Thursday, March 22, 2012
I’ve been posting about Iceland for the last week. And at the bottom of each post you’ll see I credited the Food & Fun festival for bringing me there. Yes. Food AND Fun. What more could you want?
The festival is actually even more delicious - yet slightly more serious - than it sounds. F&F has been going on for ten years, and brings chefs from all over the world to Reykjavik, where they work with local ingredients, collaborating with local restaurants, to create and compete in the kitchen. While the contest is the main event, the festival also brings journalists (like yours truly) from all over the world to a place that is off their usual itinerary. In other words, Iceland 101.
Of course, when invited, I didn’t hesitate a second. And you’ve seen over the last week, the places I visited, the foods I tasted and the people I met.
I managed to fit a lot in, for such a short visit, but oddly had little time to attend the actual Festival itself. Just one evening, in fact. So, to truly understand the spirit of the contest - and make sure I got to experience a winning combination of visiting chef and local restaurant - I opted to dine with a former Food & Fun prize winning chef who had flown in from Denmark. Not to compete, but just to join in the Fun.
So, how could our incredibly perfect lunch at Dill the previous day get even better? Add visiting Chef Claus Henriksen to the kitchen, cooking with Gunnar Karl Gislason. And while the setting for lunch - in the light filled Alvar Aalto dining room - was beyond exquisite, the setting for out dinner was like a dream.
When we arrived at Dill that evening, the maitre d’ told us “We have a surprise for you. We’ve set up a table for you in another room.” As he led us away from the pretty dining room, I was a bit worried. Past the kitchen and down a corridor.
And then we walked into the library of Nordic House.
Yes. They had transformed the Library - for us and for only this night - into our own private dining room. Alvar Aalto library tables, complete with the low lights he had designed for them, had been pushed together to form our own special corner of Nordic design dining nirvana.
I don’t know about you, but my idea of heaven is getting to spend time in libraries. Make that an Alvar Aalto designed library, and throw in two of the best Nordic chefs cooking today....I barely have words.
But back to the main event: the meal. Chef Claus Henriksen is one of the top chefs of the new Nordic cooking scene today. (you know. the whole Noma thing going on). He runs the restaurant north of Copenhagen, Dragsholm where he has a sustainable restaurant with its own 8 hectare vegetable garden.
For his meal at Dill ,Claus switched gears, leaving his Danish produce behind to embrace Icelandic delicacies. This is the genius of the Food & Fun festival, to take Chefs out of their comfort zones and introduce them to textures and tastes that are purely Icelandic.
First up those darling pine cones we had seen at lunch. This time the smoked lamb alternated with wisps of feathery dried parsnip.
Next a simple - but exquisite - starter, bursting with varying textures, colors and flavors. A plump fresh-as-could-be-mussel, barely cooked, layered with ribbons of parsnip and tossed in bright green dill oil. To wash it down, a mini tumbler of birch brewed snaps.
The parings through out the meal were genius. Yes, we had wines, but sticking to local-is-better we also enjoyed not only the birch snaps (which is the brainchild of Dill co-owner Olafur Om Olafsson and is my new official favorite ‘grappa’) but local beers like Einstok.
The next course was one of those amazing things I’ll be thinking about for the rest of my life. Atop a bed of jerusalem artichokes - slow cooked till they were like velvet - raw octopus and squid. Crunchy slivers of raw jerusalem artichokes and chunks of Danish hazelnuts that had been glazed with sea water. Our normally talkative table was completely silenced by what we were eating.
Catfish - or the Icelandic version of it - was cooked en papillote, together with thyme, pink pickled onions and slow cooked cauliflower.
Root vegetables are big up north, and so a simply roasted - and simply delicious - beet was our next course. Topped with crunchy cherry vinegar soaked sago grains and scattered with vibrant leaves of tarragon, with a hidden heart of goat cheese. ( And served - like some of the other courses - on Jens Quistgaard-designed Dansk Flamestone plates. Love those plates.)
I can go on and on. Dessert, splendid. Madeleines - too good and way too cutely served to be believed. But it was all part and parcel of the entire experience. The experience of being in a unique setting - an Alvar Aalto library in the middle of Iceland - with dinner brought to us via the extraordinary camaraderie, skills and mind blowing good cheer of the collaborative efforts of Chefs Claus and Gunnar that made this meal most memorable. And if that is the aim of the Food & Fun festival, then they’ve accomplished their job. And then some.
Chef Claus Henriksen
This amazing meal, and all of my Icelandic adventures courtesy of the Food & Fun Festival, with airfare thanks to Icelandair