In How to Turn a Bird into Dinner Part One, I waxed lyrical about the moral benefits of eating game, and directed scathing retributions at those who termed my pheasant-butchering activities ‘gross’ whilst simultaneously chomping away on meat of dubious provenance without a second thought. I disclosed photos of my apron-clad self clutching a pair of bloody scissors looking nervous yet jubilant, the bare breast of a pheasant gleaming baldly before me. Fast forward two years and my butchery skills still leave something to be desired, I still feel a sense of considerable elation when I manage to produce something edible from a feathered carcass, and I still feel strongly about the issue of meat ethics and the advantages of eating game. Fortunately, however, all that moral high ground was covered in Part One, so this time you just get straight to the good stuff: roast bird.Read More
There are few things sadder than a ‘chilli con carne’ done badly. Soggy mince; a sour, acidic tomato sauce; bullet-hard kidney beans straight from a can; the overpowering musk of cumin powder…this is a dish that is surprisingly easy to massacre. Perhaps it has something to do with being a student staple, much like its mince-sharing partner, spaghetti bolognese. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is often served, entirely unimaginatively, with a bland canvas of white rice. Or perhaps it’s because bad chilli con carne can be smothered in cheese and crammed into a burrito and thereby turned into something vaguely acceptable, so why bother perfecting the thing?Read More
A friend of mine once asked me what ingredient I cook with the most (staples like salt and oil aside). I answered limes, but on reflection it could equally be raspberries. Having said that, I don’t tend to ‘cook with’ raspberries much: I prefer to eat them unadulterated, scattered over porridge or granola or with cubes of golden papaya or juicy ripe mango for dessert when I can’t quite justify eating loads of chocolate or crumble. I occasionally bake them into cakes: I love the way baking intensifies their sharp, almost grassy flavour, and the way they stew their rosy juice through the buttery crumb, perfuming it with that heady scent of summer. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the savoury uses of raspberries.Read More
There’s something rather magical about the pleasing and versatile word ‘glaze’. To coat porous pottery in a thick, impenetrable gloss that survives the trial-by-fire of the kiln is to glaze, combining aesthetics and ergonomics. To have one’s eyes glaze over suggests thoughts have slipped blissfully into the realm of reverie. Double-glazed windows reassure, promising warmth and comfort. Finally, there is my favourite, edible sense: to glaze food is to paint it with slick, concentrated flavour, to make it shine like a pot fresh from a kiln. It makes it glossy, inviting, shimmering with promise: think of a bountiful berry tart, multicoloured fruits nestling in a pillowy bed of pastry cream, their tops brushed and glinting with a sweet glaze of molten apricot jam; or a roast aubergine, its flesh collapsed into silken softness, smothered in a dark, umami-rich miso glaze.Read More
I often find myself wishing that restaurants would offer a bowl of lime wedges alongside the ubiquitous salt and pepper shakers (or, as is increasingly the case in trendy establishments, a little bowl of salt flakes that you can pick at, unhygienically, wondering how many other people have contributed their under-nail dirt to the pile). I'm obsessed with sour things, whether it be a spritz of citrus to finish a dish, the vinegar that clings to pickled vegetables or a bowl of rhubarb compote that has seen only a pinch of sugar. It’s perhaps one of the reasons I love east Asian food so much, as these cuisines are all about balancing the different taste sensations and ensure a good hit of sourness alongside the sweet, salty and hot. My cooking is increasingly concerned with including that all-important sour element: a scattering of redcurrants over a smoky aubergine salad to accompany a recent barbecue; a bowl of quick-pickled cucumber and radish to cut through the richness of a teriyaki salmon fillet; a lemony tabbouleh to take the edge off a plate of sea bass smothered in tahini sauce.Read More
Help! There's a giant triffid in my garden! It has monstrous pink tentacles that fumble wildly from the earth, stretching towards the skies, and huge, grasping, green hands the size of dustbin lids, threatening to engulf and consume everything they touch. Every time I look it has grown, violently thrusting more of those rigid spears from the ground, one step closer on its mission to take over the world. Its proliferating legs creak stiffly in the breeze, like those of a spider with rigor mortis, threatening destruction. Its leafy clutches will soon start to block out the sun, throwing the planet into a state of black oblivion. We are doomed.Read More
If it wasn’t the kilo of Parmesan cheese, it was probably the plastic bag full of dates, welded into a rugged block with crystalline syrup, from a market in Aleppo. Or perhaps it was the log of palm sugar wrapped in dried banana leaves, which I’d cradled while still warm after watching it made before my eyes in a Javanese village. Maybe the Balinese coconut syrup, darker than maple, its bottle festooned with palm trees and bearing a curious resemblance to tanning oil. If not that, it was surely the bundle of white asparagus, albino stalks tied together like a quiver of arrows, brought home from a market in the tiny town of Chablis.Read More
Pomelo are back in season at the moment. I spied them at the market the other day, presented as they often are unnecessarily swaddled in both cling film and orange net - I've never quite understood this. If you've ever prepared a pomelo, you'll know that it has a very thick, spongy rind, which is surely enough to protect it from almost anything without the need for cling film and a net. It also makes the fruit a little daunting to prepare. You need a sharp knife to quarter the fruit lengthways, and then strong hands to prise the thick white membrane away from the firm flesh within. The reward, though, is in the eating of this deliciously refreshing fruit, firmer and milder than a grapefruit, with a grassy citrus zing and a subtle perfume about it. I like to experiment, but I always fall back on this winner of a recipe.Read More
Left to his own devices in my house while I spent some time back at my parents', my boyfriend lovingly cultivated, over a period of four weeks, what he matter-of-factly calls a 'man fridge'. For the uninitiated: this basically means that, when I returned and opened the chilled receptacle that is at the heart of my kitchen, I found four items: a steak, some bacon, a tub of marmite and a packet of blue cheese. Furthermore, the majority of those items were past their sell-by date.Read More
One of my favourite things to eat this summer is a combination of spicy, grilled meat of some description, coupled with a hearty, bolstering salad of grains or pulses enriched and brightened with the best of the summer’s fruits, plus a dollop of cooling cucumber yoghurt alongside – I love the contrast in both texture and temperature between hot, sizzling meat, warm pulses and thick, cold yoghurt made extra refreshing with grated cucumber and fresh mint. Peaches are a particular favourite for salads, partly because they are so sweet and delicious alongside savoury ingredients, and partly because you can griddle them to produce gorgeous chargrilled red-orange segments that will brighten up whatever you want to throw them in.Read More
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I visited Oxford. It’s only the second time I’ve been back since finishing my Masters in 2011. The entire weekend was a glorious succession of sunshine, revisiting old haunts, catching up with friends, aching nostalgia, beautiful scenery and incredible food. While I diligently tried to return to as many of my favourite restaurants as possible, I also decided to try somewhere new. I’d read rave reviews on the internet of a place simply termed ‘Oli’s Thai’, and so we found ourselves tucked into this tiny restaurant on a sunny Saturday afternoon experiencing some of the best south east Asian food I’ve ever eaten…including that in south east Asia itself.Read More
We all, I think, have times where we wish our mouths had an ‘undo’ button. Where we would happily go back in time and refrain from eating that last piece of bread, slice of cake, cutlet of meat, forkful of noodles, entire two courses…times where we’re so disgracefully full that we empathise with force-fed foie gras geese as we waddle, moaning plaintively, home to fester fatly in bed until the following morning when we declare we are never eating that much again. A bit like a food hangover, really.Read More
This is one of those times where you throw a few things in the oven, do a very small amount of chopping and arranging, put a pan on briefly and produce a miraculous array of delights that make you wonder why you ever bother slaving away over a hob for hours when you could do this in approximately thirty minutes. I had a few things in the fridge to use up, and I've had a few excellent meals over the last couple of weeks that provided me with a bit of inspiration. I didn't quite envisage the luxuriant feast it would turn into, though. Sat outside on a sunny summer evening with a glass of wine, I can think of few things better.Read More
I have a secret. You can't tell anyone, because I've spent the last four weeks moping around in huge jumpers moaning about how cold and rubbish England is compared to Asia, rolling my eyes every time I see grey skies (so my eyes have basically taken up permanent residence in the back of my head, then) and huffing every time anyone seems pleased to live in this ridiculous country. I'd hate to be inconsistent. But...and I can barely bring myself to admit it...tonight I actually found myself enjoying the English autumn.Read More
I love what the summer is doing to my cooking at the moment. Something about hot weather just gives me an urge to serve up a feast to a crowd of people, preferably in my garden, with some magnificent form of fish or beast as its centrepiece, adorned by an array of fresh, vibrant salads. Recently there was a fabulous barbecue in which I cooked an entire salmon, rubbed with Cajun blackening spices and grilled on each side until the skin was rich and crispy, while the fish stayed beautifully moist and pink. We ate it with tortillas and freshly made guacamole, and a wonderful variety of salads and salsas (mango, chickpea and spinach salad; fennel, apple and mint salad; cucumber and melon salsa; fresh papaya and avocado salsa; watermelon and feta salad), all washed down with oh-too-moreish mango mojitos.Read More
This is a very bold meal, in many senses of the word. First, the colours. There is an explosion of vibrant reds, in shades varying from the deep, bloody magenta of roasted beetroot to the bright, glossy crimson of redcurrants, to the scarlet hues of harissa and the earthy tones of griddled lamb. There are flecks of bright mint, a spoonful of creamy yoghurt and a background of fluffy couscous. Then there are the flavours: hot, sweet, spicy, fresh, deeply savoury. It's a riotous plate of bold and assertive ingredients, and works wonderfully together.
