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Michelin Starry Nights: A Taste of Iceland and the Faroe Islands

by Jill Gleeson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jun 25, 2018

Eating fermented shark in Iceland is pretty much a rite of passage for tourists. Locals don't dine as much anymore on the meat, which is fermented in the ground and then hung out to dry. But they do love to watch visitors try to choke down a chunk. I was challenged by the owner of Rostin, a fine restaurant located on the Reykjanes Peninsula, to try a piece.

The consistency was alarming -- gelatinous yet firm -- but the flavor was less terrible than I expected, like an extremely strong, fishy cheese. I actually thought the shot of Brennivin, an aquavit known as "Black Death" that traditionally follows a bite of the stuff, was a more brutal assault on my palate.

Changing Times
It was only a couple generations ago that fermented shark was a staple of the Icelandic diet. Winters were so long and foodstuff so scarce that islanders had to invent ways to use every bit of the animal and make it last throughout the coldest months. Times have changed, however, according to Eva Maria Thorarinsdottir Lange, founder and owner of Pink Iceland, which specializes in LGBTQ travel, as well as wedding planning.

"You could almost say that we have a new Scandi-chic cuisine scene in Iceland now," Lange says, "with emphasis on locally-sourced food, like vegetables grown in geothermally powered greenhouses, mixed with Nordic design."

Michelin Approves
Those hothouse-born veggies like tomatoes, cucumber and strawberries have expanded the list of homegrown ingredients chefs can utilize, but there is another reason for the country's gastronomic revolution. In 2017, more than 2.1 million tourists visited Iceland, approximately six times the island's entire population.

"The culinary scene in Reykjavik has changed a lot the last few years," confirms Gunnlaugur Bragi, president of the capital city's Pride Festival, which kicks off August 7. "With massive growth in the tourism industry in Iceland, more restaurants are opening and for the first time, many of them are likely to survive. Before we basically had a few long-running restaurants and others came, peaked and closed... some even went through all three stages over a weekend."

Last year, Michelin -- the notorious ranking of the world's best restaurants -- took notice, awarding Iceland's first Michelin star to Dill, which until January was under the direction of Ragnar Eiriksson. The head chef is now shaking things up at Holt, located in the Reykjavik hotel of the same name. "What I want to do at Holt is not too far from what I was doing at Dill," he explains, "with simple and clear flavors that don't overshadow each other. So we try not to include too many elements on the plate at once. The main difference from Dill is that we don't really follow the New Nordic dogma by strictly using local ingredients. We, of course, use local produce with proteins like beef and lamb, but we also like to be able to use, for example, olives when we feel like it."

Move Over, Iceland

Iceland isn't the only North Atlantic country Michelin loves. The isolated Faroe Islands, a 90-minute flight southeast, snared a star as well in 2017, thanks to the culinary artistry of Poul Andrias Ziska, head chef of Koks. The restaurant recently moved to a new location in a remote farmhouse built in 1741, and I dined there a few days before it opened.

The dishes were comprised mostly of ingredients found in few other places, from gannet, a seabird hunted just one day annually in the islands, to cured whale meat and blubber eaten between slices of buttered dried fish. There was lamb, too, which Ziska explained had been "hanging without salt, so it fermented and was wind dried. There are a lot of different flavors to find in the meat, depending on where the sheep has been walking, if it's male or female, how old it is. It's almost like wine."

Those experiencing the more traditional aspects of Nordic cuisine might need a bit of coaxing to understand and appreciate how certain ingredients are used in a cultural and historical context. But like a fine wine, they demand to be savored and often increase in value over time.

Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @gopinkboots.


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