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In Search of Iceland's Nordic Cuisine

Outdoor tables at the Hotel Aldan in Seyðisfjörður.

Photo: Christian Kerber

In a tie-dyed bunkhouse on Magnússon’s farm, a group of Wwoof-ers were wolfing down wild-blueberry pancakes and rhubarb compote. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a grassroots cultural exchange for back-to-the-land volunteers and growers eager to embrace the crunchy gospel. This crew ranged from a Bowdoin graduate student researching soil content to an elderly Englishwoman with a passion for tundra fungi—all extra hands in the farm’s prized potato patch. “Don’t let anyone in Reykjavík know they’re ready to harvest yet,” Magnússon entreated me. Icelandic Picnic: “Pjód veit, ef prír vita.If three have been told, the whole nation knows.” On an island with just over 300,000 residents, word gets around fast.

With packets of freshly baked angelica-seed crackers from Magnússon’s wife, Eygló, in my bag, I left the gentle vale of Vallanes for a rough gravel road across a high pass to the nearby eastern seaport of Seyðisfjörður. As I gained elevation, the weather closed in. I found myself in the curious position of navigating a suspension bridge with a dense cloud bank underneath and zero visibility in a region where free-ranging sheep mobbed grassy shoulders. (Both excellent reasons why the speed limit in Iceland is 55 m.p.h.) Halfway through my route, the Gufufoss waterfall tumbled over a series of rock terraces next to the road. I parked and walked to the edge, where the spray, drifting upward, misted my face and hair. One of the most wonderful things about Iceland is the purity of plain old tap water, which tastes of minerals from the sunless halls of mountain kings. Icelanders laugh when you ask for imported bottles.

Seyðisfjörður was preparing for a midsummer party. A heap of broken furniture and packing crates piled next to the town hall was to be torched at sunset—which, at this time of year, was just shy of midnight. At the reception area in the Hótel Aldan, the old checkout counter displayed temptingly iced fruitcakes and chewy nut cookies; oak tables and Windsor chairs looked out onto the waterfront. Setting my place with a crocheted doily and candlestick, a waitress recited the evening menu. (Magnússon’s microgreens made an appearance, paired with a smoked duck breast.)

As I watched bonfire-bound townspeople stream past the front window, succulent langoustine tails arrived garnished with Gotland truffle foam. Closer in size to crawfish than lobster, Icelandic humar are rich enough on their own. The sauce made from mushrooms sourced on a Baltic island was a delightfully indulgent embellishment, particularly given the frugal culinary history of a people who once survived winters on putrefied shark and pickled seal flippers. Icelandic Picnic: “Margt et sætt í dag, sem súrt er á morgun.” “Sweet today, sour tomorrow.”

An eight-hour drive away, on the opposite side of the island, the capital of Reykjavík has all the hallmarks of a small college town—street murals; vintage stores; Internet cafés on every corner. I was there to meet Siggi Hall, an ardent fan of the potatoes from Magnússon’s farm. Tall and jolly, Hall is the Icelandic equivalent of the Galloping Gourmet; he introduced his viewing public to imported comestibles such as olive oil and maple syrup, but now promotes a cooking philosophy closer to home.

We met for langoustine chowder at Nauthóll, a modern bistro overlooking the city beach. I asked him what a summer picnic means to an Icelandic chef. “I like to go out to the country with blankets and sandwiches, smoked lamb, and cheeses,” he said. “Especially in August, when the berries get ripe. Everyone has their secret picking grounds.” He leaned in closer to stage-whisper: “You don’t tell where you pick your berries!”

Set in grassy parkland on the outskirts of town, Nordic House was designed by Finnish master architect Alvar Aalto. The minimalist structure holds a library and exhibition space. It is also home turf for two culinary madmen. By day, Dill restaurant serves as the museum cafeteria; after hours, all that changes radically. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and his sommelier, Ólafur Örn (“Óli”) Ólaffson, produce poetry from an experimental kitchen slightly smaller than a bread box. Gíslason may just be the next René Redzepi. (He hosted his first Salone del Gusto workshop at the Slow Food festival in Turin, Italy, last fall.) Because Dill has only 10 tables, each plate gets his conceptual scrutiny, and what winds up on that rustic china is extraordinary. Often Gíslason will hear from a lone hunter who has bagged a reindeer, or a former Buddhist monk who combs the shoreline for kelp and moss. Arctic char might arrive from friends who have spawning streams flowing past their sheep paddocks. A ceramic artist will trade dinner for a pot with protruding lamb bones. And a waiter’s uncle supplies fresh-mown hay for one of Gíslason’s quirkier pairings.

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