Inspired by my recent experimentation with whitecurrants in savoury cooking, I decided to give the same treatment to redcurrants, their slightly more common and accessible cousins. I have only used redcurrants in desserts before, my favourites being a redcurrant cheesecake or a peach and redcurrant cake. I love their delicate sweet-sour flavour, peppering cake batters with delicious sweet bursts. More than that, though, I love their beautiful appearance, like a string of jewels. As with pomegranate seeds, they add instant sparkle and glamour to all food.
For that reason, I thought they'd look beautiful strewn through a blank canvas of soft, fluffy couscous, as I would normally do with pomegranate seeds. When one thinks of redcurrants and savoury food, redcurrant jelly with lamb instantly springs to mind. Their tartness is a welcome pairing with the rather rich, sweet flavour of lamb meat. Lamb also works excellently with couscous, as Moroccan cooking exemplifies. I had two Barnsley chops in the freezer - this is taken from across the lamb loin, and is sometimes called a double chop. It has the bone in the middle and a good layer of fat on the outside, and is perfectly suited for a blast of heat from the griddle or barbecue.
Keeping with a Moroccan theme, I marinated the lamb in harissa paste. Harissa is a funny ingredient - depending on the brand you buy or the recipe you use, it can be overwhelmingly spicy and even bitter, sometimes. For the first time, I decided to make my own, using a recipe from Nigel Slater's second Kitchen Diaries book, but swapping caraway seeds for fennel seeds as I didn't have any. This harissa is slightly unusual in that it features preserved lemons, which give it a wonderful deep flavour. It's hard to describe the taste of a preserved lemon until you've tried one, but they're wonderfully aromatic and lend a delicious tang to everything you combine with them.
I'd really recommend making your own harissa. It takes minutes, and the flavour is utterly wonderful - far richer, spicier and more interesting than anything you can buy in a jar. You can control the amount of chilli, and add your own aromatics depending on what takes your fancy. It's bold, vibrant and flavoursome, and a beautiful brick-red colour, just begging to be slathered all over some juicy lamb chops.
To accompany the lamb, couscous strewn with cubes of roasted beetroot, tossed in za'atar - a Middle Eastern spice mix featuring thyme and sesame, among other things - and flecked with mint and parsley, before beautiful bold redcurrants are stirred through. I served this alongside the lamb with a big dollop of minted yoghurt, to take the edge off the harissa spice and to add a welcome hit of coolness and creaminess. It works excellently with the deep flavours of the meat and beetroot.
The lamb is just griddled on a hot pan, though you could also barbecue it. The smell of searing harissa coupled with that sweet, unmistakeable aroma of cooking lamb is fabulous. Harissa, to me, just belongs with lamb more than any other ingredient. Something about the combination of all those delicious spices manages to bring out, rather than overpower, the taste of the lamb. The redcurrants are a wonderful addition to the dish, adding a welcome note of sweetness to freshen up all those other rich, earthy flavours in there, though you could also use pomegranate if you can't get redcurrants. I love the way they look on the plate, sparkling out of the couscous.
This is a gorgeous medley of Moroccan and Middle Eastern flavours and textures. The star is the beautiful pink lamb with its smothering of bold harissa, but the redcurrants are an unusual and an inspired addition, I think.
Much more exciting than roast lamb with redcurrant jelly, I think. Hopefully you agree.
Harissa lamb with redcurrant and beetroot couscous (serves 2):
For the harissa paste:
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 bottled piquillo peppers (or roasted peppers)
- 1/2 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 medium-hot red chilli
- 1 small preserved lemon
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 2 tbsp olive oil
For the rest:
- 2 lamb Barnsley chops
- 2 beetroot
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp za'atar (or use 1 tbsp dried thyme if you can't find it)
- 160g couscous
- A few sprigs fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 100g redcurrants, removed from their stalks
- 200ml natural or Greek yoghurt
- A small bunch of fresh mint, finely shredded
- A pinch of ground cumin
- Baby spinach or salad, to serve
First, make the harissa. Toast the coriander, cumin and fennel seeds in a dry pan until fragrant, then grind to a powder in a pestle and mortar. Put in a food processor along with the garlic, peppers, tomato puree, vinegar and chilli, then pulse together. Discard the soft inside of the preserved lemon, and add just the skin to the food processor along with the paprika and olive oil. Blitz to a paste.
Rub the paste over the lamb, put in a shallow dish, cover with clingfilm and marinate for as long as possible - ideally overnight, but a couple of hours will work too.
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut the beetroot into 1cm dice. Place in a baking dish, then toss together with some olive oil and the za'atar/thyme, and some salt and pepper. Roast for around 30 minutes, until just tender. Put the couscous into a large bowl, and pour over enough boiling water to cover it by about half a centimetre. Put a plate over the bowl, and leave it for 5-10 minutes until it has absorbed all the water. Stir through the parsley, some olive oil and salt and pepper, and the roasted beetroot, then gently stir through the redcurrants. Mix the yoghurt in a small bowl with the mint and cumin.
Get a griddle pan very hot, then griddle the lamb for about 3-5 minutes on each side, depending on how well-done you like your meat and how thick the chops are. Leave to rest for five minutes, then serve alongside the couscous with a dollop of yoghurt, and some baby spinach or salad.
I'm a bit of a girl when it comes to my eating habits. I cook and eat mostly vegetarian food, I love nothing more than a good salad, I get excited about few things more than seafood and fish, I have absolutely no willpower when it comes to baked goods, and I very rarely tuck into a good hearty slab of red meat. I think I've only ordered steak in a restaurant once, at a tiny little bistro in the tiny little town of Chablis, having walked around in the pouring rain after a rather arduous trek from London involving the Eurostar and several country trains. In that sort of situation, steak pretty much sounds like the best thing in the world. It was France. It would be bloody, and come with ample carbs. There would be tarte tatin and cheese afterwards. I couldn't say no.
There is a lot to be said for a good steak. On the rare occasions I tuck into one, I ask myself why I don't do it more often. Few things have more savoury satisfaction than a slab of beef, crispy and charred around the edges, still melting and mooing in the middle. I used to work at a restaurant in Cambridge that produced some of the best steaks I've ever encountered - gigantic slabs of cow smothered in truffle butter and served with perfect chips. The smell as waitresses wafted them around the restaurant was intoxicating, a heady mix of bloody animal, butter, and rich, earthy truffle.
I've had a huge picanha steak in my freezer ever since receiving a gigantic hamper of meat in February. Picanha is a cut of beef popular in Brazil, and also known as the rump cap. The muscle over the top sirloin and rump, it is covered in a layer of thick fat which is often left on for cooking. Given that it must be a year since I ate my last steak, I figured it was high time to indulge (and clear a bit of freezer space at the same time).
While I believe one of the best and simplest ways to eat steak is with perfect chips and a divinely rich peppercorn sauce, I have neither the resources nor the energy to whip up chips and sauce in my kitchen. I knew it would probably only be disappointing, so I went for the next best way to serve steak: in a salad.
This might sound like an odd hybrid of girly food and MAN FOOD, but a steak salad is a great thing. The crispy, crunchy and tangy salad ingredients cut through the richness of the meat, and provide a meal that is never monotonous. Much as I love steak and chips, each mouthful is pretty much the same. I sometimes make a Thai-style salad with steak, with a tangy lime and fish sauce dressing, plenty of chilli and some crunchy green vegetables like cucumber and green beans. However, I didn't want to overpower this beautiful piece of meat with such strong flavours, so instead I basically put a load of delicious things in a bowl and slapped the bloody meat on top.
You may have remembered that in a recent post, I mentioned that I would be receiving fortnightly baskets of avocados to experiment with in the kitchen. This is part of a campaign to support and promote Peruvian avocados: nutritious and, as I hope to show, extremely versatile fruits. I'll be posting my recipes and thoughts both on here and on the Avocado Brotherhood blog.
Steak and avocado is a winning combination - the buttery blandness of the avocado works perfectly against the meat. Avocado works well in salads with pineapple, as I discovered recently - the combination of its creamy texture and slight sweet bitterness with the assertive tang of pineapple is fantastic. Blue cheese works very well with steak, and also with avocado (add bacon and you start entering sublime territory). I decided to combine all these flavours in one colourful bowlful, combined with peppery watercress, rocket and spinach, and a delicious dressing made from flavoursome olive oil and a little tangy cider vinegar and lime juice.
This is one of those meals that is very simple to put together, but when you sit down to eat it you're a little bit amazed at your sheer genius. For one thing, it's a completely beautiful plate of food - the jade avocado, bright pineapple with its caramelised char marks, snowy blue cheese...and that perfectly cooked, juicy meat sitting on top. Secondly, it's a ridiculously good combination of flavours, fresh and sweet and tangy without being cloying. The steak was perfect - I didn't time it, somehow using my cook's intuition to get it perfectly medium-rare, with the layer of fat on top rendered into perfect crispiness. I mean, look at the pictures - gorgeous, right?
Genuinely, if you asked me to choose between steak and chips, or this salad...I think you now know which I'd choose. Another 'why don't I eat steak more often?' moment...except now I know how easy this is to put together, I can guarantee I won't leave it a year this time before I eat steak again.
Steak, avocado, griddled pineapple and blue cheese salad (serves 2):
- Half a medium pineapple
- 3 tsp caster sugar
- 2 steaks (I used piranha, but sirloin would be good here)
- 100g spinach, watercress and rocket salad
- 1 ripe avocado
- 60g crumbly blue cheese
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp garlic-infused olive oil (or a small crushed garlic clove and add 1 tbsp extra olive oil)
- 1 tbsp cider vinegar
- A squeeze of lime juice
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
First, prepare the pineapple. Remove the skin and woody core, then slice into 0.5cm-thin slices. Toss in a bowl with the caster sugar. Get a griddle pan very hot, and griddle the pineapple slices on each side until caramelised and charred. Remove and set aside.
Griddle the steaks to your liking - I would suggest medium rare - then leave to rest for ten minutes while you make the salad.
Divide the spinach mixture between two plates or bowls. Halve the avocado, remove the stone, then slice into chunks and spoon out. Divide between the plates. Crumble over the blue cheese and scatter over the pineapple. Whisk together the olive oils, cider vinegar, lime juice, salt and pepper to make a dressing - taste for the right amount of tanginess, adding more lime or vinegar if necessary. Drizzle half the dressing over the salad and gently toss together.
When the steak is cooked and rested, slice thickly and arrange over the salad. Drizzle over the rest of the dressing, mixed with any of the steak juices, and serve immediately.
“Oh right. Are you going for work then?”
“No, just for fun.”
“Oh, OK. So you have family or something out there?”
“No, nothing like that, I’m just going for a holiday.”
“Oh…so like, is it something to do with your PhD?”
My recent trip to Iceland seems to have perplexed more than a few people. I’ve been asked all of the above, plus a few more questions, as people attempt to determine the logical reason for my heading off to somewhere that’s a little bit off the mainstream tourist radar. Or perhaps they were just trying to grasp a rational motive for my jetting off to the frozen north just as York was beginning to heat up and become bathed in radiant sunshine.
I have to admit, I wondered the same thing myself as I stepped off the plane to gusts of freezing wind and stinging sleet, to skies greyer than a naval warship and a landscape bleaker than a morning without breakfast. On the bus ride to our hotel, I marvelled at the expanse of uniform moss, scrub and black soil, at the formidable-looking waves licking the rugged shore around us. I huddled into my goose-down jacket, which I had put away for the summer in York and had had to retrieve for the trip, adjusted my sheepskin earmuffs and braced myself for the cold days ahead.
Cold they were, and miserable at times, but this is a country that doesn’t need sunshine and balmy evenings to bring its magic to the fore. Yes, Iceland looks beautiful in the bright, clear morning sunshine (we were lucky enough to glimpse a few hours of it the morning we left), when the snow-covered mountains radiate a frosty grandeur and the sky and sea blend together in one uniform shade of blinding azure; but it is equally splendid, and somehow seems more comfortable, when its massive natural wonders and geographical marvels are silhouetted against a muted backdrop of greys and browns, hazes of drizzle, assaulting gusts of wind.
“In Iceland there’s no such thing as weather,” our taxi driver told us, “just examples.” This is a country hardened towards extremes of temperature and the capricious whims of mother nature, who, with a tendency towards hyperbole, has shaped its marvellous, and at times surreal, landscape.
We spent three days in Reykjavik, the adorably compact capital. An aerial view of the city presents you with something that more resembles a model town, perhaps built out of lego, than anything real. The houses are all painted in bright pastel shades, colours you might associate with a row of beach huts rather than dwellings built to withstand the cold and rain. Arriving in the city in the grey damp, they were a welcome burst of brightness.
Reykjavik, for me, was a curious mix of seaside down and ski resort. A few minutes takes you from the centre of town – straight streets, Parisian and Danish-style cafes, modern shops selling clothes, homeware, books, all of it exuding smart Scandinavian chic – to the harbour, where fishing boats sit idly in front of the glorified huts that house some of the city’s best restaurants, and the sweet scent of fresh seafood lingers in the air. You are cradled on two sides by mountains, lurking dappled grey across the distant sea. You stroll past ice cream cafes, shop windows filled with thick fur and wool garments, trendy bars and coffee shops, restaurants advertising their ocean-based fare. The centre of the city is tiny, easily explored in a few hours. Step into one of the uber-cool cafes and you could be in mainland Europe; step outside, and the freezing May weather reminds you that you are not.
“We’re not cool enough to be here,” was a niggling feeling frequently voiced over our three-night trip. It’s hard to be any more eloquent about it: Reykjavik is just cool. Every café or bar we visited exuded the same kind of aura: vintage, quirky, eccentric. They were often decorated with an assortment of kitsch or vintage so random it was hard to believe the place hadn’t just accumulated its décor over centuries of use. One café we visited twice was decked out like a Russian grandmother’s living room, all yellow-green chintz armchairs, old-fashioned floral still lifes on the wall and ornate gold frames. Another was brimming with retro toys – dolls, figurines, clocks, pages from books – voluminous spider plants and tables pasted with quirky adverts from old newspapers. We sat there and consumed two absolutely gigantic wedges of cake – a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream icing, and a ‘New York cheesecake’ so claggy and sweet I almost needed a spade to scrape it off the roof of my mouth afterwards. One night we ate dinner at an achingly trendy youth hostel, housed in an old biscuit factory. Empty bird cages dangled from the dilapidated ceiling, one metallic wall was devoted to the arranging of magnetic letters by guests into rude words, a corner was given over to an enormous bookcase, and old-fashioned maps of the country were fixed, resplendent in vintage frames, to the wall. Although we did have the misfortune to spot a Subway, this is a city that has yet to fall prey to the plague that is the chain store: it’s all about those quirky little independent places, the kind you always dream of finding on holiday. They’re not a myth perpetuated by travel guides – they’re just all in Iceland.
