Icelanders are among the planet's healthiest, happiest people. Their incredibly pure diet could be the secret.
For centuries, hunting, fishing and foraging sustained Iceland. The island, just south of the Arctic Circle, is so remote, and its growing season so short, that people would take whatever they could from the land and the sea, surviving on puffin jerky and (ammonia-reeking) fermented shark. Today, Iceland's geographic isolation—plus strict government environmental regulations—helps it produce some of the purest foods on the planet. Grass-fed cows with a lineage that goes back to the Norwegian herds brought by the Vikings in 874 AD make milk that's high in beta carotene, creating exceptional butter and cheese as well as the yogurt-like skyr. Family farms sell tender meat from lambs that have grazed in the mountains all summer on moss, scrub and wildflowers. Fish farmers raise arctic char without chemicals or antibiotics in eco-friendly saltwater tanks.
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"Our food doesn't come from industrial farms, it comes from family farms," says Icelandic chef Siggi Hall, an outspoken promoter of his country's ingredients. Now that those ingredients are coming to the U.S.—Whole Foods is the exclusive importer of many of them—it's become easier for Americans to eat more like Icelanders. And there are compelling reasons to do so: The Icelandic diet may be the secret to its citizens' impressive health and happiness. Icelanders' average life span (81) is among the longest in the world. And, despite its recent economic collapse, Iceland was ranked number one on the most recent European Happy Planet Index—factoring in everything from carbon footprint to depression.
"Iceland is the only place in the world where I'd drink water from a stream," says Jeff Tunks, chef-owner of PassionFish in Reston, Virginia. Protected by environmental regulations, those pure waters are full of exceptional seafood. Tiny fishing villages are the heart of Iceland's seafood business. Fishermen take small boats into the Atlantic to catch haddock, herring and cod using traditional hook-and-line methods. Iceland has banned the fishing of North Atlantic salmon in its oceans. Today wild salmon, prized for its high fat content, comes from Iceland's rivers. One of Iceland's biggest seafood exports is arctic char, a milder cousin of salmon and trout with a sweet, delicate flavor. "This is a fish loaded with omega-3s," says Ed Brown, chef-owner of Eighty One in New York City. "The high fat content lends itself to cooking. You can confit it in olive oil or sear it to get crispy skin. I've even smoked it."
"Icelandic lamb is the best I've ever tasted," says Robert Wiedmaier, chef-owner of Marcel's and Brasserie Beck in Washington, DC. "It's a very pure, nonfatty meat." Farmers save the hay they make during the short summers to get sheep through the long, cold winters; then, in the spring, the sheep graze freely in the mountains. "We keep tabs on them daily," says Sindri Sigurgeirsson, a 35-year-old farmer who tends a flock of 750. "We know they are eating a pure, organic diet." Because Iceland gets 24 hours of sunlight a day in summer, the lambs eat more than they would elsewhere and grow to market weight—about 30 pounds—on pasture alone. Slaughtered at six months instead of the typical 11, they produce lean, mild, fine-grained meat.
Glacier-fed rivers. Photo © Martin Morrell.
Every September, groups of farmers get together to herd the lambs down from the mountains. "It's real old-school," says Wiedmaier, who participated in the ritual on one of his seven visits to Iceland. "Everyone rides up the mountains on Iceland's pony-size horses and brings the lambs back down to the farms. And of course they don't call it 'slaughter'; it's 'roundup,' and it's a bit of a party." Icelanders probably get their largest dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids during slaughter season, when they embrace nose-to-tail eating and feast on nutrient-rich lamb offal like svid (boiled brains). Because roundup happens only once a year, home cooks and U.S. chefs have about a 12-week window, usually September through early December, to purchase fresh meat.
On his last trip to Iceland, Tunks got a taste of Icelandic cuisine at Reykjavík's 3 Frakkar, which serves indigenous dishes like lamb smoked over dried sheep-dung and the delicacy hákarl, or fermented shark. "That's the only food I've ever put in my mouth that was rejected instantly," Tunks says. He also sampled chef Úlfar Eysteinsson's traditional and updated takes on whale, a hugely controversial ingredient (Iceland is one of the few countries that still allows commercial whaling). "The minke whale sashimi served with wasabi and soy tasted like steak carpaccio," says Tunks. "But the whale blubber looked like a block of Crisco and was a tasteless, greasy mess."
On the other end of the spectrum is avant-garde Reykjavík chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, who cooks at his year-old restaurant, Dill. A pioneer of New Nordic cooking, Gíslason creates weekly changing, seven-course tasting menus featuring experimental interpretations of local ingredients, like herring that he turns into ice cream or puffin that he serves with potatoes and truffles.
Last spring, Hall, Iceland's Walter Matthau look-alike chef, helped open Restaurant Nord in the Leifur Eiríksson Air Terminal at Keflavík International airport. The casual menu, a greatest hits of Iceland's healthiest ingredients, includes salted cod, soup with wild Icelandic herbs and smoothies made from skyr. "I wanted people to leave Iceland with a healthy final meal," he says.
"I can tell you what pasture a cow grazed on just by eating cheese made from its milk," Hall says. His claim may be hyperbolic, but his point—that there's a correlation between a cow's diet and the quality of its milk—is clearly true. The beta-carotene-rich grass that an Icelandic cow eats, for instance, makes the butter churned from its milk a distinctive buttercup yellow. "It has the most unusual, deep hue and a phenomenal flavor," says Tunks, who occasionally serves the butter with bread at his restaurant.
© Martin Morrell
The small family farms that comprise Iceland's dairy "industry" are certainly kinder to the environment than the factory operations that dominate much of the rest of the world. They are run by people like Olafur Kristjansson, a sixth-generation farmer who tends 34 milking cows at Geirakot, a dairy launched by his father in 1929 in southwest Iceland. The milk's high fat content produces cheeses like Hofdingi, which is mild and Camembert-like, and Stori Dimon, a slow-ripened, blue-veined triple-cream that resembles an ultrarich Brie.
Most intriguing is the fresh cheese skyr. It was created more than 1,000 years ago by farmers who poured skim milk over meat stored in wooden barrels, hoping it would act as a preservative. After six to eight weeks, a thick, tangy white substance coated the inside of the barrels, and the intrepid (and hungry) farmers ate it. "The creation of skyr in Iceland is similar to mozzarella in Naples or yogurt in Kazakhstan," Hall says. "People in ancient times needed these foods to survive the winters."