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In Search of Iceland's Nordic Cuisine

Outdoor tables at the Hotel Aldan in Seyðisfjörður.

Photo: Christian Kerber

On a chilly August morning in eastern Iceland, a herd of reindeer paused to graze along a granite ridge. Eymundur (“Eymi”) Magnússon, a dead ringer for the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb, slammed on the brakes, and his truck skidded to a halt on the stony track. The two of us sat silently watching as these skittish herbivores, their enormous antlers swaying like velvet chandeliers in a windstorm, trotted toward a glacial lake outside the town of Eglisstaðir.

“Do they know you don’t eat meat?” I asked.

Magnússon chuckled. “Maybe. Hunting season is coming up soon, and they’ve been on my land for most of the summer.”

Surveying the matted crowberry shrubs and lichen-crusted rocks, I didn’t see much terrain that could be construed as sanctuary for creatures that stuck out like a frost giant’s sore thumb. But once we bounced around several turns in the rutted trail, the truck dipped into a hidden vale of barley fields. The wind died away as we drove between tall rows of mature aspen.

Magnússon remarked at the curious hue of the sheltering foliage, possibly tinted by nitrogen from blue lupines blooming underneath. “No one thought these trees would grow,” he said, “but I have planted one million of them.” In a forestless realm where all virgin timber was cut down more than a thousand years ago, it’s an achievement worthy of a vegetarian visionary. For Magnússon, who supplies tiny white potatoes and fruit preserves to gourmet shops in Reykjavík, it was simply another day on the farm he calls Vallanes.

Just kissing latitude 67 degrees north, this isolated island of volcanoes and glaciers is what the Icelandic people have called home—literally between hot rocks and a cold place—since A.D. 874, when their intrepid Viking ancestors first rowed longships across the Norwegian Sea. Unlike its nearest neighbor, Greenland, Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream, so the climate is relatively temperate. Although summer is fleeting on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, plenty still grows here, and Icelanders are champion foragers of mushrooms, berries, moss, seaweed—anything deemed remotely edible. Word about these rare ingredients, not to mention the weird beauty of an untamed landscape, has spread far beyond the island’s lava-rock shores. Danish chef René Redzepi, the leader of the New Nordic culinary movement and an avid forager, sources Icelandic seafood, herbal teas, and the yogurt-like skyr for Noma, his Copenhagen bistro, which in 2010 was named the world’s top restaurant (edging out Spain’s El Bulli) by a prestigious international food academy.

These modern-day Vikings can cite an ancient literary source for their foraging instincts: the Icelanders’ sagas, which are filled with heroic deeds by poet-farmers and warrior-shepherds. (With his fair hair and beard, Eymi would fit right into one of those medieval prose epics.) I’ve never managed to choke through an entire narrative, but undoubtedly the Old Norse words for locavore and sustainability are in there somewhere.

I share a love of scrounging with these far northerners. My mother, an early convert to the health-food craze during the 1960’s, favored Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus as her guide to walking on the wild side. She taught me to be an edible opportunist, hunting the sides of streams for cress and picking windfall apples from abandoned farm fields near my childhood home. My own inspiration, however, is an obscure gem titled Icelandic Picnic, by Áslaug Snorradóttir and Sigrún Sigvaldadóttir. Full of tart homilies, this merry collection of arty snapshots celebrates the outdoor pleasures of a brief yet bountiful season, when modern Vikings pack their camping gear and plunder the countryside with berry buckets. At the height of an Arctic summer, I also discover how short a distance it is in Iceland to journey from field to table.

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