Drive several miles out of Reykjavik, Iceland, along a barren stretch of snow and sulfur-dusted skies, and you'll be blinded by a beacon of bright yellow lights inside one of the country's many greenhouses. That house? It's probably filled with tomatoes.
For centuries, in a land named after freezing climates, the only sustenance involved potatoes, rye bread, salted fish, and fermented shark (plus imported fruits and vegetables in later years). "We had potatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage, oranges, and bananas when I was growing up, and that was about it," Hrönn Vilhemsdóttir of Reykjavik's Café Loki says. "Everything was imported, except the potatoes."
But the rise of greenhouses has changed not just the landscape of the country, but the food, too. Nowadays, Icelanders can get tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, and even strawberries locally, as greenhouses have proliferated and become more profitable. Thanks to the volcanic rock hidden beneath the ice and snow, greenhouse growers can channel the earth's heat to warm the buildings and soil, making Icelandic greenhouses slightly cheaper to run than their American counterparts. In fact, enough geothermal energy is produced in Iceland to power 87 percent of the country's heat and water needs (and still create those tourist-friendly hot springs). "People might look down at what is done in the greenhouses, but here they are mostly pretty environmentally friendly because of our green energy; we are using electricity made from our rivers, we are using the heat from the ground," Gunnar Karl Gíslason of DILL restaurant in Reykjavik says. "They are really green greenhouses, so to speak."
"Once I called up the ex-chief of police in Reykjavik because I kept hearing about them busting people for growing marijuana to check out what they would do with those lights."
It wasn't always this way, even though Iceland's first greenhouse was built in 1923. According to Knútur Rafn Ármann at Friðheimar greenhouse, most of the establishments popped up in the 40s or 50s, but they focused on growing flowers. Only recently did the greenhouses start producing vegetables year-round. "I didn't have a red pepper until I was 20," Vilhemsdóttir recalls (she was born in 1961). "I remember visiting my friend in Reykjavik, and she brought out this pepper, put it on bread with cheese, and I was surprised. It was very good."
The biggest product of greenhouses, perhaps, are tomatoes; grocery stores now stock Icelandic tomatoes regularly, proudly bearing a sticker marking it as local—even in the dead of winter. According to Ármann, a total of 23 growers in Iceland produce 70 to 75 percent of all tomatoes eaten in the island.
Beyond the basic vegetables, however, it's hard to find variety. Gíslason, one of the most experimental chefs in the country, focuses on local and foraged ingredients. He's struggling, however, to find more experimental greens that can be grown in Iceland. "A lot of the greenhouses aren't open to experimentation," Gíslason says. "Most of those who are have greenhouses almost as a hobby. I have a friend who grows organic roses, and I asked him to make sorrels for me. Best sorrels I've tasted; they had tufts of a rose flavor to it."
Despite his status in Reykjavik's food scene, however, Gíslason has been hard-pressed to find a large greenhouse to take on his requests. "I'm trying to get a group of restaurants to team up and hire one farmer to farm for us, grow whatever he wants and what we request, and we'll just buy it all and find a way to use it," he says. "He can throw out those tomato plants and do something else." But finding the farmer is tough. Who would be willing to grow wasabi in Iceland?
"It could be nice to have even more kinds of vegetables, but we're limited with what we can do with electricity prices," Ármann says. "Sure it's lower than what it might be in Europe, but we are more north, so we have to use more of it." Even though the greenhouses are warmed with geothermal energy, the lights are powered with electricity. So lighting ends up being the most expensive aspect of production—as any marijuana grower knows. Gíslason has tried to grow his own herbs, but found the lights themselves to be cost-prohibitive. "Once I called up the ex-chief of police in Reykjavik because I kept hearing about them busting people for growing marijuana," Gíslason says. "So I called to check out what they would do with those lights. He was like, 'What are you thinking of doing?' I just want to grow herbs in my basement. But pretty much every time they bust them, those lamps are stolen."
It's not like there is much of a market for what Gíslason hopes to produce. Despite the potential given to eaters thanks to new technology, old Icelandic foods like fermented shark, smoked herring, and the hearty Icelandic meat stew (think chicken soup made with lamb) are more popular than ever. "During the economic collapse, the nation started to think more about who we are, not American or European, but Icelandic," Vilhemsdóttir says. "Then we had to decide what is Icelandic, so what we have been doing at Café Loki was very good for that discussion." Her restaurant still serves a "Christmas plate" with smoked lamb, red cabbage slaw, and ORA canned peas, the latter a staple in the Icelandic diet since 1952.
"You only had a few flavors on a plate before: peas, potatoes, bread, butter. So for many days people didn't taste anything else," Vilhemsdóttir says. "Now I think people are always changing what they eat, and they can have something special every day. But I like this [Icelandic] meat soup. I think it's perfect. In every country, people have something that tastes very good, is very common, and we have to take care of it. We may not lose them to hamburgers."
And as for the experimental chefs? "Maybe I can find a retired marijuana grower and get him to grow herbs," Gíslason says.