic system for storing pallets of fish in the base of the ship – a way to automate fishing's most gruelling tasks and letting its employees concentrate more on skilled operations.
HB Grandi recently transformed a former fish processing facility into an innovative hub of artist galleries and studios. On the ground floor, you'll find Marshall, a bright and vibrant restaurant showcasing much of HB Grandi's catches. Even if you don't have the opportunity to hop onto a trawler yourself, a meal at Marshall is an excellent way to taste HB Grandi's daily catches.
While we have the good fortune today of enjoying fresh fish off the boat, Icelanders of yore used traditional preservation methods like smoking and curing. Up in the north of Iceland, at Lake Myvatn, Anton Birgisson and his family have been smoking meat and fish for generations in a smoking “cave” built of lava rocks to insulate the interior and keep temperatures more consistent. We had the opportunity to try his smoked leg of lamb — a delicacy popular inclusion in Icelandic Christmas feasts. Thin slices of the meat have a dry and strong beef jerky-like flavour. It wasn’t entirely to my tastes and might not appeal to non-Icelandic palates. As Chef Fanney Dora Sigurjonsdottir at Skal at Reykjavik’s excellent Hlemmur Food Hall describes the culinary practises of her ancestors, “people didn’t eat for flavour back then”.
The curing technique is better experienced in Birgisson’s fish, where the intensity creates a deeper smoky flavour than the typical smoked fish. While Birgisson’s ancestors used to fish directly from the lake, he now purchases rainbow trout from aquaculture facility to help preserve the lake’s natural species. It’s yet another way that Icelanders are forward-thinking in sustainable food practises.
Those of you that have more interest in consuming Iceland’s marine bounty, as opposed to exploring where it comes from, have no shortage of excellent places to do so. Langoustine soup is a must-try when in Reykjavík and Sægreifinn’s is a rich and creamy red bisque with flavourful pieces of langoustine floating within it.
One of the newest and most careful presentations of Icelandic cuisine can be found at ÓX, a tiny 11-seat eatery hidden in the back of the restaurant Sumac on Laugavegur — Reykjavík’s main strip.
Seafood shines among the dozen small plates we dined on over a marathon four-hour meal. Raw shrimp, served with tomato in a tartlet, was incredibly sweet and creamy while monkfish was grilled on the bone to impart more flavour in the meat. Lungfish roe topped a serving of savoury pancakes paired with Icelandic cultured cream.
The meal was completed with a serving of chanterelle-infused chocolates, vegan hazelnut milk ice cream and sous vide coffee — a forward-thinking glimpse into the country’s culinary trends and a fitting way to conclude our time in Iceland.
With an extra day in our itinerary, we would have booked in dinner at Dill, which is known for showcasing Icelandic products and ingredients, along with its creative use of moss and ferns in presentation. Another reason to return soon!