Crash diet






When recession hit Iceland in 2008, pundits knew economic meltdown would have an effect on all areas of society. What no one predicted was that, for the country’s cuisine, it might turn out to be a good thing.

Two chefs from Dill, arguably Iceland’s best restaurant, stand on a black-sand beach in þorlákshöfn, the only viable harbour on the country’s southern coast. Hinrik Carl Ellertsson, dressed in waterproof fisherman’s overalls, looks out at a mess of waves while Raggy Eiriksson wanders the beach, pausing occasionally to pick something out of the sand.

They visit the beach several times a year, usually just to collect seawater that they boil down to make salt for the restaurant. Today, however, following some stormy weather, the beach is littered with piles of kelp, which Eiriksson soon discovers is playing host to a red, hairlike algae that he calls “sea truffle”, and which he loves to use in Dill’s dishes for its unusual umami-rich mushroom aroma.

As Ellertsson wades into the Atlantic with large plastic containers to collect 250 litres of water, which he will later boil down to around 5kg of salt, Eiriksson fills the ziplock bags he carries at all times (in case the opportunity for foraging presents itself) with the sea truffle. “I’ve never seen so much of it,” he says happily.

Dill is a tiny, 23-seat restaurant on Hverfisgata in downtown Reykjavík, founded in 2009 by chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and sommelier Ólafur Örn Ólafsson. Located on the ground floor of a handsome timber building, its windows are filled with dozens of jars filled with pickles and preserves. There’s broccoli, carrots, strawberries, salted celery, and even a large jar of rose petals in vinegar. One of last year’s Christmas decorations is still hanging from the old stable rafters – a gnarled leg of Icelandic lamb that’s been curing for the past 18 months.

“It’s been sheep-shit smoked,” head chef Eiriksson says proudly, referring to the Icelandic tradition of preserving food by smoking it over a sheep-manurefuelled fire. The practice has experienced something of a revival lately. Everything from beer and whisky to fish has had the burning sheep poo treatment.

Even more unexpected than the renewed popularity of this unusual cooking method, though, is the catalyst for its revival – the 2008 financial crash that resulted in a severe economic depression and the infamous jailing of 29 senior bankers and CEOs.

“The financial crash was the best thing to ever happen to the food scene in Iceland,” says Ellertsson, Dill’s general manager. Overnight, the price of imported ingredients – which by some accounts comprised up to 90 per cent of fresh produce in the country – became too expensive to be viable, and chefs had to look closer to home.

“The 2008 crash was huge,” says Magnús Helgason, an economic historian who runs Walk the Crash tours around downtown Reykjavík, taking interested tourists to visit key sites. “Before that, everyone wanted to be a ‘corporate Viking’, and the focus was on getting rich quick.

“After the crash, there was an apocalyptic atmosphere, and the next few years were tough. Following the immediate shock, however, there was a prevailing sense of community. People began to focus on long-term thinking and the idea that you need hard work and creativity to build something of value, rather than accounting gimmicks and stock-market manipulation.”

Although Gíslason and Olafsson had already made plans to open Dill before the crash, the pair’s approach – based around the Nordic Kitchen Manifesto developed in 2004 by 12 chefs, including Noma’s René Redzepi – became a leading example of how to approach the challenges posed by the new economic climate. According to the manifesto, chefs should base cooking on ingredients whose characteristics are particular to their context; develop new applications for Nordic produce; and combine local self-sufficiency with regional sharing of high-quality products.

At Dill, the Nordic rules have manifested in an innovative five- or sevencourse tasting menu, full of uniquely Icelandic flavours, and based around locally grown – often foraged – ingredients, picked, prepared and preserved using age-old methods. Typical dishes include truffles and caviar, made with polysiphonia lanosa (sea truffles) and trout roe; a sour lamb dish that’s been cured in buttermilk for two weeks; and dry chicken skin with chicken liver parfait and roasted yeast. Few would be found elsewhere.

