My guidebook assured me that 3 out of 5 Icelanders believe that faeries, mischievous sprites and trolls are real. Many, it continues, actively take precautions against them, refusing to set foot in the spots they are thought to inhabit. My first introduction to the country, the drive from the airport into Reykjavik, past a giant aluminum smelting factory set in a jet black lava field against gun-metal clouds, felt more like Bladerunner than the redoubt of spirits.
The snow-capped black mountains that ring it to the north and west, and the city’s jewel-box houses of green and red and white provided a rather Yuletide feel, even when illuminated by the midnight sun. A friend had told me that midsummer in Iceland was like an extended daytime drinking session punctuated by brief episodes of fatigue lasting all of about twenty minutes when the sun took its brief dip towards the horizon before rising again. His story went that during a week-long stay he had slept for less than six hours start to finish. A few weeks of this and perhaps I wouldn’t entirely rule out the existence of will-o the wisps either.
The homogeneity of the Icelandic population is such that, I, a tall, fair-haired white man, was always addressed in English. This was possibly for the best since Icelandic sounds like an even more inscrutable version of the Elvish tongues lisped so cloyingly in the Lord of the Rings. Happily, though, for students of this, the original Norse, there are no regional accents, slang or dialects of Icelandic to contend with. That there are less than 250,000 native speakers helps keep the number of foreign students limited to either the truly committed or the mildly eccentric.
However, spending my week there with an Icelandic family meant that my exposure to the language was greater than the average tourist, and so it was that by its end, I could both write and pronounce “Hej, hvað segir Þu?” (Hi, how are you?) and “Fint, takk fyrir!” (Fine, thanks very much!”) well enough that everyone still responded in English.
Þingvellir, the site of two seismic events – the separation of the European and North American tectonic plates that gave birth to this geologically-active nation, and the creation of Europe’s first parliament, here in the 8th century – had been a fascinating day trip out of the capital, as had the midnight motorcycle rallies in the northern city of Akureyri, and the appropriately itchy excursion to Myvattn (Mosquito Lake). And, if it hadn’t been exactly a highlight, then the three excruciating hours spent drinking tea laced with brennivín as a guest of my hosts relatives in the beautifully desolate fish-processing town of Isafjorður was certainly a testament to the legendary Icelandic capacity for self-punishment. A quality that has seen them achieve fame in strong-man competitions and notoriety in gastronomic spheres.
Not only have Icelanders traditionally had to make do with boiled sheep face and gasp-inducing, ammonial, buried basking shark as festive dishes during the endless, pitch black winters, but that they had to manage it, until the early 1990s, without beer. Even when blind-drunk, the tiniest bite of the shark, tasted under peer pressure at Þorrablot, the traditional midwinter festival, had nearly brought me to tears some months earlier.
On my final, gorgeously sunny evening, with the light dancing off the twinkling wake, I took a boat across Reykjavik harbor to dinner on the island of Viðey with a consequent degree of pessimism about my prospects for a decent meal. The summer though, is an inversion of everything that is awful about Icelandic winters, from the weather to the cuisine, and I was delighted by everything on offer, that is, until the arrival of the almost preposterously enormous bill.
On my plate that night was a gloriously simple pan-fried arctic char of the most luminous orange over a cauliflower mousse that the chef had sculpted to resemble a ski-jump, surrounded by some tiny, inky-hued Siberian tomatoes, greenhoused locally. The combination of fish, snow and black boulders felt like a distillate of the country itself, in microcosm. Perhaps only a sprinkling of pixie dust was missing.
Recreating that dish some years later, I opted for salmon over char, cauliflower mash over mousse, and a purple basil pesto in place of the dusky tomatoes. As we edge into fall, all these vegetables are at their peak, and the contrasts they offer are as interesting texturally and aromatically as much as they are visually.
- 1/2 large head cauliflower, chopped into florets
- 2 medium floury potatoes, peeled and cut into inch cubes
- abundant boiling water
- 1lb salmon (or trout or arctic char) fillets
- 1 large bunch purple basil, stalks removed
- handful of pine nuts
- 1/4 cup best olive oil
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice or vinegar
- salt and black pepper
- 2-4oz unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- In a large pot, boil potatoes and cauliflower until very tender, 10-12 minutes. Drain and return to pot.
- Add milk, butter, salt and pepper, and mash until smooth. Then beat with a spoon until it has a whipped texture.
- In a blender, pulverize basil leaves with olive oil and a pinch of salt until you have a lovely purple puree. Add pine nuts and blend until smooth. Add lemon juice and correct seasoning.
- Heat a large saute pan to medium high, add 1-2 tablespoons neutral flavored oil like grapeseed. Season salmon fillets on both sides. Cook skin side down first for 3-4 minutes, or until skin releases from pan and you can turn them without tearing it.
- Cook for another 1-2 minutes on flesh side or until medium inside. Remove from pan and allow to rest.
- Assemble all on a plate, marvel at the color contrast and enjoy with a minerally sauvignon blanc or chablis.