ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!
ʼʼ

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It's grim up North

OK, when I say, 'GO', I want you to think of the top three great cuisines of the world and name them aloud.

In fact, give me the top five. You ready...?

GO!

........

So, what have we here then? French? Sure. Italian? Indian? Japanese? Did somebody clever say Turkish Cypriot? Maybe even American or Mexican?

But I'm guessing nobody gave much thought to the food of Iceland. And that's reasonable, given that it doesn't have much of a reputation on the global platter, and any crumbs of reputation it does have tend to focus on stereotypes of Scandinavian stodge and manky pickled fish.

It wasn't a topic I'd spent a lot of time thinking about either, but I've just got back from Reykjavik where I was able to enjoy - or perhaps 'endure' might be a better word - some traditional Icelandic food, and add some empirical weight to my affirmation of the stereotype.



Ben's gone to Iceland


Jumbo Dumbo Dick
The tourism industry has exploded in Reykjavik in recent years, which is presumably a victory for some marketing tosser somewhere, because there really isn't a whole lot to see or do.

There's a geyser that erupts every 15 minutes or so, a volcano that erupts maybe once every four or five years, and of course the world's only phallological museum where you can spend all day gazing, astonished, at preserved animal penises. (Which don't erupt at all any more).


And that's about it, so you'll probably be spending most of your time and horrendously exchange-rated money on food and drink.

(Apparently they also have the Northern Lights but our planned trip to see the fuckers was cancelled every single bastard day, so they don't count!)

Looking at all those dried out elephant cocks is thirsty work, but the Reykjavik beer scene isn't up to much. There is a brewpub - the Microbar - which does a fairly standard range of kegged beers without offering anything spectacular. Pale lager. Dark lager. Pale ale. Stout.Imperial stout. And so on. Think 'fourth division American brewpub' and you'll probably get the idea.

They do a sampler of all eight beers for 3500 Krone, which is almost 20 quid. For what probably adds up to less than two pints of beer in total.

My favourite was probably the pale, though it's not going to be winning any awards and there are better beers available in most other European countries these days.

Otherwise it's typical euro-lager from the Eglis and Vífilfell breweries, with the 'Gull' and 'Viking' brands dominating.

They shrunk my pints but charged the same!
It's a shame because ideally you'd want a beer with a little more in the flavour department to wash away the taste of putrefied shark and dry fish food.

What did you say?

Ah, yes, that's what I was coming to. The saga of strangeness that is Icelandic cuisine.

People who bang on about 'when in Rome' piss me off. I've not actually been, but I'd imagine that when in Rome, you'd probably have some quite nice pasta'n'shit, but when in Reykjavik there are some actually quite scary things that you have to eat in order to avoid being a big pussy.

I'm fairly certain it's fuck-all like Rome actually.

So, after several deep breaths and some bland, fizzy beer, I tried the full Icelandic Feast tasting menu at Laekjabrekka, one of the most highly regarded places for traditional food in the centre of town.

First up, Jaws: the Revenge.

Hákarl is fermented, putrified shark. And if that doesn't sound disgusting enough, it has to be putrified because it's actually poisonous to humans while still fresh. 

Seriously.

I've eaten shark a couple of times, but never anything like this; the little white cubes have to be kept in special air-tight containers so as not to contaminate any other produce in the kitchen, and as soon as you open the jar, the air fills with an overwhelming and quite evil stench of ammonia.

Now, some of my favourite strong cheeses have an ammonial scent, but in a nice Roquefort, for example, this soon gives way to salty deliciousness. Bite into a chunk of Hákarl, however, and you merely unleash further bursts of ammonia upon your senses, which really isn't a pleasant experience.

One of the strangest foodstuffs on the planet
The cubes are hard and dense and difficult to chew without gagging, and I can only imagine this is what biting into a cyanide pill might feel like. 


I managed to swallow two cubes. One would've been enough. Actually none would've been enough. In fact, if I could eat -1 and wipe the taste and experience from my memory, I'd be tempted to do that!

You get to down a shot of the local Brennivin schnapps after eating them, but, despite it's uncompromising strength, it really doesn't have a hope in Valhalla of taming the shark.


Oh come with me on the rolling sea where the weather's calm and still...


Up next was a wooden board with little samples of those Icelandic favourites, puffin and whale. And dry fish food.

