Inside the Icelandic Pantry

07 Oct 2015
4 min read
From blueberry-cured lamb to artisan pastries, the world’s only geothermally produced sea salt, to an eco-whey drink blended with wild Iceland moss and Arctic thyme, Icelandic producers are renowned for their unique and innovative approaches to food and drink production. Now with the growing popularity for farmers markets in Iceland, FOUR spoke to Eirný Sigurðardóttir, founder of the Icelandic Pantry, to find out what makes Icelandic produce so inspirational…

Shaped by the harsh climate, Icelandic food traditions are divided by the natural environments of all the different regions. Icelandic produce can therefore range fromorganic lambs fed on angelica to give it a special flavour from West Iceland, hot-smoked mackerel from the East and artisan rhubarb brittle from South Iceland. Not only do the foods represent their natural habitat, but they also offerinsight into Iceland’s rich history, such as a special flatbread dating from the settlement in the 9thcentury.

Therefore having hada heavytradition of local and seasonal eating, farmers markets are growing in popularity in Iceland. Out of the demand to keep this traditional alive and kicking,The Icelandic Pantry was formed by Eirný Sigurðardóttir and Hlédís Sveinsdóttir andis the country’s largest artisanal food fayre, taking place in Reykjavik.

With plans to now come to Londonon 7th– 10thOctoberto offer their Icelandic fare at Borough Market, FOUR decided to speak toEirný Sigurðardóttir to find out a little bit more about what can be found in the Icelandic Pantry…

What are your earliest memories of being interested in food?

My childhood was spent in different countries, Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Iceland and England… So from an early age, and due to a lot of travelling, I found the diversity of food fascinating. I suppose my earliest and most vivid food memory was when I was around four years old and my father and I used to take the dogs along the beach in Dar es Salaam every morning and then return to the house for breakfast which almost always consisted of fresh Pawpaw (papaya) with fresh lime squeezed over and fresh guava or pineapple.

What would you say inspired the move to set up the Icelandic Pantry?

I opened my little cheese shop nearly seven years ago when I had moved back to Iceland after 17 years in Edinburgh and I suppose my passion and love of food in general, and particularly cheese, has always been my driving force, that and the need to be working with something that I enjoy. Being self-employed can be a challenge but the tasks you face are diverse, so keep you on your toes. My search for local products to have in the shop meant that I spent a lot of time talking to the farmers and producers and I made a lot of great friends. The range of artisan goods was very limited seven years ago, but since then there has been such a growth in this field and I consider it a privilege to have played a small part in it.

The Icelandic Pantry in Reykjavik is the country’s largest artisanal food fayre, do you see a changing landscape in the way people approach Icelandic food?

What is happening in Iceland is something that is and has been happening all across the world in the last 20-30 years… a backlash against industrialised food production processes, a higher demand for animal welfare, more interest in the providence of the product and a greater desire for eating local produce, which has benefits on so many levels. The Slow Food philosophy of wanting good, clean and fair food for everyone are ideals that more and more consumers are adhering to. I believe that the financial crisis that hit Iceland in 2008 actually made Icelanders appreciate further the amazing produce and food traditions that we have had all along. Since we started five years ago, and held the first farmers market in the city in over 100 years, we have seen an amazing growth and interest as our visitor numbers to the market show.

Why do you think people are suddenly becoming much more aware in artisan produce and ingredients?

Good food always has a story. The originality/idea of the product or the passion behind the production of the ingredient. It makes us curious and we want to connect and know more. My personal opinion is that the joy of food is not only flavour, smell and how it looks visually but also the story behind the product. My favourite things to eat in the late summer are blueberries and crowberries, however they always taste sweeter when I have picked them myself rather than bought them in the supermarket. If you can sit down to a meal with a good conscience because you are aware of the production of your food, then the experience will always be more enjoyable.

What do you think is so special about Icelandic produce?

I could surely write a whole essay to answer this question. The land of Ice, Water and Fire is a clean country which has given us an abundance of produce to work with. Our lamb I believe is some of the best in the world as it is reared in the wild which gives it a unique gamey taste as it grazes on wild berries and herbs. We also have a variety of game birds and meat and are blessed with seas filled with fish harvested in a sustainable and responsible manner. We are fortunate enough to have geothermal heat enabling us to grow all manner of vegetables and fruits hydroponically without the use of pesticides and unwanted chemicals. In recent years we have come to appreciate even more of our traditional foods and rediscovered ingredients such as seaweed, angelica, edible moss, local herbs, berries and rhubarb. All this is now at the forefront of our culinary scene and we have some fantastic chefs putting our produce to use in new and innovative ways.

Can you tell us what will be on offer in the Iceland Pantry during its visit to London’s Borough Market?

We have 14 amazing producers with a wide range of products, we have fresh lamb that has been reared on angelica, lamb from the first artisan slaughterhouse in Iceland, blueberry cured smoked lamb, cured mutton fillet, bean to bar chocolate, rhubarb brittle and spruce syrop, hot smoked cod roe, hot smoked rainbow trout, pickled herring, angelica soup, angelica Jelly for cheese, seaweed, dried fish “jerky”, organic barley biscuits, lacto fermented organic vegetables, whey drinks flavoured with berries and herbs, skyr and skyr chocolates, the world’s only 100% geothermally produced salt, traditional pastries, smoked cod livers and much more…

What FOUR Icelandic products would you consider typical of Icelandic cooking?

Lamb, skyr, berries and dried fish

What’s next for you?

On our arrival home myself and my colleague Hlédís Sveinsdóttir will start organising our next market which will be held in Harpa Music and Conference House in the Reykjavik Harbour area the weekend of the 21stand 22ndof November. We will have around 55-60 producers showcasing their amazing produce at this event which will have a slight festive feel as we are then getting closer to Christmas, which is celebrated on the 24thof December in Iceland. My shop will also get ready for the festive season so there will not be much rest for us until January…

Find out more about visitingIceland and the Icelandic Pantry here…