Our exploration of Reykjavik began with a coffee in the aforementioned Russian grandmother’s café. Icelandic coffee is excellent. It reminds me of Italian coffee: strong, not very milky, cappuccinos served in small cups, not the ridiculous vats you get over here. They are predominantly coffee, rather than froth – probably what you’d call a small latte over here, in terms of lack of frothiness. I don’t drink coffee very much, but found myself craving at least one a day in Iceland. Partly because I was utterly exhausted from our exploring activities, but also because it tasted so damn good. The best came from what I think is a local chain of coffee shops, ‘Te & Kaffi’, which has several branches in the city. They also sell an adorable range of brightly coloured teapots, and some exciting-sounding bags of Chinese and Japanese teas, as well as some Icelandic herbal tea that claimed to be useful for treating a variety of ailments.
Pleasantly surprised by the coffee, we sought dinner at a restaurant I’d read good things about on the internet, Tapashusid (translation: Tapas house). When I tell you that this is a sort of Spanish/Icelandic fusion restaurant, I expect your scepticism. I was somewhat confused too, and a little apprehensive. Even more so when I ordered the six-course ‘Taste of Iceland’ menu for nearly £40 – disappointment is so much more bitter when you’ve paid forty pounds for it. It was a risk.
Instead, I spent around two hours devouring what was probably one of the best meals of my life. This place utterly astounded me. Inside it was informal-looking, again blessed with the vintage Midas touch that seems to have left no corner of Reykjavik unaffected – we sat in a little corner near a wall plastered with retro record covers. Blackboards over the bar proclaimed the specials, as well as a hilarious guide as to how the steaks are cooked (“Blue: still mooing”; “Well done: ORDER CHICKEN”). We were served by a series of effervescent and charming waiters, who occasionally paused to join in with the resident female flamenco dancer. All this, you would think, would probably not be the setting for incredible food. A quick glance at the menu, though – bacon wrapped monkfish with bacon-wrapped dates; minke whale steak with teriyaki sauce, smoked apple, apple puree and mushrooms; smoky mushroom tortilla; salt cod, langoustine, bacon and egg foam – did tell me that I was unlikely to be receiving a bowl of sub-standard paella and a few calamari rings.
The food here was heart-stoppingly beautiful. Probably some of the prettiest food I’ve been served since my last trip to the Michelin-starred Yorke Arms. My first dish was a small plate of rare guillemot breast, apple puree, smoked apple pieces, mushrooms and a red wine jus. I’d obviously never tried guillemot before, but it was gorgeous – like very dark, very gamey pigeon, but beautifully tender. Game and apple is a new combination to me, but it was stupidly good, the whole thing held together by an underlying smokeyness; I’m not sure whether it came from the meat, the apple or the jus, but it was so good.
Next, slow-cooked Arctic char, which looks and tastes rather like trout. This was accompanied by pickles, dill, a very creamy, Hollandaise-like sauce, and a little green savoury meringue. I knew then that the rest of this food was going to be good. There’s something about a savoury meringue sitting on top of your fish course that kind of implies subsequent sophistication. This was a lovely plateful; you can’t really go wrong with oily fish and dill.
Next up, a wooden board sporting food that was a complete work of art. There were two dishes perched atop this: first, wafer-thin slices of pale pink lamb carpaccio, a little spoonful of lamb tartare, cubes of red and gold beetroot, a thin shard of crispbread, and a golden ribbon of parsnip puree. I’ve never tried raw lamb before, but this was lovely – fatty enough to give it a lovely silky mouthfeel, but still possessing that sweet lamb flavour. The parsnip (I normally hate them, but this was quite tasty) and beetroot helped to cut the richness of the meat.
On the other side of the board, a dark and interesting assortment of cured minke whale, blueberry coulis, halved bulbous blueberries, mustard, a red wine jus and a drizzle of teriyaki sauce.
Now, I’m just going to take a step back for a second, because I can tell you that without a doubt there is going to be some holier-than-thou person, somewhere, who will read that I ate whale and decide to lecture me on the grotesque ethical implications of my gastronomic choices. So I’ll pre-empt you with some honesty: I admit that I had no idea about the controversy surrounding whale-fishing in Iceland. This is unusual for me, as I’m generally pretty clued-up on unethical food practices the world over – shark fin soup in China/Japan, foie gras in France (I refuse to touch the stuff; I think it’s appalling, sick, and it doesn’t even taste that nice), weasel coffee in south-east Asia; snake-heart vodka in Vietnam; battery farming (particularly pork, which many people seem to forget about) in the UK and Europe. For some reason, the whaling issue had slipped under my ethical radar, and I tucked in without really understanding the implications. Having read a bit more since I returned home, I’m actually not entirely sure where I stand on the whaling debate. However, the single whale dish that I ate in my trip to Iceland, which will probably comprise the entirety of the whale I eat in my entire life, is probably not going to tip the balance either way. Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, but I’m going to make no apologies for my one-off consumption of this controversial product.
And also, unfortunately, I cannot lie. It was bloody delicious. My minke whale came cured, meaning it had a firm texture and deeply gamey flavour. We also ordered, though, a dish of minke whale steak, served very rare with a similar flavour combination to my cured dish – apple puree, teriyaki sauce, red wine jus. This was a total revelation, both the meat and the flavour combination. It was like the tenderest, most juicy, melting fillet steak you’ll ever eat. Combining teriyaki, red wine, mushrooms, apple and game is something I’d never considered before, but something I now cannot wait to try. Obviously it won’t be with whale when I try it –I’m thinking more along the lines of venison, grouse or pigeon, and whale is illegal in the UK – but I can’t wait. It’s one of those combinations you can’t imagine until you taste it, and it was ridiculously good. Just take my word for it, and then hop over to Iceland so you can try the real deal.
There was a small wait for the main courses – yes, I know, those were only the starters – so I nibbled on some of the restaurant’s excellent foccacia, which they serve with olive oil to dip, and a little bowl of crushed salted spiced peanuts. Another flavour revelation – dipping oiled foccacia into crushed peanuts is DELICIOUS. Something I must try soon in my own kitchen. I’m glad I didn’t eat too much of this, though, because my main courses – all two of them – arrived, and they were pretty generous.
First, lamb rib-eye (a cut I’ve never heard of in relation to lamb, and which I suspect goes under another name here), which was the best lamb I’ve ever had. It was juicy and pink in the centre, smoky on the outside from the grill, succulent and sweet and fabulous. Lamb is a big thing in Iceland – much more so than beef. This came with ‘cauliflower couscous’, which I recently saw on MasterChef so was excited to try, a mustard sauce, a dark jus, and grilled oyster mushrooms. It was a carnivore’s delight, everything you want a plate of steak to be – juicy, salty, rich, meaty, robustly flavoured.
The other dish was equally substantial and robust – a mini decorative saucepan filled with ridiculously gorgeous chunks of salt cod – firmer, sweeter and saltier than normal cod – juicy langoustines, crispy bacon, and topped with an ‘egg foam’ which was basically a gooey, rich, thick hollandaise. This was finished with crunchy breadcrumbs for texture, and was the kind of thing I would eat for breakfast every day if I didn’t mind being obese. I loved the way the restaurant had struck a balance between delicately presented, beautiful food, and the kind of mouthwatering moreish flavours that you actually want to stuff yourself with. The other dishes we tried – the monkfish with dates and bacon, deep-fried langoustines, smoky mushroom fajita – were also in this vein; surprising flavour combinations that made you wonder why you don’t eat them every day, because they are so damn good.
