The notion of ‘New Nordic’ has always been an unsatisfying one. Like ‘Modern European’, it acts as a grab-bag for whatever happens not to fit elsewhere, a lazy catch-all label thrown onto meals far away from one another on the tree of family resemblences; unlike ‘Modern European’, it seems imbibed with stereotypes, fit for words like ‘rugged’, ‘wild’, ‘hardy’, ‘crude’ and ‘homely’, an oh-so-hygge nod to something forged in a cable-nit sweater, facing the warmth of a fire, set against a cold, dark world so different to ours. It seems a by-word for either ‘comfortable’, ‘unrefined’, or both.
It’s bollocks, of course. One need only watch the Fäviken episode of Chef’s Table, read Nilsson’s Nordic Cookbook, talk to anybody at any time about any aspect of Noma, to see that the New Nordic movement is capable of such sophistication and brilliance you wonder why you’ve not experienced more of it. It is no more beholden to its stereotypes than Italian cooking is beholden to moustachioed chefs serving spag bol. But still, Nordic countries do share a common history, and so there is some common core to their cooking, even if one much more complex and vital than a can of Ikea meatballs and a shot of akvavit will teach you.
The trouble is, everywhere I looked in Iceland, all I found were the stereotypes. Did the New Nordic movement pass it by? It can’t have done, but I saw so little of it.
Geographically, Iceland is utterly, completely, overwhelmingly unique. Its sparse landscape, jagged rock branching out of volcanic substrate. The pungency, acridity of the sulfur in the water supply. The clarity and crushing coldness of the air. The licks of Aurora in the shadowed sky.
Just as the location feels rugged and wild, its food feels hardy and crude. The ingredients lend themselves to a sparse, socialist, utilitarian style of cooking. The twenty-hour-long nights drag on throughout winter, demanding that food be artificially preserved. Salted cod, cured salmon, fermented shark. Chewy puffin and tough, flavourless pony, both smoked to a tasteless oblivion. Pickled herring, of course; seaweed and prawns and rye bread. Brennivín, a type of akvavit; beer.
Sure, when in Rome, and we ate it all happily, if sometimes a little warily. Exhaust-pipe horse was one thing, but the herring was delicious, and rye is the true underdog of the Anglophone bread tradition, so it was great to find a ready supply. My bemused ex-girlfriend tucked into a Reindeer burger with sheer glee.
But from our all-too-brief, all-too-novice, all-to-shallow flirtation with Icelandic cuisine, it felt so… homogenous? It was regional, acquired, ruthlessly Icelandic eating, because there was little else it could have been. When the winter lasts eight months and little can grow, what are your options? When you’re far enough away from other countries to make pre-industrial trading an expensive dream, what else is going to happen?
And when centuries of food culture are left to ferment, like a shark, in cold warehouses and stark tundras, then tastes become adapted to those inevitable conditions. Tastes sit in a cultural marketplace, driven by both demand and supply: when supplies are short, they adapt from necessity; when abundant, they are already entrenched, so demand what they know. Parents pass down recipes to children, friends cook for other friends, restaurants feel compelled to cater to customers. It becomes a virtuous, or, more likely, vicious, circle. This is why, amongst other reasons, immigration is so important.
Next time I go, I’ll make sure I coincide with the Food and Fun festival, which seems to be shaking things up in a slow, defrosting kind of way. It was a beautiful place, and, to an extent greater than anywhere else I’ve ever visited, its culture was shaped by its geography. It was the first time I realised how vulnerable food can be to climate, which, now I think of it, is pretty fucking obvious.