A flesh start

Iceland may have a liking for ram's testicles and rotten shark, says Lena Corner, but its modern cuisine is some of the best in Europe
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Every year in Iceland in February, just as the weather begins to turn, tradition has it that the islanders roll out their best tableware to celebrate the mid-winter festival of Thorrablot. The feast is based on an ancient Viking practice and Icelanders, being sticklers for tradition, see that it's done exactly as their forefathers did it 1,100 years ago.

Every year in Iceland in February, just as the weather begins to turn, tradition has it that the islanders roll out their best tableware to celebrate the mid-winter festival of Thorrablot. The feast is based on an ancient Viking practice and Icelanders, being sticklers for tradition, see that it's done exactly as their forefathers did it 1,100 years ago.

As you'd expect from a Viking's table, this is a raucous, alcohol-fuelled affair, strictly for carnivores. On arrival guests are greeted with plates of svid - blackened lambs' heads, scorched in fire to burn off the skin. This might be followed by a main course of slatur, a lump of congealed sheep's blood held together with lard and wrapped up in a lamb's stomach. If after that you're still peckish you could try a side dish of ram's testicles or a platter of whale fat. And as if that wasn't "flavour" enough, most of these delicacies would come macerated in mysa, a harsh, sour-milk product which, in the old days, was used to preserve food through the long winter.

"We take good care of our traditions," says Siggi Hall, TV chef, restaurateur and probably the closest thing Iceland has to Jamie Oliver. "This event puts all kinds of ancient foods on to our table. It may sound a little ugly, but washed down with schnapps it makes for a great feast."

Such eating habits aren't confined to the mid-winter months. Ask anyone for a list of well-known Icelandic exports and, after Björk and Magnus Magnusson, chances are they'll mention the island's famous rotten shark - otherwise known as hakarl and virtually a national dish.

"The shark is a very special thing," says Hall. "It has a terrible smell - just like someone has relieved themselves on it. But it is a very mythic food. We believe if you eat shark it will give you stamina." Making the shark just rotten and just pungent enough is a complicated process which involves burying it in the earth for a few months to allow time for the shark's natural ammonia to help rot its own flesh. Hall compares it to a fine, strong-smelling French cheese. "I eat it every day," he says. "That's why I have nine children."

But for some of Iceland's chefs, all this talk of fermented flesh has become something of an embarrassment. A clutch of high-calibre restaurants have opened in the past few years and now they want to shift the emphasis. Two years ago when the famed Vox restaurant opened, it flew in Icelandic head chef Hákon Örvarsson from his Michelin-starred restaurant in Luxembourg.

"Michelin doesn't operate in Iceland yet," says Örvarsson, "but they should consider it. We are always being told that our food is of a Michelin standard." The slick Blue Lagoon restaurant which overlooks the famous powder-blue geothermal baths, was rated as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world by Restaurant magazine when it first opened in 2002. And Apotek, one of the latest additions to downtown Reykjavik dining, is housed in a former pharmacy (sound familiar?) and so resoundingly hip that the white-lit, glass-walled kitchen, viewed from the dining area, resembles a futuristic operating theatre. "Icelandic cuisine surprises everyone," says Hall. "At the moment it is very, very modern." This is, after all, a country where there are more sommeliers per capita than anywhere else in Europe, if not the world.

As if to assert their gourmet credentials still further, four years ago, a new food festival was introduced in February, just at the tail end of Thorrablot - as if to erase all memory and after-taste of the rotten food binge. It's rather naff title - the Food and Fun Festival - belies its serious intent. For one weekend, Reykjavik's best restaurants employ guest chefs to create discounted set menus. There's also a Ready, Steady Cook-style competition, where top international chefs are flown in and challenged to create purely Icelandic dishes using produce from the local supermarket.

And for a country of fewer than 300,000 people, Iceland's supermarkets are surprisingly well stocked. This is the land Nasa chose as training ground for its astronauts as its terrain was the closest thing on earth to a moonscape; once, even the tiniest morsels of greenery on a plate would have been imported. But these days, since the islanders discovered how to harness their geothermal capacity to power huge greenhouses, the supermarkets are piled with home-grown lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes. And weirdly, Iceland is now an exporter of bananas.