Also fabulous were a dish of bacon-wrapped monkfish, roasted peppers, and bacon-wrapped dates, a plate of deep-fried langoustines, crispy and sweet and delectable, and a smoky mushroom fajita - deeply flavoured, intense mushrooms on a tortilla with tangy cheese.
Dessert was a struggle. You know how sometimes you worry about tasting menus, thinking they’ll present you with a thimbleful of each dish and leave you desperate for a piece of toast when you get home? This left me desperate for a Roman-style feather when I got home (note: this is a joke and I do not, in fact, support bulimia as an easy way to alleviate that feeling of self-disgust that accompanies a session of wild, intense, unmediated gorging). However, my dessert was sensibly light and pretty, and didn’t make me want to cry and run away in grotesque repletion when it arrived.
It consisted of a thin slab of moist carrot cake, a carrot sorbet (surprisingly good – I think it had a hefty dose of orange in there, because it was sweet and fruity and tasted very little of carrot), and a parfait of ‘skyr’. Skyr is an Icelandic cheese, made in a similar way to Middle Eastern labneh – by straining yoghurt until firm and tangy. Its pairing alongside the carrot cake made sense – it was basically a fancy version of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. The dessert was sprinkled with tiny, plump, marigold orange buckthorn berries, something I’ve always wanted to try since they were used on Great British Menu a few years ago. They are deeply sour, but also quite fruity, a very pleasant addition to the mellow cake/cheese combination. We also had an ‘Oreo pudding’, which was a chocolate mousse (pronounced ‘chocolate mouse’ by our waiter, which made us smile), blueberry compote, crunchy oreo crumbs, and a ball of ice cream. It was the total antithesis of my elegant dessert, trashy and obvious and in-your-face, but in a totally delicious way.
And that was my introduction to Icelandic cuisine. I have a sneaking suspicion that Icelanders do not eat like this on a daily basis, but it set the tone for a trip of excellent restaurant meals. This, at Tapashusid, was by far the best. It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny, both for the temporary gratification it afforded me and also for the ideas it has given me for use in my own kitchen.
Speaking of money – Iceland is expensive. Probably not much more so than London, but it is hard to spend under about £50 a day, and if you want to do the kind of things you should do when visiting this unique country – ride horses, visit the Blue Lagoon, go on boat trips, see the geographical wonders – you will have to spend even more. It is possible to eat cheaply if you’re not bothered about sampling some of the gastronomic delights of Reykjavik – there are some fast food places and cafes selling sandwiches – but the good food comes at a price. Luckily, you don’t have to pay that much to get something delicious, as some of my other restaurant visits will show.
Barely hungry from the gluttony of the night before, I woke the next morning and forced myself to partake in our hotel breakfast – what a hardship. We stayed at the Leifur Eriksson hotel, in what I like to call the ‘penthouse suite’ but what was actually an absolutely tiny attic room on the top floor barely large enough for two people to stand up in without concussing themselves. It was cosy, that’s for sure. That aside, the hotel was perfectly pleasant, and breakfast was a bit of a highlight. In the corner of the breakfast room stood an arresting contraption: a waffle maker, with two hot plates, completely black and encrusted from years of use, smoking and perfuming the entire hotel with the sweet candyfloss scent of freshly made waffles. Next to it sat a big bowl of pale, thick batter, and a ladle.
I am baffled as to why the hotel hadn’t put up some instructions next to the waffle maker. In the three mornings I was there, at least two people had what can only be described as a complete waffle fail. There’s a knack to making waffles, you see – firstly, spray the plate with non-stick oil spray. Secondly, put enough batter – more than you would think – in, otherwise it won’t form a proper waffle and will just stick to each side. Thirdly and crucially, be patient. If you lift up the lid too soon, the waffle will pull apart and you’ll just have batter stuck to each side, impossible to remove (the staff were not happy – there was an audible tut as they set to work with a knife attempting to deal with the consequences of one guest’s waffle ineptitude). Fortunately, I managed to perfect this complex and elusive art very quickly, meaning we had perfect waffles for breakfast each morning. They were fabulous – thick, doughy, crispy on the outside, and subtly sweet and buttery. On top, generous dollops of blueberry jam – actually, I think it was bilberry, or wild blueberry – which was delicious but had the unfortunate side effect of giving me a bright blue tongue that no amount of toothpaste/toothbrushing could shift.
Our first full day took us out of the city into the forbidding landscape. We began by riding Icelandic horses through the lava fields, in all their bleak, rugged glory. The terrain is unchanging around here – earthy green moss and scrub, punctuated by dark black roads of cooled lava, the imposing mountains ever-present in the background. It wasn’t the most scenic, particularly given the steely skies, but this was more than compensated for by the fun I had riding my horse. His name in Icelandic translated as ‘little man’, and he was indeed tiny – like a slightly overgrown Shetland pony, a beautiful tan colour with the most gorgeous thick, sandy mane. I feel we bonded early on, as I led him by the bridle out of the stable – he kept nuzzling me with vigour. Later I discovered that he was just trying to use me as a scratching post. Oh well.
Most of the people in our large group had never ridden before, so we walked at a steady pace in single file through the lava fields. I soon felt slightly frustrated by this, as I could tell my little horse was eager to go a bit faster (or maybe it was just that his legs were about half as long as the other horses’, so he had to trot to keep up with their walk), so I joined the ‘fast group’ for experienced riders. I’m not sure I’d consider myself an ‘experienced rider’ – that implies a degree of confidence that I do not have, my recent experiences with horses involving falling off or them bolting - but I figured I’d take the chance, and am so glad I did. I had a fantastic time, riding through the countryside, my little horse keen and fast but also very well-behaved.
My guide told me all about Icelandic horses, which was fascinating. There is a complete import ban on Icelandic horses to preserve the purity of the breed. When the horses go abroad to compete in international competitions, so strict are the rules that they can never return to Iceland, and must be sold in the country of the competition. This isn’t so bad if they’ve won, my guide explained, as they’ll fetch a good price – but the worst situation is when the rider has an excellent horse, but for some reason he doesn’t perform so well in competition, meaning the rider has lost both his horse and won’t even receive adequate financial compensation for his loss. Foreigners are also not allowed to bring used horse equipment into Iceland – hats, bridles, et cetera – or at least not without it being heavily sterilised first. They don’t vaccinate their horses, she explained, so their immune systems are quite susceptible to diseases that can be carried on used equipment.
The riding style is very different, too, to what I am used to. For instance, riders don’t rise during the trot – they stay sitting on the horse. This makes for an extremely bouncy but definitely less exhausting ride; it was slightly alarming at first, as I was convinced I was going to fall off, but I soon got used to relaxing and moving with the horse. The Icelandic horse also has a different set of gaits: tölt is faster than a walk but slower than a canter, and it is also very smooth for the rider. My guide was telling me that sometimes competitions are held where the rider holds a pint of beer for the duration of the ride, the aim being not to spill any, and then they must drink the remainder upon returning from the ride. There is also ‘flying gait’, which is faster than a gallop and so-called because in between strides the horse appears to be flying through the air; many horses aren’t trained to do this, though, because it’s exhausting for the horse and rider. I was certainly quite tired after my brisk and bouncy outing on my beautiful Icelandic horse, which was lucky because we were going to spend the afternoon steaming luxuriantly in a hot outdoor bath.
The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s top tourist attractions. It’s easy to see why – with weather so changeable and a landscape so bleak, there is unmatchable relief to be had from sinking slowly into mineral-rich waters the temperature of a very hot bath, the result of geothermal activity, while the brisk Icelandic air whips your face. I say ‘sinking slowly’, but this is really just a romanticised notion. Because, in fact, you’ll dive frantically and in a clumsy, ungainly fashion into those waters: not only do you have to make your way from the changing rooms to the outdoor lagoon clad in nothing but your swimsuit, but they make you shower before you do it, meaning even the slightest tremor of Icelandic wind feels like someone has pressed an ice pack to your skin. Once in the lagoon, however, sweet relief is to be found. It really is hot, not the shiver-inducing lukewarm temperature of most UK outdoor swimming pools that claim to be heated. In fact, in some places the currents are almost scalding, and your otherwise relaxing dip in the lagoon is certainly likely to be punctuated by a few high-pitched shrieks every now and again, as one of these scorching currents wafts casually into an unsuspecting bather.
