A Gastronomic Affair with Food from the Sea
    A spectacular view of an Iceland landscape.

    A spectacular view of an Iceland landscape.

    Iceland looks like a giant, jagged puzzle piece from the air, gradually turning into an impressionistic landscape of lush green, sparkling water, white glaciers, and grey mountains as our plane descends. Innocent looking though they are, many of those mountains are concave at the top, the evidence of spent volcanoes. Others are still active, including one while we were there; Icelanders take such eruptions in stride, even though they can be mightily powerful. One 18th-century eruption spread extreme amounts of dust and debris to Europe, interfering with the growing season, which led to poor crops, which was said to be one of the fomenting events of the French Revolution.

    It is no surprise that, being surrounded by the cold North Atlantic, Iceland’s primary human food source is about everything under the generic umbrella of seafood. Think being immersed in Wholey’s or Penn Avenue Fish, but with some rather surprising twists featuring species you won’t find even at those venerable stores. As for preparation, well, dishes are served in virtually any style, from raw to smoked, peppered to pickled, fried to air dried, and everything in between.

    Scallops and sea urchins fresh from the bottom of the North Atlantic ocean off Iceland’s coast, waiting to be opened.  The purple ones are poisonous.

    Scallops and sea urchins fresh from the bottom of the North Atlantic ocean off Iceland’s coast, waiting to be opened.
    The purple ones are poisonous.

    Our first dinner was arctic char for me, mussels with fennel for my husband, Mike, which I of course sampled. They were sweet with a delicate texture similar to soft cheese. They were not in a broth as would be expected with French-style moules frites. Rather, they were just barely cooked, which allowed the fennel to complement perfectly with a slightly smokey touch. The char was not what I would have expected either. Thin rather than thick, mild rather than with a sweet and robust flavor—although the very well crisped skin was juicy and flavorful; I could have eaten a plate of that.

    Hal Runolfsson, the wonderful guide for our group, explained everything Icelandic as only he could, tracing his family back to what is called The Settlement, that is, the first permanent settlement of Iceland in the year 874. Tracing one’s roots back so far is exponentially more prestigious in Iceland than having an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower is here. “Char is a type of trout that is farmed here,” he said. “We also have farmed salmon because sea fishing is forbidden, as they want the fish to go into the rivers.” As for the char, it turns out that what I buy here is wild caught, accounting for the several differences.

    Codfish drying in a traditional Icelandic stone structure.

    Codfish drying in a traditional Icelandic stone structure.

    One of the most popular methods of large-scale fishing is with a line baited with squid, herring, and mackerel. This brings in haddock, catfish, halibut, flounder, and turbot, as well as the mighty cod (more on that fish later); ling, a cod-related species, is also fished. “You have to release the halibut from the line since fishing for it is forbidden,” said Hal, adding, “There is also a quota for the rest.” Iceland, like Norway, is a stringent ecological steward of its land and sea environments.

    Thora Olsen, of a cod museum—yes, really—we visited, detailed the fishing process. “Men set out at 5:00 a.m. The line is in the sea for six to eight hours. The fish are sorted, bled, put into containers with ice, and then taken to land—where they are gutted, packed up with more ice, and brought to the airport.” From there, they are exported or selected by local fish mongers for their shops.

    In addition to line fishing there are nets for shrimp and mackerel, plus scraping the bottom for scallops, mussels, and sea urchins. One of our outings was on a boat that did scraping; the catch was cleaned and immediately given to us. I’m not fond of partially cooked scallops so raw was totally unappealing; Hal insisted that I would be surprised. He was right there next to me when I tried the scallops, happily gloating when I found them absolutely marvelous—soft, almost creamy, sweet with the tang of the sea. The taste would be impossible to duplicate after shipping. I stopped counting after five “galloped down my gullet” (taking a phrase from the show Carousel). Mike even enjoyed the ugly-looking sea urchins, something new and not likely found in the Strip.

    City of Bergen, Norway.

    City of Bergen, Norway.

    “Food is very, very safe to eat straight from the sea here,” commented Hal. “There is a great difference between high and low tide, lots of water coming in and out, lots of change in the sea water. There is no pollution.” So are there any problems?

    Yes, according to Hal: “What we have now are king crabs and stone crabs that come from Russia to Norway and then here to our coastline and seas—maybe because of climate change, maybe from ship ballast being unloaded, although we try to prevent that. They are new species; people really don’t like them.” Just for fun I asked him if he would eat Maryland bay crabs, considered delicious here. After a long pause he said, “No, we like our own type of seafood.”

    And now we come to our visits to fish museums. First cod, a mainstay of peoples bordering the North Atlantic, and beyond. The codfish was so important to New England that John Adams made sure the British allowed U.S. fishermen ongoing access to the Grand Banks, among other areas, as part of the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War. According to Thora, who manages the museum, not only is cod eaten but continuing research is rapidly producing products from all parts of the fish. For instance, the skin is used to heal chronic wounds that have not responded to other treatment. And leave us not forget the ubiquitous cod liver oil, still a staple in many homes where a spoonful is de rigueur before heading out in the morning.

    From cod to, yes, shark. Greenland shark to be specific, featured at a museum dedicated all things shark. Like the cod, research is being done on various uses for shark. The skin is very rough, suitable for sandpaper. As for food, the museum is expert in the preparation of a traditional delicacy: After the fish is caught and rigor mortis sets in, it is cut into large chunks and put in boxes to cure outside for seven to eight weeks, after which it is hung outside until “done.” It is finally eaten in little cubes dunked in a shot glass of schnapps, followed immediately by downing the alcohol. To me, that is less a compliment to the fish than a necessity to clear the palate of a most unpleasant taste from eating what seems like rubberized baking soda.  According to Hal, it appeals more to an old school than to a broad swath of the population. I understand why. Probably won’t see shark in the Strip anytime soon.

    A plate of traditional  Norwegian food.

    A plate of traditional
    Norwegian food.

    Norway is similarly fish-centric, with preparations that echo those of Iceland. The finale to our walking tour of Bergen was a tasting plate of favorites, fish and otherwise—brown cheese with cloudberry jam, thoroughly dried cod, smoked mackerel, smoked/peppered cod, molded and pressed whitefish, smoked salmon, gravlax, reindeer sausage, and caviar; unsalted butter was in the center. The cheese, mackerel, cod, and sausage were delicious.

    Our fascinating trip resulted in quite an interesting exploration of North Atlantic fish from multiple aspects.

    Overall, the dishes were delicious, excepting some strange and challenging selections. But our first meal home was a thick, juicy steak.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is an art historian researching two primary areas of interest: Abstract Expressionism and the intersection of art with socio-political discourse. She also teaches at several local venues. In addition to art, she is an avid cook, writing about food and food-related topics. Cynthia has a degree from the University of Chicago.