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How to Write an Icelandic Cookbook When You Can't Buy Reindeer Liver

Iceland is consistently chilly with low humidity. © Kelly Bazley

Here, fun and sometimes hilarious behind-the-scenes tales from authors working on forthcoming cookbooks.

Gunnar Karl Gíslason opened his Reykjavik restaurant, Dill, in 2009, just after the country’s economic collapse. All of his investors had pulled out of the business, so with credit cards, 20-hour workdays and a lot of good will from suppliers who waited patiently for payment, the chef proceeded to create the best and most forward-thinking restaurant in the city. He is credited not only with reviving old native ingredients, like barley, but with introducing native Icelanders to some of the food that exists around them. For example, before he opened Dill and served the local blue mussels and seaweed that grow along the coastline, few people had tried them; now Icelanders cook these ingredients at home.

American cookbook author Jody Eddy is co-writing Gíslason’s forthcoming cookbook, which has a forward by superstar Denmark chef René Redzepi. Thanks to this project, she has been to Iceland 25 times in the past five years. She now leads culinary tours of the country and has started to import pristine Icelandic ingredients. Here, she talks about the challenges she faced while writing the book.

1. Iceland is consistently chilly with low humidity. “The fermentation times in Gunnar’s recipes were incredibly long because of the climate—3 weeks to ferment vegetables, say. That was actually one bonus when adapting the recipes for the US—food takes much less time to ferment.”

2. The dairy is outrageously rich. “The heavy cream there is almost like crème anglaise. We had to test and retest and retest again in the US to get the recipes to work with our dairy products.”

3. Smoking and foraging are required for some recipes. “We only adapted recipes to a point, so yes, some recipes start with instructions like, ‘Pick birch leaves’ or we tell people how to dry and smoke their onion and garlic peels. These recipes are there to give people a sense of place but we know that not everyone will try them.”

4. We don’t have access to puffin…or reindeer liver. “When Gunnar first gave me the recipe list, it included certain native foods and I had to find substitutes. For example, instead of reindeer liver, we’re using calf liver. They use a lot of arctic char and we suggest salmon if people can’t find it. I just had to say no to puffin though. It’s impossible to source and no one here will want to eat it.”

5. She had to brave eating the famous fermented shark. “No, a recipe for hákarl is not in the book. It’s what everyone asks. Gunnar won’t even eat it. Most Icelanders won’t touch it, but some will during a festival in February called Thorablott. That’s when people celebrate their traditional foods as an homage to the struggle Icelanders have always faced. We did include profile of a hákarl producer so I tried it then.”

North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland by Gunnar Karl Gíslason and Jody Eddy will be published by Ten Speed Books in September.

Kristin Donnelly is a former Food & Wine editor and cofounder of Stewart & Claire, an all-natural line of lip balms made in Brooklyn.

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