April 13, 2015
That, my friends, is Iceland on a plate. And delicious it is, this giant codhead, cooked in chicken broth and sugar kelp, the soft, tender tongue breaded and sauteed before being replaced to do rude things on the plate.
To eat a huge codhead like this is to have an extraordinary experience of texture. The bit of filet, at the top of the head, is rather firm. The cheeks are like little scallops. The bit right beneath the eye is pillowy soft. And that tongue…. like eating a gentle cloud.
The codhead is the signature dish at Matur og Drykker, the restaurant in Reykjavik's Saga Museum which is named for the classic Icelandic cookbook of that name. Written in the 1950s, the book is the Icelandic version of The Joy of Cooking; every local person I met told me they'd grown up on those recipes.
At the restaurant they've gone looking for history – and then refined it. So the classic halibut, mussel, whey soup is turned into the loveliest chowder you can imagine.
The mussels are sweet and plump, their flavor underlined by the other notes woven through the soup: cream, dill, the sweetness of apples and then – surprise! – a bit of prune, which lends an almost wine-like quality. I kept eating the soup, entranced by the parade of flavors, and was devastated when I discovered that there was no more.
The other surprises of this meal:
Codliver pate with a berry jam on caraway flatbread. I'll admit I was reluctant to try it – too many bad memories of codliver oil – but how could I resist? The flavor was a total surprise; if you've ever had Japanese ankimo – monkfish liver – you'll instantly recognize the taste. Those berries were a wonderful foil for the fish flavor; think of the sea washing into the forest.
And then there was this, which looked exactly like dried rose petals – and tasted almost entirely of smoke.
Essentially lamb jerky, this was as crisp as a potato chip so the buttermilk smudge on the side made it seem like eating chips and dips. The friend I was eating with said she always takes double smoked lamb along when she goes hiking – but she had never had any half so delicious. Excited, she ordered a second plateful.
Some other wonderful dishes from this restaurant.
"Fish Stew." Only it's not. This is what, in the old days, Icelanders did with leftover fish. It's kind of a smoked fish and potato mush, with dill, with thin bits of rye biscuit, rutabaga and fennel. It's classic nursery food, reimagined for grownups.
And, of course, lamb. You don't get very far in Iceland without eating lamb – and I never met one I didn't like. But this, with gorgeous carrots and some beautifully cooked potatoes – was remarkable for its simple honesty.
And, of course, the classic Iceland dessert: twisted doughnuts. Warm, laced with nutmeg, and barely sweet, these were the most restrained doughnuts I've ever encountered. Doughnuts are usually flashy and brazen, but these little cakes knew how to charm you with subtlety.
And did I mention the weather?
But this is only the beginning. I'm just back from The Iceland Writer's Retreat, and in upcoming posts I'll talk about that (truly memorable), and a few more remarkable meals I ate in the land of light, literature and ice.
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