The water is milky, completely opaque and with a curious iridescence; it almost glows, particularly when the skies are so grey and flat. Thick steam rolls off the surface in waves. There is a smell of egg-like sulphur in the air (another thing about Iceland – the tap water smells of boiled eggs, making brushing your teeth an interesting sensory experience). Depending on which part of the lagoon you are in, you’ll either be standing on crunchy gravel-like sand, or sinking into thick mud that oozes creepily between your toes. It’s quite something, though, to sit there, face and neck exposed to the harshness of the elements (it started raining during our visit) while the rest of your body luxuriates in the delicious warmth. The high mineral content of the water is apparently very good for your skin, though leaves a horrible chalky residue that requires two showers to remove. As you sit and warmly repose, you’re surrounded by rocky outcrops that you can perch on. There is nothing else to see, for miles around – the lagoon lies in the middle of nowhere, a surprising beacon of blue among the dark rocky landscape. It’s hard to believe this is a totally natural phenomenon.
Horse riding and the lagoon left me absolutely starving. That night, we visited somewhere a little more budget-friendly for dinner, and weren’t disappointed. Icelandic Fish & Chips is a small café/restaurant near the harbour (choosing where to eat in Reykjavik is easy, because all the recommended eateries are approximately one hundred metres away from each other, so you can quite easily scout them all out in a ten minute session before making that all-important decision). You’d barely notice it if it weren’t for the sign above the wooden door that you have to open gingerly, peering around to see if the place is actually open – it’s hard to tell from the window. Inside is a very simple restaurant with a small bar and more blackboard notices on the walls. The premise behind this place is, as you might expect, fish and chips – but done well, and made a little unusual by their choice of accompaniments.
A lot of thought has gone into the food at this ‘organic bistro’, as they like to call it. The fish is coated with a batter made from spelt flour, because it crisps up better in the fryer and is better for you, being a more complex carbohydrate. They serve the fish with oven-roasted potato wedges, which are a little healthier than chips, and come in various options – plan, garlic, rosemary, for example. They fry their fish in rapeseed oil, high in omega 3. The fish is always fresh, the menu changing depending on what has been delivered that day. You are encouraged to choose a salad to accompany your fish, which range from simple greens to an elaborate combination of mango, red pepper, toasted coconut, spinach and olive oil. Finally, you can choose from a range of ‘skyronnes’: flavoured dips made from skyr, with flavours like truffle & tarragon, ginger & wasabi, lime & coriander. This is a far cry from the greasy, lard-scented chippies of the UK; not a wooden fork or piece of newspaper in sight.
We both had the fried Icelandic cod with plain potato wedges, the aforementioned mango salad, and a lime and coriander skyronne to accompany it. It was exactly what I needed after a hard day’s exertion (OK, sitting in the lagoon wasn’t really difficult, but it was certainly appetite-provoking): indulgent because of the superbly crispy fish batter and the sweet, succulent cod, but still nourishing and satisfying because of the zingy, flavoursome salad and well-seasoned potato wedges. It probably didn’t need the dip, but it was tasty all the same. I’d also been eyeing up a delicious-sounding combination of fried ling (a firm white fish), orange and black olive salad and rosemary potatoes; we didn’t have time to return, but I bet it would have been delicious. Our plates were about £14 each, which isn’t cheap but they were filling and very well done.
A quick aside: one of the things I really liked about Iceland was that every single café and restaurant had a table with jugs of water and glasses for you to help yourself – no need to ask for tap water and risk a sneer. Similarly, everywhere seemed to have free wifi (even the tourist buses), and public toilets are widespread. In these three respects, it is a world away from continental Europe.
Another aspect I enjoyed was the long daylight – the sun didn’t set until around 11pm when we were there; it’s even later in high summer. There is something quite disorientating and surreal about emerging from a long restaurant meal at 9.30pm to bright daylight, or settling down to sleep for the night while there is still light sky outside the window. Icelandic people must get so much done at this time of year. I did feel a bit bad that we didn’t do much to make the most of the longer light, but I was exhausted after all the food and activity.
Our second and last full day saw us taking in the Golden Circle, a 300km loop of some of Iceland’s best geographical attractions, by coach tour. We drove through the mountains, gloomy and imposing in the overcast light of day, through ‘no man’s land’, the area between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, past dark green fields and black lava, past rocky hills and snowy mountains that are apparently the homes of elves. There were no animals in sight other than the Icelandic horses. Our guide told us that you can look at an Icelandic horse to tell the direction of the bad weather – they face away from the wind and rain. Given that Icelandic lamb is supposed to be a delicacy, I thought it strange that I didn’t see a single sheep on my trip.
Before we actually visited any of the geographical marvels, we stopped at a ‘greenhouse town’ on the way, so-called because farmers use the high geothermal activity in these areas to power greenhouses and supply Iceland with exotic fruit and vegetables that wouldn’t otherwise be producible. This particular greenhouse grew tomatoes. The owner explained that the water comes out of the ground at 95C in this area, the heat of which is channelled into the greenhouse system. The tomatoes are watered with the same water that people drink – because, he explained, a tomato is about 90% water, it makes sense to use good-quality water to grow the crop, as that quality will be reflected in the final product. The lights in the greenhouse are on 14-17 hours a day, and the plants grow 25cm each week – they have to be suspended from the ceiling on strings so they don’t droop with the weight of the fruit. The transition from a flowering plant to a red tomato takes about eight weeks. One aspect of the process I found fascinating was the pollination – bees are shipped in from Holland to perfom this careful task. Two boxes containing 60 female working bees arrive at the greenhouse each week.
The greenhouse had a little café, which was offering mugs of tomato soup. I mention this because of something I loved – each table had a huge basil plant on it, with a pair of scissors strapped to its pot. The idea being that you would get a mug of soup and snip your own basil to garnish it. It was the simplest idea but so lovely; I hope it catches on in cafes at home. Think of the possibilities – chopping your own coriander to adorn a curry; snipping your own parsley or dill to scatter over your seafood; tearing off delicate leaves of thyme to season your Sunday roast.
After this somewhat random first stop, we were taken to Gullfoss waterfall, first step on the Golden Circle itinerary. This absolutely gigantic waterfall formation appears startlingly smack bang in the middle of an otherwise fairly featureless landscape: green scrub, black soil, mountains in the distance. The sheer force of the water as it plummets over the various crests of the waterfall is astounding, as was the force of the freezing wind as we walked along paths hugging the edge of the cliff to get closer to this watery spectacle. I’ve seen waterfalls before, but none on this colossal scale. At one point a company tried to privatise the waterfall and use it for hydroelectric power, but the idea caused storms of protest and since then Gullfoss is protected for public enjoyment. Apparently there is a saying in Iceland: if someone suggests something completely inane or ridiculous, the common response is, ‘And then what? Sell Gullfoss?’
Next, we visited the Geysir hot spring area. With its gloomy, rugged, earthy landscape awash in white smoke emanating from the ground, this reminded me of the Dead Marshes from the Lord of the Rings. The air is thick with the smell of sulphur, while a walk through this geothermally active area sees you alternately exposed to the cold Icelandic air and bathed in hot steam droplets as the vapour pours off the ground into your face.
Along the way there are small pools, some of them mini geysers, bubbling rampantly and sending hot spray into the air. The main attraction, though, is Strokkur, the famous geyser, apparently active for over 10,000 years, that erupts every few minutes to raptures of delight from the crowds inevitably gathered around its circumference, cameras poised to capture the moment.
Every so often, the innocuous-looking, calm blue pool that is Strokkur suddenly vents a colossal bubble, followed by a gigantic blast of boiling water – at least twenty feet high – that is no less surprising for being expected. At one point some of the crowd had to run backwards as the hot water, carried by the wind, descended upon their heads. The force with which it erupts, and the height, is really quite remarkable, particularly as it returns so quickly to a lake of placid blue calm, only an occasional bubble signifying the colossal geothermal activity occurring within those depths. Apparently only 100m down into the geyser, the temperature is 200C. It’s definitely a ‘look but don’t touch’ kind of attraction.
