Discovering Real Nordic Cuisine in Iceland


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Discovering Real Nordic Cuisine in Iceland

Finnish chef Antto Melasniemi has a bone to pick with New Nordic cuisine. I followed him to Iceland, where he railed against what he believes are the luxurious, distinctly un-communal attitudes that are essentially incompatible with these countries...

As a concept, traditional Nordic cuisine has nothing of the ubiquity in the restaurant world as that of other European countries like Italy or Spain. Antto Melasniemi, the famed Finnish chef and restaurateur behind Ateljé Finne and Kuurna in Helsinki (and ex-member of Finnish sad-metal band HIM), however, wants to change this. He believes that a simple and comforting cuisine exists in the homes and marketplaces of Scandinavia and Iceland, and that it has as much of a place in a bistro-style eatery as the cuisine of any other country.


We have flown with Melasniemi from London to drive through lava-devastated landscapes and mountains to meet the people producing Iceland's wild and hardy ingredients. Armed with their produce, he plans to take what he understands to truly constitute "Nordic cuisine" and re-evaluate how one might make those ingredients "new".


Chef Antto Melasniemi. Photos by the author.

All this is at the behest of Ja Ja Ja Festival, a winter celebration in London of Nordic music and food. The team behind the festival have tasked Melasniemi and their festival's headliner, Icelandic pop star, composer, and food enthusiast Emilíana Torrini, with developing a menu that they feel captures the essence of Nordic food, and presenting it at the festival in November.

Melasniemi believes strongly that the ostentatious New Nordic food movement is missing the "primitive" underlying attitudes to food of the Nordic countries—attitudes that were primarily about sustenance and preservation in harsh conditions, which led its producers and cooks to use methods like salting, pickling, and smoking in the first place.


The Icelandic countryside.

There are, too, broader ingredients that are intrinsic to Nordic cuisine, Melasniemi says; at its heart lies the resourcefulness to not only survive but make great food from the land, and, most importantly, the hospitality and nourishment that makes true Nordic food so comforting. The latter, he feels, are missing from people's current perception of these countries in the modern food landscape. As we discuss how the future of the Nordic food movement looks, he says he envisions a "new" New Nordic Cuisine; at once having both the "neo-classical" element of New Nordic and "the punk mentality", as he puts it, of true Nordic. He says his desire to zero in on real accessibility is something he strives for in his restaurants in Finland, which he claims are affordable and welcoming.


Explosive company though he is, Melasniemi is, however, a man of few words when it comes to his work, and goading a simple, black-and-white definition of what he sees true Nordic cuisine looking like proves challenging. It appears that he feels that noma's movement, with its inventive but highly intricate dishes, misrepresents the best and most important part of Nordic food culture, and his vision is about reflecting what he believes that to be: communal, accessible, and unpretentious.


Dried herring in Þorlákshöfn.

It's a long way from stale traditionalism; his priorities seem not about doggedly preserving old recipes or methods of preparation, or riling against the modernisation of recipes— far from it— but about defending against the luxurious, distinctly un-communal attitudes of New Nordic, which he believes to be incompatible with these countries' real food cultures. Melasniemi speaks of a missing "punk" attitude, and this comes through in his professed, almost socialist desire to bring simple food made with wild, rough ingredients to people in an affordable and welcoming environment. True Nordic cuisine, we gather, should be "inclusive" enough to be served in a bistro.


Negotiating the price of a lamb.

One afternoon, we head down the winding roads and into the writhing Icelandic country in search of ingredients. After we pass the tiny town and great greenhouses of Hveragerði, we arrive at the coastal town of Þorlákshöfn to meet the producers of a subtly salty red seaweed and biltong-like dried herring. We leave the warehouses carrying boxes of langoustine, frozen cod fillets, and catfish heads. The next stop is a tiny farmhouse in the middle of an endless landscape, owned by a man whose only two products are lamb and rhubarb, which he sells dried, and in jams and toffees. He invites us into his kitchen for coffee, bread, cheese, and stripped raw rhubarb dipped in sugar (an Icelandic children's treat) to negotiate the price of the lamb.


Singer Emilíana Torrini.

Then it's time to drink. We come to a small, open shack nestled amid rolling green hills over a hot stream, where we strip almost bare and share a litre of single malt whisky from the bottle, semi-submerged in the bath-hot water and glorying in the contrast of the freezing Icelandic air. As we reenter Reykjavík, we visit the 64° Reykjavik Distillery, Iceland's first and only micro-distillery, where we experience liquors made with wild ingredients from all over the country, from rhubarb and crawberry liqueur to juniper schnapps and various caraway aquavits.

A couple of days later, we are amongst a number of guests invited to a creepily deserted end of Reykjavík for a dinner party hosted by Melasniemi and Torrini in a flat overlooking the ocean, where the chef is sweating over a number of different pans and Torrini is cheerfully blending the liquors from the distillery into cocktails. Draped between the hundreds of candles on the table are tangled strings of black seaweed. As we set about getting pissed the sun begins setting over the vast Norwegian Sea before us, and Melasniemi reveals what he's been working on for the last few days.


A soup of salt cod, scallop, and langoustine.

His no-frills Nordic menu begins with deep-fried catfish cheeks, which have the meaty texture of scallops and the intense, salty flavour of strong whitefish. Then Melasniemi brings out the dish he's most proud of; something he's jubilantly dubbed "lamb face"— a reworking of the classic celebratory Icelandic sheep's head—which he has traditionally boiled, stripped, and then made his own by roasting it to make a deliciously tender, fatty red meat. Melasniemi serves it with shredded red cabbage for a sharp bite, and between a folded Scotch pancake, the light and sweet texture of which makes for a heady medley.


The following dish is about as Icelandic as we could have hoped for: a soup of salt cod containing a sweet rye bread, broken up and slowly fried in butter, contrasted with the strong green notes of dill, fennel, and parsley. A delicately cooked scallop, still in its shell, is nestled into the broth, and a monstrous langoustine placed dramatically over the top.


Our lamb, disassembled.

Melasniemi's main event is the most straightforward of them all. By various methods, every inch of the lamb we negotiated from the farmer out in the country has been cooked, and tonight served in three parts alongside each other: sliced heart, leg still on the bone, and various tender fillets. It's red, bloody, and delightfully gory, and served alongside a helping of creamy Finnish-style potatoes, which have been sliced, cooked in sour milk, and spiked with intensely salty anchovies.

The bags of red seaweed from Þorlákshöfn come into the equation in the form of an almost sweet, almost savoury crème brûlée, served alongside a similar and unforgettable cream made with salted Icelandic liquorice. Neither make it to the table after Melasniemi's browning torch is done with them, as the drink has brought the guests straight to the kitchen countertop with spoons.


The remains of the lamb.

Melasniemi did not come out to Reykjavík with a plan for his menu, but his ideas of the rough ingredients he hoped to come across grew into something exquisitely modern, yet modest, wholesome, utilitarian, and far from intimidating. He says the menu, for which he has arranged to import 400 sheep heads to London, will remain in development until it is rolled out to the attendees of Ja Ja Ja Festival in November, where he hopes to demonstrate Nordic cuisine in a way most attendees will have never experienced.