It has been over a decade now since René Redzepi and the crew sat down to dish out the Manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine. A lot of words were thrown on the table during that meeting: accessibility, sustainability, seasonality. Their initial meeting was more than just a makeover of the region’s culinary reputation (a reputation built on killing everything that moves and preserving the shit out of it). It was also a catalyst for government-sponsored food programmes, conferences, festivals, and a handful of really, really heavy cookbooks. In a single push, their 2004 meeting simultaneously invented “New Nordic Cuisine,” and put it on the map.
“We don’t have a long cooking tradition in Iceland,” says Sævar Karl, the head chef at the restaurant at the new Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. “When I think about traditional food I think about Sunday roast: an overcooked leg of lamb with canned vegetables, potatoes in caramelized sugar, brown sauce—brown because we use food colouring—and jam.” For Sævar it is precisely Iceland’s lack of tradition that makes him most interested in the “New Nordic” concept. “We can focus on the ingredients without having too much tradition holding us back,” he says.
I’d seen the terms and conditions of New Nordic cuisine tossed around, but I never expected to make contact with it in any formal way. I’m not one to hit the hotel bar and I’m pretty fine with plokkfiskur just the way it is. So while the foodie movement of New Nordic developed schizophrenically around the region, I was complacent about Iceland’s generally quiet (with a few exceptions) involvement.
Sit Down and Shut Up
The Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon is as loud as it gets. Driving through the south of Iceland, one is lulled by an increasing sense of vastness. Turn after rolling turn we encounter snowfields so pure they erase the horizon and glaciers older than history itself. Each hour on the road elicits another opportunity to breathe deeply and bend car-stiffened knees at the crest of some glacially charged waterfall, or to sip cocoa on a cliff at the edge of the world. The awe itself is vast on this stretch of road, and one is rocked into a scenery-induced stupor. Then, all of a sudden, we round another bend and there it is: Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. Our stay for the night. Sharp as the taste of petrified shark, black as basalt.
“A hexagon is the polygon closest to a circle that can completely cover an area by tessellation,” I had copied from a sign about the esoteric geometry of basalt columns. It was clear that the Fosshotel we had encountered was inspired by the impressive columns of Svartifoss just twenty minutes down the road, but it appeared on the landscape more like a tumor than a tessellation. Once inside, though, the view from the breakfast room was stunning enough to shut up any critic, by stuffing her mouth full of freshly baked breads, smoked fish and smjör galore.
Rye Bread Ice Cream
The nearest place to get food is a snack bar thirty minutes up the road, so without much hesitation we stop to check out the hotel’s restaurant menu on the way to our room. As I read through the plates, select points of the Manifesto start to fall and splatter across the menu:
#3: To base cooking on ingredients and produce whose characteristics are particularly excellent in Nordic climates, landscapes and waters.
Langoustine soup, Arctic char, salted cod…
#5: To promote Nordic products and the variety of Nordic producers—and to spread the word about their underlying cultures.
Smoked lamb from Skaftafell, dried beef from Húsavík, Icelandic soft cow’s milk cheese…
#7: To develop potentially new applications of Nordic food products.
Blueberry gel, green apple puree, rye bread ice cream…
Rye bread ice cream? We read it again, aloud: Salt baked beets with beet meringue, pickled crowberries, and rye bread ice cream. Rye bread ice cream.
Unsure of whether the dish was a creative infusion or an insulting infliction on the Icelandic culinary tradition (or, as Sævar noted before, lack thereof), we continue to haul our luggage to our room, swiftly log into the hotel’s internet connection (this will definitely be social media-worthy), and hastily make our way back to the restaurant for an obligatory helping of beets and rye bread ice cream.
Lagoons and langoustines
“Our restaurant is based in a hotel,” Sævar would later tell me when I asked him about the oddities of the menu. “I have a responsibility to feed the customers, but at the same time I want them to experience a memorable Icelandic meal. When it comes to the plate itself, it’s all about the balance between flavors and the wow factor… that can be how the plate looks, the flavor, the texture, or putting ice cream on a starter. Just something that stands out.”
Most people traveling the south coast of Iceland have some idea of the sights they want to stop and see. For those taking their time along this road, Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon is a perfectly logical place to stay. It lies two hours beyond the stopover town of Vík and about an hour and a half shy of Höfn, and is conveniently situated between Skaftafell National Park and the roadside Glacier Lagoon, Jökulsárlón.
But fewer know about the expressive food movement happening in Sævar’s kitchen every single day. “I don’t think that people come to Iceland because of the food, but it is our job as chefs to make them go home thinking about it,” he says. Just like the initiators of the New Nordic cuisine thirteen years prior, Sævar is in the act of simultaneously creating an experience and putting it on the map for future visitors.
And for those wondering, rye bread ice cream tastes just like it sounds it will. Like rye bread. A cold, creamy spoonful of rye bread.
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.