We stopped for lunch and a break from the assaulting rain at the tourist café which, as might be expected, was hideously overpriced – I objected to paying £12 for soup and some bread, so had an egg sandwich. Oddly, the omnipresent smell of sulphur had actually given me serious cravings for eggs, rather than – as might be more expected – a complete aversion. A small highlight, though, was a piece of apple tart. This seemed to basically combine everyone’s dessert fantasies into one: a pastry case, filled with custard and cooked apples, topped with crumble and drizzled with caramel. It did have that slightly soggy mass-produced taste to it, like something from an Ikea café, but it was pleasantly sweet and tasty all the same – just what we needed after hiking up the hills around the Geysir area and getting absolutely covered in quicksand-like thick red mud.
Finally, we visited Thingvellir National Park, home to Iceland’s parliament from 930 to 1262, which incorporated the geography of the place into its proceedings: speeches were held around the Logberg (Law Rock), while transgressors were executed in the Drowning Pool, a small lake at the foot of the rocks. Here you can actually see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates pulling apart, and witness the gulf between them. The area is rocky and hilly, with gorgeous views of Lake Thingvallavatn (formed by a retreating glacier) and the surrounding mountains; it was how I imagined the Norwegian Fjords would look.
On our way back, our guide told us something fascinating about the Icelandic language (words of which it is possible to recognise from my brief dalliance with Old English during my Masters). During the 18th century, a movement was started in the country to remove as many foreign words as possible from the language, and create a new vocabulary that would adapt the Icelandic language to new concepts, rather than imposing foreign words. For example, the computer: it was decided (for some reason) that a computer can see into the future, and that it works with numbers. Thus the Icelandic for computer is a portmanteau of tala (number) and völva (female prophetess): tölva. I’d heard something of this before, when someone once told me that the Icelandic for ‘coathanger’ literally translates as ‘wooden shoulders’. I love the idea that there is actually a committee dedicated to coining new words for modern concepts out of this ancient language.
Dinner that night needed to be substantial, given our day trekking around in the wind and rain. This was achieved in the best possible way by a trip to Sæmundur i Sparifötunum, the restaurant of Kex Hostel (the one discussed above, with the birdcages). Though the menu offered some tempting options – fried plaice with pickled lemons, burned butter and almonds; fried and glazed turkey with mushrooms and bacon; lamb meatballs – it had to be the burger, which promised local free-range beef, Icelandic cheese, caramelised onion mayonnaise, and potato wedges with cumin mayonnaise. It was probably the best burger I’ve ever eaten, everything you want a burger to be. The bun was robust enough to hold the burger without tearing, nicely toasted on top for a little texture. The meat was rich and deeply flavoured, the cheese tangy and creamy, the mayonnaise holding everything together. The potato wedges were just insane. They were the crispiest things I think I’ve ever eaten, seasoned beautifully, and the cumin mayonnaise was just an inspired idea. This was proper big, hearty comfort food, but taken to the pinnacle of perfection – much like the fish and chips of the night before. Not bad value at £14, either – probably what you’d pay in a London gastropub. Plus you could help yourself to very nice bread and butter, so there was no danger of us leaving hungry.
Afterwards (still daylight!), we went to a little ice cream café, Eldur and Is, where I had a crêpe with bananas and pecan caramel ice cream. The menu pointed out that the crêpes were made with spelt flour. This seems to be a bit of a thing in Iceland – several menus had mentioned spelt chocolate cake, while Icelandic Fish and Chips used spelt in their batter. I don’t know if maybe the flour is cheaper there than ordinary white flour, or they’re just more health conscious. Either way, the crêpe was tasty.
While I was eating it, I watched the man behind the counter dip a huge Mr Whippy-style ice cream on a cone – the ice cream must have been standing at least six inches high – upside down into a vat of molten chocolate sauce. How the structural integrity of this calorific creation was maintained I do not know; it was quite remarkable to watch. The dessert of choice in Iceland, crêpes and ice cream aside, seems to be a mousse of skyr served with various fruit compotes, chocolate, or nuts. I didn’t try this, though, as I’m not a big fan of creamy desserts – I like them to have a little more texture (read: stodge).
On our final morning, we got up early to head out on a boat and watch puffins. This was immensely exciting, as there are few things funnier to observe than a puffin. They look so out of proportion, with their huge coloured beaks and their little wings, flapping desperately in the air as if struggling to stay airborne. We visited an island home to thousands of them; there are around 10 million in Iceland. Our guide told us a little about these birds: their black backs and white bellies provide camouflage while underwater – if something is above the puffin looking down, it sees only the dark of the water; if below and looking up, it sees the white of the sun shining down on the water. This is true for a lot of ocean animals – fish and whales included. I’d never thought about this before – why fish have light bellies and dark backs – and found it fascinating. Puffins can dive to 40 metres underwater, and they mate for life, somehow carving out little holes in the side of islands in which to rear their young – they have only one baby at a time. The babies are called – wait for it – pufflings, which is possibly the most adorable thing I have ever heard. Sadly we were too early in the year to see any pufflings, but it was a very enjoyable morning spent upon the boat watching these funny creatures through binoculars.
Incidentally, the weather finally brightened up for our final few hours in the country. This was how I’d imagined Iceland to look – completely clear frosty blue sky, bright ocean, majestic snowy mountains in the background. It was beautiful, and a completely different experience strolling the town with the warmth of the sun on our faces.
My final meal is worth mentioning, largely because it presented me with the opportunity to try fermented shark. Innocuous enough, the shark was served in small cubes – resembling ceviche – in a little ramekin. It was pale, white and firm. The first few seconds were fairly pleasant. There was a light, sweet taste; a firm, meaty texture, reminiscent of good sashimi. I was rather enjoying it, until a rancid wave of searing ammonia hit my palate, stinging the roof of my mouth and engulfing my sinuses with its acrid tang.
Fermented shark is definitely not the ideal introduction to Icelandic cuisine. When fresh, the Greenland shark is actually poisonous due to its high urea content. After being buried in gravel, pressed with heavy rocks for six to twelve weeks and then cured for several months, however, it is miraculously transformed into a local delicacy, something that can be eaten. Whether it should be, of course, is another matter. Newcomers to this unusual foodstuff are advised to hold their nose, as the shark packs a hefty aromatic punch of ammonia, exuding an aroma that I can only describe as a cross between toilet cleaner and strong cheese. I’m normally pretty adventurous with food, but fermented shark can go on my ‘never eating again’ list, alongside andouillette, a French sausage made from the colon of a pig and tasting exactly like the colon of a pig.
This gastronomic adventure took place at Café Loki, a lovely little venue about twenty metres away from our hotel and right in front of Hallgrimskirkja church, the largest church in Iceland and an imposing, modernist building that reminded me a little of Minas Tirith (more Lord of the Rings similarities here…I wonder if Tolkein ever visited Iceland).
The café was light and airy, and offered an array of Icelandic dishes as well as more standard fare, like bagels and cake. I went for a plate of Icelandic specialities, which included the aforementioned shark. Other than that, though, it was very tasty indeed – I had rye bread topped with smoked trout and cottage cheese, rye bread topped with a delicious mixture of herring, potato, cheese, chives and onion (which looked like scrambled egg but tasted, deliciously, like a fish pie), and – my favourite – rye flatbread topped with butter and smoked lamb. This appeared in various places on my travels, and is really satisfying – the bread is dense and squidgy with a nutty flavour, while the butter is creamy and the lamb subtly sweet and smoky. I also tried dried fish, which you’re supposed to spread with butter and eat, but this was a bit odd – the fish was indeed very dry, so quite difficult to eat and a bit of a strange experience. At least it wasn’t fermented, though.