Smoked puffin, seaweed, dried fish and other delights
The warm smoked puffin with crowberries was actually quite pleasant, and nothing like the sort of fishy seabird squidge I was expecting - the puffin flesh was richer and gamier than you might imagine, like young venison, but with a texture resembling duck or goose.

Then there was some seaweed, which was dry, crispy and unpleasant, though not as unpleasant as the 'wind dried fish', which tasted like flaky fish food, and came, inexplicably, in a knob of creamed butter. 

Horrible, horrible, horrible.

I did actually try eating from the big tub of Tetra next to my uncle's tropical fish tank when I was a child. I know what it tastes like, and I know when childhood tastes come back to haunt me...


Finally there was a small piece of minke whale, cured, with a strong sesame flavour.

The whale was tender and obviously prepared with great skill, but the treatment was very similar to sashimi, which reminded me a little too much of tuna, one of the few 'normal' foods that I'm really not fond of. But that's not Iceland's fault. Or indeed the whales.

A milky, malty bedtime drink?
Next came a soup course - cream of langoustine - and, once again, it was entirely unlike what I had been anticipating.

Expecting, perhaps, some sort of creamy, buttery chowder, what arrived in the bowl tasted like Horlicks or ovaltine, or possibly very bland hot chocolate, with chunks of langoustine incongruously floating about in it, almost asking if they were meant to be there.

A vast swirl of unnecessary cream had cooled it down to lukewarm, and I found the sweet, maltiness a struggle. Certainly a unique texture and flavour for a soup, but really not something I could say I enjoyed.

That's more like it

The next course was a big, fuck-off plateful that perhaps would've benefitted from being served separately, but was nonetheless far, far more tasty than the startery bits and bobs.

A strange take on Surf'n'Turf
Two pan-fried lamb fillets, cooked about as rare as I've ever seen lamb cooked, shared the stage with a large langoustine, a generous serving of rather delicious mushrooms, a tiny block of sauteed potatoes, and several al dente vegetables - carrots, parsnips and fennel.

There was a lot going on, and the while both the tender lamb with its crispy fat and the sweet flesh of the crusteacean were pretty good, they don't really work as a surf'n'turf dish. The thymey sauce and miniature onions, for example, complemented the lamb, but not the langoustine.

The lamb and veg were possibly a bit too underdone, even for me, but the fat and the mushrooms were lovely, and while it was a bit of a mixed plate, it was clearly very good quality food, expertly cooked, and certain mouthfuls were lovely.

Or at least, lovely in comparison to the putrefired shark and buttered Tetra!

On to dessert, and again, it's a substantial portion with a lot of things happening at once, but it's a fine end to the meal.

Just Icelandic desserts
The traditional Icelandic Skyr - a creamy, curdy concoction, not unlike a cheesecake, was accompanied by a tangy, delicate blueberry sorbet and various fruits, as well as a sprinkling of crumbs and crushed pralines.

An eminently edible plateful of dessert, it ensured that the Iceland feast finished on a far more tasty note than the one on which is started - in contrast to many places where the starters are the best bit and the dessert consists of some bland, defrosted wankery.

All in all, an unforgettable meal, but mostly for the wrong reasons!

Playing it safe


You won't want to eat native every night and there's decent food to be had elsewhere in the Icelandic capital: Just a few doors up the road from Laekjabrekka, is Caruso, an Italian restaurant serving extremely tasty risotto and pasta in generous portions.

They also do a magnificent crème brûlée and a killer espresso, none of it remotely Icelandic, obviously.

One thing I did rave a bit about though is the water. The guidebooks take great pains to point out that the tap water in Iceland is safe to drink and among the best in the world - and indeed this is true.

Nice, non-Icelandic food!
But the bottled water is fucking superb. Honestly, it's the clearest, cleanest, purest water I've ever tasted, like something fresh from a glacial spring. Buxton and Strathmore and all that stuff we have over here is probably going to taste like dishwater by comparison now.


Am I wrong? Is this water tasting business all in my head? Was I just seduced by the sort of glacial pyramid shape of the top of the bottle?

Anyway,Iceland is a bloody miracle - what other country with nothing to do, largely |foul food and brutally high prices could expand its tourist industry so successfully?

But, like the putrefied shark, it's one of those things to do once in your lifetime. But no more.



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