Fire and Ice in the Nordic Kitchen
Vox restaurant in Reykjavik reintroduces Icelanders to tastes from the old Nordic kitchen and the new-found pleasures of wine.
Iceland ’s contribution to modern world cuisine has, up until now, come in the form of fusion cooking – marrying high-quality Icelandic ingredients with ultra-modern, and often unorthodox, cooking techniques. Fresh fish and gamey mountain lamb are taken to new cosmic levels by Icelandic chefs on their quest for the exotic and bizarre.
Vox Restaurant is the first to break with this new craze, recently returning to its basic Scandinavian roots by adopting the full New Nordic Manifesto. Chef de Cuisine Gunnar Karl Gíslason threw out all the olive oil and foie gras when he took over last year and now only sources from Scandinavia to produce seasonal menus every 2 to 3 months.
Guests are treated to tastes from the whole Nordic region: scallops from the Faeroes, king crab from Norway, truffles from Sweden and musk ox from Greenland. From Iceland come strawberries, grown in geothermically-heated glass houses, whilst a local ‘witch’ supplies wild herbs from heather and grasses which are either used fresh or burned to make a spice.
Gunnar creates summer and winter ice cream from birch and pine wood, sourcing the wood from an uncle who lives in a forest in East Iceland. Icelandic fish and lamb are plentiful, but as the growing period in Iceland is so short, most of Vox´s vegetables are flown in fresh from Sweden all year round.
When it comes to pairing with wine, the enthusiastic young sommelier, Elísabet Alba Valdimarsdóttir, studies each new menu armed with a list of ingredients and preparation methods. Alba has been with Vox since its inception in 2003 and is Iceland’s most respected sommelier, having won a string of competitions and presiding over the largest wine cellar in Iceland with 4 to 5 thousand bottles.
Alba pairs a few basic wines to each dish which she and Gunnar then taste together, though Gunnar often wants to match a lot with beer to reflect its Nordic identity. Beer is used frequently in the kitchen, Gunnar being particularly proud of his version of hafragrautur, or porridge, which is cooked in local beer and makes a “really good dessert”.
Meanwhile Alba is busy spreading the word on wine. Most Icelanders know very little about wine as having wine with food is a relatively new development. “10 years ago someone who had a glass of wine with dinner was called an alcoholic,” she says. Under her direction, guests are ‘taught’ through a short introduction to each wine they order. “Wine scares many people, but it doesn’t have to be. Our job is to make their life as easy as possible while having dinner - they’re not supposed to be afraid to ask for anything.”
The wine list at Vox is surprisingly comprehensive considering the size of the country with only 313,000 inhabitants - there’s even a cellar full of Cloudy Bay. Alba explains that it’s easier to get premium wines in Iceland than overseas because of the peculiar tax system on alcohol. “Foreigners come to Iceland to buy the big Chateaux because it’s cheaper here than anywhere else.”
All wines on the menus can be had by the glass and are carefully matched for each dish. For the starter of langoustine and Icelandic rye bread ice cream, Alba served an unoaked Grand Cru Chablis from Brocard. She explained that a crisp, dry white wine like a Sauvignon would be the normal choice for shellfish but “when you throw sweet, dark Icelandic rye bread into the equation it makes for a completely different match”.
The enchanting yeasty brioche notes of the Chablis stood up to the strong rye bread flavours, whilst still keeping its freshness with a light dash of acidity for the shellfish. “If its too heavy and too oaked, it will completely bulldoze over the shellfish itself”, she explained.
Creating harmony between food and wine is Alba´s passion. For the main course, a fillet of lamb and accompanying hearts, shanks and blood sausage called for something a bit gutsier, but she was sure to select a wine which would not overpower the slow-cooked baby lamb. “I hate it when people bring robust wine to overpower the main dish – there’s no harmony there”.
She chose a Kenwood Zinfandel from California, pointing to its spicy notes and extremely soft, mature tannins. She not only paired the wine’s spiciness with the wild meat flavours and the blood sausage, but also its texture with the puff pastry base and mushroom duxelles, whilst the weight was in perfect balance with the lamb shanks and hearts.
Alba admitted that she could have chosen any Tuscan, Pomerol or Ribero del Duero, but she chose Zinfandel because she’s “standing up for the little guy”. “It’s been dragged through the mud - leave it alone and it shines”, she said, referring to the sweet ‘blush’ version which has given its name such a bad reputation.
Dessert capitalised heavily on Skyr - a thick, creamy Icelandic dairy product, similar to sweetened Quark. For this Alba paired a Muscatel from Torres, one of her favourite wines to match with dessert because of its nose of bergamot. One sniff confirmed the seductive whiff of Earl Grey tea, and its elegance matched perfectly with the lightness of the skyr and the muted notes of the cinnamon, citrus and coffee flavours.
For Icelanders, who are wont to forget their days of boiled fish and home-brewed alcohol, rediscovering old-fashioned childhood flavours and wine from all corners of the globe is an emotional experience. Pairing old-fashioned Icelandic rye bread, which is baked for six hours in a lava field and then transformed into ice cream, with the Brocard Chablis was nothing short of genius. “Why do we do it?” asked Alba rhetorically, “because we can”.
Since settlement in 874 AD, Icelanders have struggled for centuries against famine, plagues and natural disasters, yet despite this hardship have still managed to produce a wealth of high-quality ingredients. Vox’s dedication to the Nordic Manifesto is its way of giving much overdue credit to this turbulent history and simple but much undervalued cuisine.
By his refusal to use exotic foreign foods and unnecessary cooking methods, Gunnar Karl Gíslason is at the forefront of the slow food revolution in Iceland. It’s honest, simple but soul-touching food, reminiscent of the days of curly-leafed parsley and porridge, but brought up to the highest modern standards with clever combinations and superior raw materials. Taking 1,000 year old ingredients, rejuvenating them and pairing them with world-class wines confirms Alba’s central belief, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it”.
FOOD AND WINES
Lightly-cooked langoustine, scallops and shrimps with horseradish, buttermilk espuma, lobster infused Bornholm rapeseed oil and rye bread ice cream.
2002 Brocard, Chablis Grand Cru Bougros, Burgundy
Distinct brioche and fresh apricots notes. Good minerality, fresh acidity and a long elegant finish.
The Main Course
Sautéed fillet of lamb on crispy puff pastry with mixed mushrooms and parsley-garlic cream. Served with lambs’ shanks, hearts, fried blood sausage and boiled potatoes .
2005 Kenwood, Jack London Zinfandel, Sonoma
Complex spicy cedar notes followed by smooth wild berry and cherry fruit flavours on the palate. Rich, round body with a long elegant finish.
Soft skyr and coffee with hazelnuts and lemon-cinnamon infused oatmeal.
Torres, Muscatel del Oro, Penedes
Fine amber colour with aromas of honeyed orange, flowers and light spice. Well-balanced, fine acidity and not over-sweet.
Vox Restaurant / Bistro - Hilton Reykjavik Nordica - Suðurlandsbraut 2 - 108 Reykjavík - Iceland
Phone: +354 444 5050 - www.vox.is