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Americans have adjusted to Scandinavia’s influence on fine dining, and now a space has cleared for the rest of the region to show off what it can do. First up: Iceland.
New Nordic was one of the most pervasive American restaurant trends of the last few years, with seemingly every young cook experimenting with the spare, earthy sensibilities typified by Noma chef Rene Redzepi. But the splendor of the North doesn’t stop in Copenhagen. As Americans have adjusted to Scandinavia’s influence on fine dining—the naturalistic plating, aggressive seasonality and unusual ingredients such as lichen, hay and the occasional live ant—a space has cleared for the rest of the region to show off what it can do.
Enter Iceland. An island nation bobbing away in the glacial waters just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s unique topography and relative remoteness has bred a spirit of ingenuity deep in the civic marrow. “The country of Iceland is completely self-reliant,” says chef Thrainn Freyr Vigfússon of Lava Restaurant in Grindavík. And he’s right: Iceland is powered almost entirely by its own renewable energy; organic produce grows year-round in geothermal greenhouses; and a long tradition of drying, smoking and curing makes the most of native proteins like pristine fish, free-roaming lamb, and cattle with Viking bloodlines. “Icelandic products are pure and extremely local,” he says. “The chefs here learn to work with only a few, simple ingredients that are available to them each season, which results in very fresh, creative dishes.”
There’s a lot to love when it comes to eating the Icelandic way, and now more than ever Americans have opportunities to get to know it. Icelandair continues to expand its stateside footprint, making it easy and affordable to fly into the capital city of Reykjavík—you can even stop over on the way to or from Europe for no additional airfare. In turn, Icelandic culture has started to trickle into the U.S.
“The country of Iceland is completely self-reliant. The chefs here learn to work with only a few, simple ingredients that are available to them each season, which results in very fresh, creative dishes.” - Chef Thrainn Freyr Vigfússon of Lava Restaurant
Iceland began to foster awareness of its own food culture as early as 2001, when the country first invited international chefs to cook at its annual Food and Fun festival. Whole Foods began distributing a number of Icelandic products in 2005; these days you can find Iceland’s tangy, yogurt-like skyr as readily as Greek Fage in many grocery stores. Seattle’s Taste of Iceland and New York’s NORTH festivals have each wrapped their third years, the latter with a dedicated “Iceland Day” curated by chef Vigfússon of Lava Restaurant in Grindavík. And in 2016 a 5,000-square-foot Nordic food hall, curated by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer, is scheduled to land at New York’s Grand Central Station. The crown jewel: a sit-down restaurant helmed by Icelandic chef Gunnar Gíslason of Dill in Reykjavík.
To limber up for its opening, we created an Icelandic cheat sheet featuring everything you should know about food, drink, music and more. Follow our seven-step plan and get excited for the next chapter of America’s New Nordic takeover.
1. Brush up on your required reading
Chef Gunnar Gíslason only recently signed on to head up the kitchen at Claus Meyer’s forthcoming Grand Central Station project, but he’s been making waves in Iceland for years—his restaurant, Dill, has been the pride of Reykjavík since it opened in 2009. With help from writer Jody Eddy and photographer Evan Sung, Gíslason tells the story of his native flavors in his cookbook, North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland. Released last fall, North reveals the chef’s commitment to letting local ingredients take the lead via recipes like hay-smoked beets with pine and roses. These, along with reverential portraits of the purveyors who make his food possible, offer an excellent on-ramp for understanding the philosophies and nuances that define modern Icelandic cooking.
2. Brace for a taste of Brennivín and other Icelandic spirits
If you ascribe to the mo’ bitter, mo’ better machismo that made Fernet Branca a secret handshake of the craft cocktail movement, you’re going to love Brennivín. The throat-stripping intensity of Iceland’s caraway schnapps is finally within reach in the United States, thanks to Wyoming-based importer Joe Spiegel. If you can’t find a bottle of “the Black Death” (as the booze is not-so-affectionately known) at your local liquor store, it can be purchased online. Or look out for its distinctive licorice and rye flavor at bars like The Up & Up in New York City. Iceland is also enjoying a boomlet of micro-distilleries. Foss makes two varieties of birch-flavored spirits—Björk liqueur and Birkir schnapps—that can be found in select liquor stores and bars around the U.S. The gorgeous juniper schnapps and rhubarb and crowberry liqueurs from 64° Reykjavik Distillery are harder to get stateside, but can easily be found at Keflavik Airport—put them on your list if you’re passing through.
3. Season to taste with Saltverk’s geothermal flake salt
Harvested from the sea surrounding the Reykjanes peninsula and processed using only the geothermal energy produced by local hot springs, this Icelandic salt should appeal to those looking to zero out their carbon footprint. In addition to the basic flakes, Saltverk offers blends that showcase other quintessential Icelandic flavors, such as smoked birch, licorice and Arctic thyme—a wild species of the fragrant herb. Saltverk products are available for purchase at Whole Foods locations in the Mid-Atlantic and Rocky Mountains, or you can order them online.
4. Fall in love with Iceland’s Willy Wonka, Omnom
The gorgeous packaging, by graphic designer André Úlfur Visage, hints at the care that goes into these chocolate bars—meticulous blends of cacao beans from areas like Madagascar and Papua New Guinea, with Icelandic products like milk powder, sea salt, licorice and locally-roasted coffee. Omnom enjoys distribution in the United States, which means you can track it down at places like the Nordic-obsessed cafe-bar Búðin in Brooklyn, along with many other stockists. Or you can order these beauties online for about $11 a pop.
5. Throw all of your money at Nammi
If you want to go all-in in your pursuit of Icelandic swag, mail-order outfit Nammi is a one-stop shop. There, you’ll find everything from Álafoss wool blankets to DVDs that showcase the idiosyncratic gait—called a tölt—of Iceland’s pure-bred Viking horses. But really, you’re just here for the food, and Nammi has plenty of it. There are squeeze bottles of pylsusinnep hot dog mustard, blocks of rich, grass-fed cow butter, all manner of licorice and chocolate, smoked fish and grains from Módir Jord, a company that reintroduced barley farming to Iceland after two fallow centuries. Note that the shipping costs are significant, so if you want to order vacuum packs of hákarl—the putrified shark meat that famously made Anthony Bourdain wretch—it’s best to do it all in one go.
6. Explore the strange wonders of Washington Island, Wisconsin
Wisconsin may be the last place you’d expect to find a groundswell of Nordic heritage, but indeed the Badger State state is home to one of the oldest and largest Icelandic communities outside the nation itself. Scandinavian immigrants began settling Washington Island and the Door Peninsula in the mid-19th century, thanks to the area’s familiar climate, terrain and fish-packed waters. Vestiges of the region’s Icelandic heritage remain today, from the crepe-like pannkaka served for breakfast at the island’s Sunset Resort to the 100-year-old Icelandic temple that is the centerpiece of Scott Sonoc and Marsha Williams’s five-acre lavender field. You can stock your pantry with items made using their fragrant, hand-harvested lavender, but if you prefer to drink your terroir, track down Death’s Door spirits—so named for the strait that connects Green Bay and Lake Michigan. The company uses wheat and juniper berries grown on Washington Island to produce its range of gin, vodka, white whiskey and peppermint schnapps.