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Eating In The Embassy: Cuisine From A Land Of Glaciers

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Brennivin, a.k.a. "Black Death," is a potent schnapps produced in Iceland.
Rebecca Sheir
Brennivin, a.k.a. "Black Death," is a potent schnapps produced in Iceland.

Erlingur Erlingsson, counsellor at the Embassy of Iceland in D.C., claims that "we don't have a strongly developed concept of Icelandic cuisine."

Part of that has to do with the island nation's history. The Vikings first settled Iceland in the 9th century, "and they were migrants from Norway," Erlingur explains. "So that's sort of our origin, and a lot of our culture is very Norse."

After the Vikings, Iceland was independent for a while, then there was a civil war, then Iceland came under the rule of Norway, "and then Norway came under the rule of Denmark, and so we became a Danish holding for several centuries." Erlingur says.

That's why his country's cuisine is kind of a conglomeration of all these Scandinavian cultures. But, all the same, the island nation of 320,000 people does serve up plenty of things it can call its own, such as Harðfiskur ýsuflök, which literally translate to "hard fish."

"You traditionally use haddock that gets hung up and dried outdoors, preferably, says Erlingur. "So I just refer to it as 'jerky.'"

Fish jerky is kind of hard to chew at first. ("It's not a first-date food," Erlingur says with a laugh). But eventually, it softens up, and this really potent, salty, fishy flavor kicks in.

A far sweeter Icelandic food is skyr. "It's essentially like an Icelandic relative of Greek yogurt," Erlingur explains. "Technically it's a cheese — sort of a filtered dairy product, and it has sort of a medium-thick texture."

Skyr's been around since the Vikings, and has three times the protein of regular yogurt. And speaking of protein, Icelandic cuisine is loaded with the stuff, mainly because although Iceland is about the size of Virginia, it doesn't have much arable land.

"Mostly the interior of the island is volcanic deserts and mountains and glaciers," Erlingur says.

The country produces a lot of dairy, fish and something Erlingur says he's been missing ever since he came to the States: Icelandic lamb. "Our lamb is quite special," he says. "Our sheep, which were originally brought over by the Vikings when they settled Iceland, they're not penned in; they're not restricted in terms of movement. So they're practically like wild sheep in that sense."

And while you can serve Icelandic lamb roasted, or grilled, or smoked, one of Erlingur's favorite ways to eat it is a little... faster.

"Iceland even has its own fast food," he says. "There's a hot dog stand in Reykjavik, known as 'the town's best hot dogs,' or Bæjarins beztu. And they're lamb hot dogs, in a soft white bun, usually with raw onion and roasted onion, ketchup, mustard, and then a mayonnaise relish."

Unless, that is, you're the 42nd president of the United States. When Bill Clinton visited Reykjavik in 2004, he visited the hot dog stand and ordered a dog with just mustard.

"So there's a famous order at that hot dog stand," Erlingur says. "You can have a hot dog only with mustard, which is known as 'The Clinton!'"

Iceland also has an interesting history when it comes to alcohol. Prohibition started in 1915, and basically didn't end until 1989.

"But since then, we've come a long way," Erlingur says. "Beer initially was all imported. And now we have a lot more microbrewery-style things going on. And they've done pretty well, in competitions. Even internationally they've gotten some awards."

One of those award-winning brews is Egils Gull.

"'Egils Gull' literally means 'Egil's Gold,'" Erlingur explains. "So that's like their premium lager."

Another famous boozy beverage is Iceland's most famous drink: Brennivin, sometimes called "Black Death."

You make Brennivin from fermented potato mash and caraway seeds. And with an alcohol content of 37.5 percent, the stuff is strong! That's why, legend has it, it was developed to wash down something Icelanders have been eating for centuries: Hákarl, or fermented shark.

"Iceland used to be extremely poor until the mid-twentieth century," Erlingur says. "So we were obliged to eat whatever we could get from the sea and on the hoof in Iceland."

And with plenty of sharks in the sea, Icelanders began using the animals for oil and meat, which they'd cure, and ferment, for months and months and months.

"Some people like to say the reason for Brennivin is you take tiny bites always of the shark, and you need to wash it down, to sort of get the flavor quickly out of your mouth after you've had it," Erlingur says.

Before taking a shot of Brennivin, you clink glasses with a traditional Icelandic toast: "Skål," which means "bowl" in Icelandic. Or, as Erlingur Erlingsson says, "Skáli botn": "Toast to the bottom."


[Music: "Mum's Gone To Iceland" by Bennet from Supernatural]

Photos: Iceland Embassy

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