Iceland is a nation where fermented shark is regarded as a delicacy and where you can drink whale-infused beer, so it doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a place you might associate with haute cuisine. But that’s all set to change with Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, fast becoming a must-go destination for foodies. And, now a new Viking cookery show is about to air.
The country might also be said to be on fire - both from an economic standpoint and geothermal wise with the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, which in 2010 caused air travel chaos across the Atlantic from mountains of ash in the clouds.
After experiencing a meltdown in its economy a decade or so ago when debt-to-GDP levels ballooned, its banks collapsed and capital controls were introduced on Icelanders, of late country’s economic activity has been booming and its currency has recovered. Last month those controls were partially lifted.
The Nordic countries taken as a whole - Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway - have long been top of the list for travellers seeking out more than just the sights on offer. Add to that the trend for food tourism is on the up, with it over 50% of tourists now looking for destinations based on their artisanal offerings.
Take Reykjavik, for example, where one can sample everything from horse to puffin and whale to fermented shark (Hákarl), if that takes your fancy.
Icelanders have always been imaginative in the kitchen. With the island being an artic wasteland essentially, its inhabitants have long been reliant on greenhouses to grow produce and geothermal energy to provide heat for cooking.
Now for a latest example of this imaginative approach, a new Nordic-themed TV cookery show, The Viking Kitchen, has been launched.
Fronted by Alda Bjork Olafsdottir, a singer who had a number of top pop hits in the UK and internationally and sold 5 million records, it aims to give tips about Icelandic food as well as cuisine across the Nordic region.
Recently I caught up with Alda and her team during filming for the show in a leafy party of north London in the kitchen decked out with candles in the flags of Nordic countries and imposing Antlers above the hob no less.
The initial episodes, which will air on YouTube each week this May, cover preparing a Viking Meat Soup (Episode 1), making Swedish Hash with a special Viking mix (Episode 2), Smurbraud (Open sandwiches and canapés with prawns (Episode 3), and a Braudterta or Tuna bread torte in the fourth episode.
Personally speaking I was waiting for the shark delicacies to be served. But at least one could be amused by guests unexpectedly popping during the shoot - like sea goddess Ran and ‘Viking Mama’ alongside Alda decked out in a Viking-styled brown leather and suede costume. That outfit was made from recycled materials, including an Icelandic horse hide that had been destined for a landfill.
At the end of filming each episode, the crew - American cameraman Jonathan Demelkon, musician and clapper Adam Day and set designer Sigrun Bjork Olafsdottir - heard the words uttered ‘Gjordu svo vel’ (food is served). Filling it certainly was.
Visually the preparation of the canapés - from Cocktail sized (smallest) to the Traditional canapé (mouth sized) and Matinee (the largest) - was food art. And, for good reason.
Alda’s mother - aka ‘Viking Mama’ - who prepares these dishes in the show - made the very same in Stockholm when she lived there and prepared such delicacies for various dignitaries such as the King of Sweden Carl Gustav and Prime Minister Olaf Palme. The latter incidentally assassinated right outside the families very own restaurant in the Swedish capital.
An Axe To Grind
During the cookery show you will also see a few axes. In fact, just to keep the theme going Reykjavik-born Alda uses them to cut up vegetables. But perhaps somewhat controversially she also has “a bit an axe to grind” with certain celebrity chefs out there - like Gordon Ramsay - on the matter of frozen lamb.
In Iceland people typically use frozen lamb, which Alda explains is because the freezing “helps to breaks down the enzymes”.
Turning to the drinks side of things, an interesting factoid is that beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989. Today though there a number of top notch Icelandic beers - amongst them Einstök (available at Majestic Wine in the UK), which is brewed just 60 miles south of the Arctic circle in the ﬁshing port of Akureyri, Iceland’s second city.
Here the water ﬂows from rain and prehistoric glaciers. But if you wanted something stronger why not try Reyka vodka, distilled from wheat and barley and the world’s first ‘green’ vodka distilled using sustainable energy from geothermal heat.
Should you make the trip to Iceland, along Reykjavik’s main strip Laugavegur you will be spoilt for choice to imbibe an ale or two with bars, coffee shops and restaurants aplenty.
If you are in town it’s worth checking out hipster havens Bar 11, Kaldi Bar and Micro Bar in the CentreHotel Plaza - a craft brewery with a lengthy tasting menu. There is also the Fredriksson Ale House run by Stella and Siggi, whose staff (ask for Oli) go the extra mile to make you welcome.
But if all this Icelandic fare has whetted the appetite why not check out Alda’s Viking Kitchen in the interim. Skal! (Cheers).
The Viking Kitchen airs on the YouTube channel each week from this May. A trailer can be viewed via: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ECI6zSpJx0&feature=youtu.be
Roger Aitken is a freelance journalist who contributes to Forbes (www.forbes.com/sites/rogeraitken/) amongst other titles and was a former FT staff writer.