“Before the crash, I was working at a restaurant in Iceland that was importing fish,” says Eiriksson. “We were buying lobster from Canada and foie gras from France – it just didn’t make sense. After the crash, though, people started thinking differently. It’s in the nature of Icelanders to fight against everything. That’s how we’ve been living here for all this time – we find solutions.”

As other restaurants around the country began to follow Dill’s example (including the casual diner at the popular Kex Hostel, which partnered with Gíslason in 2012), demand for home-grown ingredients boomed. During the recession, use of the country’s greenhouses, which have been heated using geothermal energy since 1924, became more varied and widespread.

In Hveragerði, a half hour’s drive from Reykjavík, is the Agricultural University of Iceland, where the chefs at Dill grow produce in return for giving lectures to students. At the university, the transition from the bleak icy landscape to a tropical greenhouse is made all the more surreal by the hundreds of banana plants growing inside, alongside fig, avocado, coffee and kumquat trees. Bananas have been found in Iceland since 1941, as part of an experiment into growing fruit domestically. Although the experiment failed, owing to the plants’ slow growth rate and high cost, the university still maintains around 650 of them, resulting in a popular urban myth that the country is Europe’s largest producer of bananas (it’s actually Spain).

I’m disappointed to discover that Dill doesn’t use the bananas as they’re too far removed from the idea of local produce to make it onto the menu. “We do use figs from here, though, and the cute little kumquats, and a weed that tastes like wood sorrel, which we can’t sustainably forage in the wild,” Eiriksson says, handing me one of the tiny, bitter-sweet citrus fruit to try.

The revived interest in local produce has also led to a proliferation of new and innovative food and drink companies. Over the past year, Reykjavík’s Grandi harbour area – playfully known as the “fishpacking district” – has transformed into a foodie paradise. As well as restaurants, there’s a delicatessen that stocks typically Icelandic foods (think rhubarb caramels and birch syrup), and a butcher selling meat from a family-run farm in Hvalfjörður. Soon, Omnom, Iceland’s only bean-to-bar chocolate producer and Dill’s chocolate supplier, will join them.

“We’re in a weird place at the moment,” says Kjartan Gíslason, who co-founded Omnom in 2013. “Everything is sold out – we have orders on hold and are in the process of moving to a bigger facility at Grandi that’s five times the size of this one.” Not only does Gíslason credit the 2008 crash with the evolution of Iceland’s food scene – “People started thinking in a different way” – but also a growing international interest in Iceland, translating into a vast increase in visitors.

Since the crash, tourism has become the country’s biggest industry, thanks partly to a devaluing of the economy that made the country cheaper to visit and also, according to some, the free advertising delivered by the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption that halted air traffic across Europe. It’s growing at the astonishing rate of 40 per cent year-on-year, and around 1.73 million people are expected to visit this year – all the more impressive when you consider that Iceland’s population numbers just 330,000.

As a result, almost 75 per cent of Omnom’s product is exported, and the majority of the remaining product sells at the impressive duty-free shop at Keflavík airport. “The crash resulted in cultural shifts, but it’s the rise of the tourism industry that has really provided for new locally produced products,” says Magnús Helgason. “Tourism expands the high-end market for all kinds of locally produced things that weren’t there in the pre-2008 years, when Icelanders were chasing after foreign luxuries, like Range Rovers and Bang & Olufsen stereos.”

Visiting Iceland today, it certainly doesn’t feel as if you’re in the wake of the world’s biggest financial disaster. But is that optimism here to stay? Some Icelanders aren’t so sure, and worry that the country’s dependence on tourism is setting the economy up for another fall.

“I worry that the country is on a route to making the same mistakes again,” says Hinrik Carl Ellertsson. “Everything is growing so fast, and there are hotels being built all over town, but people need to have patience. It doesn’t matter if you’re curing meat or waiting for vegetables to grow. Finding perfection takes time.”

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