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26/04/2006

The salt of stupidity

Munching his way across Iceland, Wolfram Siebeck fails to track down a puffin dish, but he does get his teeth into cod tongue and black bird.

This is the second of a three-part culinary adventure. In part one Wolfram Siebeck struggles to distinguish between dream and reality on the black and icy isle. And in part three he hazards lava fields and geysers to tell of lobster tails and eggs boiled in hot springs.

Reykjavík competes with Tokyo for the distinction of most expensive city in the world. Unfortunately, Iceland has its own currency (the krona) and by the time I had worked out the conversion rate with the euro, I had already lost a fortune (and things did not improve). The Iceland visitor wonders how it can possibly be so expensive, since the island has become a favourite hangout for young backpackers. They can't all be on student loans. Only the 550 krona (over 6 euros) that my hotel demands for a beer did not seem to me to be overly expensive, rather a fair penalty for someone who opts to use the mini-bar.

After my initial experiences at Siggi Hall (see part one) my curiosity about the real Icelandic cuisine drove me to Thrír Frakkar, where I, as the blonde Viking promised, would be able to eat every exotic dish that Iceland has ever produced.



In the kitchen of Thrír Frakkar

Thrír Frakkar is a simple restaurant with all the folksy paraphernalia that one would expect from a "bistro". But the marinated lamb head, served with teeth and eyes, was not to be had here. Nor was the puffin, whose breast has been described as the delicacy of Icelandic delicacies. Instead the menu was full of wonderful names like Pönnusteiktar Gellur med ljüfri grádostasósu or Grillsteiktur stinbítur á rjomapiparsósu, and because everyone spoke English, as everywhere in Reykjavík, friendly maidens brought all the highlights of Icelandic culinary folklore to the table, one after the next.

The peppered whale stake was disappointing; it was thin and tough and could have just as easily been donkey. I decided to join the anti-whaling brigade, although you don't say this too loud in Iceland. This Hvalkjöts piparsteik med pipersósu was, for 2990 Kronur (35 euros) the second most expensive dish on the menu. For half the price, I had a fish gratin with gingerbread (Plokkfiskur med rúgbraudi), which included a vast mound of mashed potatoes, but the fish bit was very fresh and juicy cod. A similar speciality was the fish tongue gratin, likewise from cod, with bechamel sauce and vegetable garishing which would have better off where it came from: in the casemate of the vegetable decoration expert.

The gratin dishes (and there were many) were the most robust in quantity and taste and their fish component was never stringy or dry. I was also reunited with a drink I had come to appreciate years ago in Moscow restaurants: vodka. Here it is called Brennivín, or more commonly "black death", and it tastes like caraway.

New, like the cod tongue, was the breast of seabird ("No, it's not a puffin, but similar, just black!") The dish is called Léttsteiktar Svartfugelsbringur med villibrádasósu. The "black bird", an Icelandic razorbill, had obviously been a fan of black death; his fat, dark and moist breast tasted distinctly like liver. The sauce's sweetness combined with the accompanying fruit jelly reminded me of the brightly-coloured corrugated metal houses in the area: totally exotic. And indeed, at over 36 euros, the bird belonged in the luxury class at the Frakkar.

My next dinner was in The Grill of the Radisson SAS Hotel Saga. This is an enormous, modern hotel building, the kind one finds in all major cities, overshadowing all the intimate hotels – a process which no city administration dares to impede. The food there was as annoying as the volcanic eruption that takes place every ten years in Iceland.



Peppered whale steak


I don't know what was keeping the Vikings in the kitchen from their work, but there was nothing to eat. A friendly blonde lady, the only one who seemed not to have been infected by her colleagues' bad mood, reassured us that the bread was already in the oven. Together with several other guests, we sat for a good forty minutes, waiting impatiently, as archaic darkness fell.

What was happening is what often happens in large restaurants where nobody really wants to be working: some mishap in the kitchen results in absolute chaos. Of course, we were given no details, but what did not escape us was that the menu of Mr. Gallagher (a visiting chef from New York, where he normally cooks at Oceana, supposedly the city's best seafood restaurant) was a whisked disaster the likes of which I would not have expected from chefs with even half a name in the German provinces.

Typical of this kind of charlatanry is the realisation that every single detail reflects failure, making it hard to name individual flaws. Culinary stupidity tastes worse than too much salt. We left before dessert.



Food and Fun festival

There are few pedestrians on the streets of Reykjavík; instead, one finds half the world's SUVs, which creates the impression that their drivers dwell somewhere in the lava rubble between Odin's hut and Thor's tree-house. But a seasoned Icelander corrected me. "Everyone here has three cars, they have to be let out regularly, like dogs."

The folksy highlight of the Food and Fun gourmet festival was a cook-off in the Reykjavík art museum. All the guest chefs stood lined up behind little ovens vying for the Golden Frost Fish. I could not say if these truly were the world's best chefs because one nimble Ase bought me a large tray, distracting me from the great matadors. It had everything on it that I had been longing for: a halved, boiled and singed sheep head, head aspic, whale, fatty and smoked, smoked lamb, a terrine of blood sausage, mutton testicles and strips of dried cod.



stockfish

This is all eaten cold and swilled down with schnapps. The eyes must be particularly tasty, as they were already missing from my lamb's head. It was the very essence of horror for the anxious eater; it looked like Tutankhamun's little brother.

Cold meat, as we all know, has a very particular flavour and therefore I can only say that the smoked meat was too salty and the head had tediously tough skin. It reminded me of neither lamb nor Egyptian mummy. Actually the only delicious things were the stockfish strips, which have to be eaten with butter so that they at least stand a chance of separating between one's grinding teeth. Pemmican, the dried buffalo meat of the Indians, must have been similar, except that the redskins may have used ketchup instead of butter.

Wondering how accustomed the Vikings are to such heavy fare, I asked an elderly kitchen troll what his favourite German dishes were. "Pork knuckles with sauerkraut," he replied, beaming as he recalled his trip to Germany.

Thrír Frakkar
Baldursgötu 14, IS-101 Reykjavík, Tel. 00354-552 39 39, Closed Saturday and Sunday afternoons

The Grill
im Radisson SAS Hotel Saga, Hagatorg, IS-107 Reykjavík, Tel. 00354-525 99 20,

Food and Fun Festival
takes place annually in February

Coming up: Wolfram Siebeck eats lobster, is reminded a bit of Sylt, and finds out where Icelandic bananas grow.

*

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on April 6, 2006

Wolfram Siebeck, born in 1928 in Duisburg, is one of Germany's most famous chefs and restaurant critics. He writes a regular column for Die Zeit.

Translation: nb

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