For centuries, Iceland was regarded as little more than a remote land of Vikings and volcanoes.
But its spectacular crash during the global financial crisis of 2008 and the travel chaos caused by the ash plume from Eyjafjallajokull threw a spotlight on this remote country.
Icelanders had to rely on a collective survival instinct to look again at what they had locally rather than rely on imports. Many food suppliers looked to locally-sourced ingredients and age-old methods, from traditional techniques for preserving fish, to foraging for food in the wild, and even finding alternative sources of cooking, such as baking bread in hot springs.
As Iceland’s cuisine has changed significantly over the past few years, AJEats tells the story of Iceland’s culinary recovery. We find out how locals managed to turn the financial crisis into an opportunity to revive culinary traditions and revolutionise Icelandic cuisine.
By Gerald Tan
For someone who grew up in Malaysia, in the tropics, Iceland is about as exotic as it gets. My early postcard images of this remote land consisted of Vikings, the northern lights, and geysers – a terrain so different from my own. I wondered as a child: What did people eat? How did they cope in such a barren land? What was it like living far away from everyone else?
These questions would resurface later in life for me as a journalist following the modern Icelandic saga.
In 2008, the country became the first victim of the global financial crisis. The headlines focused on the numbers – unemployment, debt, inflation. But as a foodie, I couldn’t move on from a fundamental issue – were people’s diets affected?
The simple answer is yes. A short growing season means that the island nation imports about 90 percent of its fresh produce. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the national currency became so devalued that businesses could scarcely afford to buy things from abroad. Suddenly, Icelanders were forced to look inwards, be independent, and survive the way their ancestors had – using the resources around them.
People I met in the capital Reykjavik, from politician Soley Tomasdottir to fisherman Elvar Reykjalín Johannesson, spoke about a national soul-searching during this dark period they affectionately call the “kreppa” – it translates to being “in a pinch”, but also conveniently sounds rather bad in English.
They were determined not only to get back on their feet but also to avoid the mistakes of the past. This meant investing in local enterprises and rediscovering eating traditions that didn’t depend on foreign ingredients.
The recovery has been pretty remarkable. In early 2015, Iceland’s gross domestic product officially returned to pre-crisis output levels. The two strongest performers now are fisheries and tourism. Fishing makes sense, as it has always been key to Icelandic survival. While tourism has actually emerged from the crisis, with visitors benefiting from a low currency.
Many Icelanders say the kreppa is over and I saw signs of that all over Reykjavik: buildings under construction, restaurants so packed they couldn’t take reservations on a week night, and commercial streets just brimming with activity.
But most fascinating for me are the changes in the Icelandic cuisine. Traditional foods such as harofiskur (dried fish) and sol (dulse seaweed), only recently relegated as archaic items to be enjoyed during special festivals, are now being incorporated into daily meals and celebrated for helping rescue Iceland.
ICELAND’S FOOD EXPERTS
Soley Tomasdottir, the politician
Soley is one of Iceland’s leading voices on women’s issues. She is also a politician with the Left Green Party and sits on the City Council of Reykjavik.
An advocate of the youth, Soley has turned to social media to connect with constituents, using her personal blog, Twitter, and Facebook as platforms for her causes. Her special refuge from a long day at work is the kitchen, where she cooks a mean lamb roast.
Gunnar Karl Gislason, the chef
It’s no exaggeration that Gunnar ignited a culinary revolution in Reykjavik. While most chefs relied on foreign ingredients for their restaurants, Gunnar turned to local suppliers and worked with them to re-introduce traditional Icelandic items on his menu.
That ethos helped his restaurant Dill to thrive after the financial crash, when imports became untenable, and inspired other businesses to follow suit.
Elvar Reykjalin Johannesson, the fisherman
The sea runs in Elvar’s blood. He became a professional fisherman as a teenager, taking up the family business which he has kept going for nearly half a century.
His company is one of the very few left in Iceland producing bacalao, salted cod that is cured over several months in the tradition of Vikings.
Elvar eats his fish in every conceivable way, from fresh to fermented and everything in between.