From February 19-23, 2004 I attended the third annual Icelandic Food & Fun Festival in Reykjavik. The festival is designed to showcase two of the island’s best-known ingredients: lamb and fish. Gastronomic discovery and winter sports enticed internationally acclaimed chefs and food lovers to come to Iceland in the middle of winter. Visiting chefs competed in a cook-off for Chef of the Year, and were also paired with local host restaurants, where they prepared some of their signature dishes during the five-day event. At this year’s opening ceremonies at Iceland’s Culinary Institute, visiting chefs were matched to culinary students who acted as their assistants during the competition. The elaborate kick-off lunch buffet included some very traditional Icelandic offerings like fermented shark (that woke a few of us up after the overnight flight for the United States) that was served in a sherbet made with Black Death, an indigenous liquor. Thankfully, that dish was complemented with more savory fare and good desserts.
Certified Master Chef (CMC) Hilmar Jonsson (left) and restaurateur Siggi Hall, two luminary Icelandic chefs, helped host the 2004 Food & Fun events.
When we were not eating or cooking, we were out having fun. My group toured the Golden Circle, where we visited the original Geysir, the one for which all the other geysers in the world are named. We straddled the Mid-Atlantic Rift that runs through the island and snowmobiled in a surrealistic landscape filled with long northern shadows and skafrenningur, the Icelandic name for the kind of snow that slides on the surface when the wind blows. Other festival attendees had spas treatments, but almost everyone stopped for a dip in the waters of the Blue Lagoon—a geothermal hotspot that is ideally positioned about ten minutes from the airport.
Me at the Mid-Atlantic Rift that runs through the island. The Eurasian and American tectonic plates are moving apart at approximately 2 cm per year.
We found out that the competition was not only in the kitchen, but also involved getting a reservation to one of the participating restaurants or tickets to the culminating gala dinner prepared by Icelandic chefs. At the dinner, foreign attendees were dubbed “lambassadors,” in the hopes we would go home and spread a good word about Iceland and its offerings. Anybody who really knows me can attest that I have not been a big fan of lamb, but I ate more of it while in Iceland than every before. Somebody told me that Iceland’s sheep graze on delectable items like blueberries, hence their sweeter taste. Well, from the taste of things, they must be doing something right in the husbandry department.
A land of ice and snow (did you know Icelanders have more than fifty names for snow?), uniquely interspersed with warm geothermal spas and pools, Iceland is a compelling destination for all to explore—and its good food is just another reason make the effort. If you would like to attend next year’s event, I suggest you plan early. To attend the 2005 festival, watch for details to be posted at www.icelandair.com or http://icelandnaturally.com. I highly recommend staying at the beautiful Hotel Nordica, where I was surprised, and delighted, to see a neat little tray of small shot glasses and a bottle of Icelandic cod liver oil on the breakfast bar—for my morning dose of vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids.