I WAS recently lucky enough to visit Reykjavik in Iceland after hearing many great things about the food movement there. It’s beginning to earn a reputation similar to that of Scandinavian cuisine, but although the Icelandic style of cooking and local produce are fairly similar, there are some wonderful ingredients, techniques and flavours that are very unique to the island.
The weather has played a huge part in shaping Icelanders’ eating. We visited in April and the temperature wasn’t too far away from that in Scotland, but there was a chilling wind which made it feel so much colder. With a natural larder rich in fish and meat, Iceland has a long tradition of smoking, curing, pickling and drying methods. But along with the traditional methods, a lot of the country’s best chefs are drawing on their local, natural habitat and using produce in an interesting new way to present creative, fresh and delicious dishes. I relished the way they cooked because it reminded me my own From Nature to Plate philosophy, which I live and breathe each and every day. It’s about mimicking what’s around you on a plate so you truly taste the land or the sea.
Historically, Iceland has also built a reputation for using ingredients that don’t tend to feature in other menus, such as local whale, puffin and even horse. It’s easy to see why some people prefer to avoid some of these unusual ingredients, but although eating whale provokes different responses from different people, I really wanted to immerse myself in the local culture. I made sure I learnt the traceability of the ingredients and ordered whale in one of the restaurants we visited. I have to say, it was prepared perfectly and it did, in fact, taste incredible.
Icelandic people have enjoyed cod as part of their diets for generations. We visited one simple but lovely little restaurant that was serving cod tongue. I’ve always been a fan of cooking cod cheek, but I’d never thought to use the tongue. It can actually make for a very tasty dish if prepared in the right way.
In Iceland you’ll also see a lot of lamb on menus. It tastes very different because lambs are often kept in during the harsh winters then released on to the shore bed, where they graze on seaweed. The result is a really distinctive taste, and you’ll find many good chefs who are really trying to extract all of these delicious natural flavours in the meat they serve.
What also struck me on our visit was that not only do the restaurants and chefs draw on the local produce, but the restaurants’ interiors also reflect very much the habitat in which Icelanders live. One we visited had the most unbelievable attention to detail, with moss decorating the walls, cod skin curtains and reindeer skin throws.
It showed how much Icelanders embrace their culture and the nature all around them, which is something that can inspire us all.
Icelandic Lamb on Hay served with Leeks
This method is very typical of how lamb is cooked and smoked in Iceland. You can serve with leeks or any local, seasonal vegetables you like.
For the lamb
1 rack of lamb
freshly ground black pepper and sea salt
bag of “clean, pet shop” hay
For the leeks
4 young leeks
olive oil to drizzle
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch of thyme sprigs
4 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
50g butter, in pieces
For the sauce gribiche
4 free range medium eggs
1 tsp Dijon mustard
25ml white wine vinegar
250ml vegetable oil
30g capers, drained, rinsed and chopped
30g gherkins, chopped
1 tbsp chopped parsley
For the lamb: Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6. Lightly score the fat covering the lamb and rub with salt and pepper. Heat a splash of olive oil in a lidded, cast iron casserole dish, over a medium heat. Add the rack of lamb and colour off all over for around 6-8 minutes. Remove from the casserole dish and set aside. Add the hay and maybe a little more oil until the hay starts to smoke, then place the lamb on top and cover with the lid. Cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the lamb is pink or cooked to your liking.
For the leeks: Heat the oven to 160C/Gas Mark 2-3. Remove the outer leaves from the leeks and trim the root end, being careful to keep it intact as this will hold the leek together during cooking. Make two lengthways cuts through the top third of each leek to access any grit, then wash the leeks thoroughly. Drain and pat dry with kitchen paper.
Lay a large sheet of strong foil in a roasting tin. Place the leeks side by side on the foil, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Scatter over the thyme sprigs and garlic cloves and dot with the butter. Lay another sheet of foil on top and then fold the edges of the two pieces of foil together to create a sealed parcel. Bake for 1 hour or until the leeks are tender.
For the sauce gribiche: Lower the eggs into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 8-9 minutes, then drain and cool under running cold water. Peel and finely dice the eggs, then set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk the mustard and wine vinegar together, then slowly add the oil, whisking to emulsify the sauce. Fold in the chopped capers, gherkins and parsley, then the diced hardboiled eggs.
To serve: Slice the rack of lamb and place back on to the hay. I find serving the dish in this way adds a bit of theatre and fun. Slice the baked leeks into quarters and place over the hay, drizzling the sauce gribiche over the top.
Cod Tongue with Spring Vegetables
8 cod cheeks
1 cod tongue
– you may want to ask your fishmonger to prepare these ingredients for you
1 tbsp chopped pancetta
1 carrot - chopped into small dice
1 diced shallot
1 diced fennel bulb
1 diced stick of celery
1 garlic clove
100ml white wine
400ml fish stock
1 tsp chopped dill
1 tbsp podded peas
1 tbsp broad beans
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan, and add a splash of oil. Add the chopped pancetta and caramelise before adding the carrots. Then, add the chopped shallots, fennel, celery and garlic, and sweat gently for 2-3 minutes.
Add the tongue, slowly add the white wine, then reduce by half. Now add the fish stock, then bring to the boil. Skim and braise on a low to medium heat for 10-15 minutes, making sure to add more stock if it reduces down too much.
Add the cod cheeks and poach gently in the liquor for 3-4 minutes. Finally, add the dill, the peas and broad beans and then a squeeze of lemon juice to finish before serving.