The New Icelandic Cuisine of Gunnar GÍslason
Creative ventures often come out of crisis. In the case of Iceland, the financial meltdown of 2008 forced a rethinking of Icelandic cuisine based on locally-sourced rather than imported ingredients. Leading this effort was chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, one of the signatories of the 2004 Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen, which advocated the use of locally sourced ingredients, traditional cooking methods, and seasonal menus. At the time Gíslason was planning a new restaurant at the Nordic House called Dill, which he opened in 2009. Dill subsequently moved to a more central location in Reykjavik’s principal shopping district. During my recent stay in Reykjavik I visited Dill to experience first-hand Gíslason’s culinary talents and, also, the pairing of his cuisine with outstanding European wines. Arnar Jakob Gutmundsson, the sommelier for the evening, provided expert wine advice. Ironically, my meal at Dill came exactly six years from the date it first opened.
Traditional Icelandic cuisine included dried fish (hardfiskur), Arctic char, lamb, bacalao (salted cod), seabird eggs, skyr (cultured yoghurt) and arctic thyme, angelica, sorrel, birch, beer vinegar, and barley. To these Gíslason has added other locally sourced ingredients like blue mussels not traditionally consumed in Iceland and organic barley from Iceland’s eastern coast. Barley was once a staple in Iceland, before being replaced by imported grains; it is now being resuscitated. In 2014, Chef Gíslason published a book showing how these local ingredients are used in the new Icelandic Cuisine. The book, North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland is published by Ten Speed Press of Berkeley CA.
My meal at Dill began with a series of appetizers, most notable of which was a buttermilk foam served over caramelized whey with grated horseradish and a garnish of watercress sprouts. It was served with an outstanding, non-vintage grower Champagne, the Christophe Mignon Pur Meunier Brut Nature, which was fresh, refined and surprisingly rich for a Brut Nature. It paired beautifully with the buttermilk foam and several other, bite-size appetizers like pickled cucumber with lamb’s lettuce, celeriac with mushroom cream, and fried bread with four-year old cheese and spicy sausage.
The first main course was almost translucent, salted filets of cod served with cream of rutabaga and cream of apple and cod roe cooked in brown butter served over celeriac with herbs and dried sheep sausage. The sommelier recommended a dry Riesling with this dish, and it was delicious, but I found its fruitiness overwhelmed the delicate cod and so opted instead for the more austere, mineral-like 2011 Tenuta di Fessina Apadorro Etna Bianco. It reminded me of times spent tasting wine on Mount Etna with Marco de Grazia and, so, it both brought back pleasant memories as well as complementing and cutting through the salty character of the dish.
The second main course was pork belly sourced from Ormsstaour served with a broth of vegetables, sautéed onions, and bacon accompanied by savoy cabbage and salsify. The pork belly is cooked overnight at a very low temperature and then marinated in light, herbs, vinegar, and sweet sauce. It’s a substantial dish and paired well with a 2011 G.D. Vajra Barbera d’Alba, which provided acidity and tannins that served as a counterbalance to the smoky hint of sweetness of the pork belly.
The final course was a dessert of carrots, skyr, honey and rosemary. This lightly sweet dessert matched the light residual sugar in the amber gold La Cave des Vignerons de Pfaffenheim 2006 Steingold Gewürztraminer from Alsace, which revealed dried apricot, brioche and herbal aromas and flavors.
While Gislason is Iceland’s most famous chef, my experience at other restaurants revealed that the New Icelandic Cuisine has taken a foothold in Rekyavik. I had a spectacular seafood and Blue Ling fish stew produced by Chef Sveinn Kjartansson at Aalto, which ironically is at Dill’s original location at the Nordic House. Another superb meal was had at Sjavargrillid where chef Gústav Axel Gunnlaugsson whipped up delicately fried cod cheeks, richly glazed salted cod, and cured goose.
Don Winkler in Rekyjavik