But it's the quality of Iceland's meat and fish produce that has enabled Reykjavik to present itself as a modern European culinary force. "When it comes to fresh produce, we are number one," claims Hall. "We are a nation of fisherman - it's on our hands and in our blood. No where else in the world can you get the quality of fish on the table as you do in Reykjavik."

This is thanks in part to Iceland's strong islander mentality. They have gone to great lengths to protect themselves from contamination from abroad and there's a ban on all on animal imports. "Our lamb stock has never been mixed, it's exactly the same as the Vikings brought with them," says Hall. They also have a Heidi-like attitude to rearing. Antibiotics, hormones and pesticides are all banned. Every spring the sheep are let loose to roam around the mountains eating berries, moss and herbs. Because Iceland is powered by geothermal energy, there is virtually no pollution so their diet is fresh and entirely organic. Come autumn, the farmers simply go up the mountains, round up the flock and bring it down. "An Icelandic lamb has only one sad moment in its entire life," says Hall, "and that's the moment that we kill it."

No wonder then that the life expectancy of Icelanders is among the highest in the world. Many put it down to food that is fresh and natural. Few would put it down the ancient habit of gorging on rotten flesh. "People often forget we are a part of Scandinavia," concludes Hall. "Even though we're often looked upon as eccentric island people who like to eat shark at times and believe in Thor and Odin, essentially we are a very modern Scandinavian country."

Food and Fun runs from 16 to 20 February, www.foodandfun.is; Vox, www.voxrestaurant.com; Blue Lagoon, www.bluelagoon.is; Apotek, www.veitingar.is; Discover the World offers three-night breaks in Reykjavik for two from £344 on Icelandair. Tel: 01737 214 214, www.discover-the-world.co.uk

Siggi Hall's salmon soup

Serves 4-8

4kg/9lb salmon, cubed
1/2 litre cream
30ml/1fl oz port
30ml/1fl oz vodka
Cayenne pepper
2-3 red onions
1/2 courgette
1/3 red, yellow and
green pepper
1/3 green leek
1 tsp butter
1/3 tsp thyme

For the stock

The bones of the salmon, chopped
2 carrots
2 green apples
1/3 leek
3 celery sticks
1/2 red pepper
1/3 tsp thyme
3-4 bay leaves
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp curry powder
300ml/10fl oz white wine
2 litres/64fl oz chicken stock
2 tbsp butter

For the beurre-manie

100g/31/2oz flour
150g/51/2oz butter

To make the stock, melt the butter and add the bones and chopped stock vegetables. Sauté with the spices and herbs, add the wine and stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Leave to cool, remove the bones and strain finely.

To make the beurre-manie, mix the flour and butter. Pour into the stock and whip constantly. Add the cream and season.

In another pan, sauté the rest of the vegetables with the thyme. Before serving, heat the stock until it's very hot and add the vegetables, the cayenne pepper and the alcohol. Finally add the salmon, stirring over the heat for 3 minutes.

Hákon Örvarsson's langoustine

Serves 4

12 big langoustine tails,
20g/3/4oz fresh ginger
A splash of olive oil
12 green asparagus
12 spring onions
1 red bell pepper
2 plum tomatoes
1 cucumber
4 tbsp green peas
2 shallots, diced
1 tbsp coriander
1 tbsp chopped basil
juice of 1 lemon
1 ripe avocado
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp crème fraiche

To make the ginger oil, heat the oil and ginger until hot. Infuse overnight, then strain trough a sieve and discard the ginger.

Blanch the asparagus for one minute in salty water and then plunge into iced water. Pat dry. Do the same with the spring onions (10 seconds) and the peas (30 seconds).

To make the brunoise, skin the peppers and tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes into four and remove the insides. Remove the inside of the cucumber. Dice finely and add to the asparagus mix. Dice the shallots and add too. Mix in half olive and half ginger oil, add the lemon juice and season.

Finely chop the avocado, mix in the lime juice, salt and crème fraiche.

Heat the oven to 120C/250F/Gas1/2. Spread a little ginger oil on the langoustine and bake for 10 minutes.

To serve, spoon the brunoise on to four plates. Season and drizzle with olive oil. Make three quenelle out of the avocado, place the langoustine on top and drizzle with ginger oil.