And that was it – a whirlwind tour around a remarkable country, with plenty of opportunities for eating along the way; a journey home fuelled by fermented shark. There is a lot I wish we’d had time to do – whale watching, snorkelling (the water is the clearest in the world, you can see for up to 100 metres), more horse riding, trekking – but I think I got a fairly good feeling for the place. It was so different to anywhere I’d visited before – normally my holiday destinations are substantially hotter and more tropical than the UK – and presented me with things I’d never seen before.
Perhaps it was rather a strange holiday destination, but Iceland is certainly somewhere you should visit at some point in your life, if only for the way it presents you with the unexpected and the marvellous every day. It’s geography taken to the extreme, and experiencing the culture that has been shaped from that rugged landscape and hostile climate is certainly an adventure. More than all that, though, the food is excellent – exciting, unusual, revelatory, and often beautiful.
When I first started cooking, really cooking, I would follow recipes to the letter. I had very little experience of techniques and anticipating how things would taste, so I made anything and everything from recipes, rarely departing from instructions or ingredients. Then came a phase where, having picked up a lot more experience and confidence, I would cook predominantly from my head. I'd wander the markets, buy what looked nice that day, then invent a dish in my mind on the spot, often based on components I'd made before, a slight variation on something that was tried and tested. Sounds liberating, perhaps? Maybe, but it's more complicated than that.
Cooking without a recipe can give you a real sense of freedom. The freedom to make exactly what you feel like that day based on the absolute best produce available - no point in going to the shops armed with a list that includes avocadoes and strawberries if the only avocadoes to be found are rock hard and the only strawberries woolly and over-sour. No point in brandishing a beautifully planned shopping list that all revolves around a big leg of lamb if you then find the butcher has sold out. Shopping without a list and based on impulse and inspiration avoids these pitfalls.
And yet, it can be incredibly stressful. I would sometimes find myself wandering around the same stalls and shops for hours on end, agonising over various menu ideas in my head, unsure that they would work or how best to make the most of the ingredients I wanted to buy. Nothing worse than being asked by the man behind the counter what you would like, and having to keep saying 'I'm just looking' despite having been there for over fifteen minutes, getting increasingly flustered and red-faced, wanting to make the very best dinner possible but unsure how, or wondering whether the mackerel might be better than the trout, or whether those plums are a better option than those oranges.
So now, things seem to have come full circle. I decided that, with a collection of over sixty cookbooks, I should start using them. Really using them, rather than seeing a recipe and then tweaking it beyond recognition. I still do this, of course, but one day I just told myself to start following the damn recipes a bit more often.
It was liberating. Ridiculously liberating. While a shopping list can be restrictive, it can also be your passport to sanity and peace of mind. In order to avoid minor crises when a crucial ingredient can't be found, I often have two or three different options for meals, so I have a backup if something important (pomelo? galangal? ripe avocado? watercress? mackerel?) can't be located. I go to the supermarket with a list of military precision, organised into columns, so that if the central ingredient for one dish is missing, I can buy the components of something else instead.
Honestly, after cooking from your head for so long, sometimes it can just be stupidly relaxing to let someone else tell you what to buy and what to do, and for you to be fairly sure it will come out tasting pretty nice (with exceptions...but there are some cookery writers who just never fail me, like Nigel Slater, Diana Henry, Bill Granger, and Ottolenghi). To just write down a shopping list from a cookbook page, and ponder a list of instructions as you potter around the kitchen. No last-minute stress at the fish counter, or flusterdness in the fruit and veg aisle, or sinking feeling as you eye up your conveyer belt of groceries and realise you had no idea what you were planning to do with them, and wish you'd just decided to make a bowl of carbonara instead.
In the spirit of this, I am going through old cookbooks and trying out recipes that have been gathering dust. While I discover new recipes every day, I do try and keep on top of things by making a couple of new recipes each week. I have a battered but well-loved recipe journal, a birthday present many years ago from a friend, that is full of recipe cuttings from magazines. I am attempting to make a substantial portion of the recipes inside it before I move onto a new blank journal (it's now full).
This recipe for tamarind glazed pork chops with a pear and watercress salad appeared in Sainsbury's magazine a few months ago. I had a beautiful pair of thick Saddleback pork chops in the freezer, and when I realised I could buy all the other things I needed at the Co-op on the way home from work (rather than trekking to the supermarkets), it just had to be done.
I don't normally cook pork chops. When I do cook pork, it's either bacon, sausages, or tenderloin. However, I could tell this was going to be good from the beginning. I marinated the chops in a mixture of turmeric, ginger, oil, seasoning and white wine vinegar, which gave them a lovely deep yellow colouring. Before baking in the oven, they are doused in a glaze made from tamarind paste, sugar, cumin and a little water. This is thick, dark and treacly, imbuing the meat with a delicious sweet-sour earthy flavour. They bake in this luscious mixture before going under the grill to finish off, leaving them deeply sticky and caramelised on the outside, while moist in the middle. The tamarind glaze is stupidly good - it's hard to describe the addictive tang of tamarind, but it combines so well with the slightly sweet meat of the pork, resulting in a deep, almost caramel-like moreishness.
I was seriously impressed with these pork chops. This cut can often be quite bland, fatty, or chewy. However, they were ridiculously good. They still retained their rich flavour, while being given a deeply delicious sweet-savoury kick from the glaze. The best bits were the charred, sweet edges of fat around the bone, which had to be nibbled off, while the inside of the meat remained moist (which is often hard to achieve with chops). I'm inspired to cook more with pork chops.
To accompany the pork, an unexpectedly delicious salad. Unexpectedly because the dressing lifts an otherwise fairly standard pear and watercress combination to new heights - lime juice, crushed fennel seeds, olive oil and a little honey result in a gorgeous fruity, slightly liquorice-scented coating for the leaves and fruit. It's the perfect refreshing partner to the deep, sticky, savoury pork - crisp, crunchy, peppery, sweet.
This may look like an ordinary meat-salad combination. It's not. It's a really simple recipe, but one that is deeply, deeply satisfying. Refreshing and unusual, it makes a delicious light meal for the warmer weather. If you want something a bit more substantial (i.e. you're scared by no carbs on the plate), you could serve it with a yellow split pea dhal, like I did. The combination of slightly charred, caramelised, sweet-sour meat with the crisp, fruity salad is perfect.
Further evidence that cooking from recipes can sometimes pay off.
Tamarind glazed pork chops with watercress, fennel and pear salad (serves 2):
(Adapted from Sainsbury's magazine, not sure which issue)
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 3 tbsp white wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp rapeseed or vegetable oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 large pork chops
- 20g tamarind paste
- 2 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1/2 tbsp clear honey
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 ripe but firm pears
- 100g watercress or a mixture of rocket, watercress and spinach
First, marinate the pork. Mix the turmeric, ginger, pepper, vinegar, oil and salt in a shallow dish then add the pork, coating it well with the mixture. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge overnight, or for as long as possible (I left mine about 8 hours).
When ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Pat the pork dry with kitchen towel then transfer to a baking dish. In a small pan, heat the tamarind paste, sugar and cumin until combined and it turns bubbling and sticky, then pour over the pork. Cover with a lid or foil and bake for 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, toast the fennel seeds in a dry pan then crush with a pestle and mortar. Combine with the lime juice, honey and oil in a large bowl and whisk together to make a dressing. Core and quarter the pears, then slice into thin segments. Toss together with the salad and dressing, and divide between two plates.
When the pork is done, remove it from the oven. Pre-heat the grill to high (about 230C), then place the chops under the grill for five minutes to caramelise the glaze. Rest for five minutes, then serve with the salad.
In an exciting new development in my food writing career, I am now a regular contributor to the beautiful and ogle-worthy Appliances Online lifestyle blog, which features everything from recipes to crafts to ridiculously stylish home design ideas. I'll be contributing recipes twice a month and already have some pretty exciting and delicious things lined up, so watch this space. My first recipe originated from Easter leftovers, but it was so good I had to make it again as a dish in its own right. The result is a gorgeous salad of creamy white beans, charred courgettes, caramelised fennel and green beans, spiked with a feisty dressing of garlic, anchovy and lemon juice. Atop sits a beautiful pink, rare lamb chop. For the recipe and to read more, head over to my post on the blog here. Enjoy!