Destination Guides

Icelandic cuisine, from land to table

DEPARTURES 65 /100: We talk to Gunnar Karl Gislason, author of North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland

Icelandic cuisine, from land to table
Gunnar Karl Gislason, author of North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland

[DEPARTURES 100] Icelandic cuisine is perhaps as unknown to many as it was to its own people – that is, before Gunnar Karl Gislason reintroduced it in his restaurant in Reykjavik.  

When Iceland hit its three-year long financial crisis in 2008, imports were cut off and ingredients became sparse and expensive, making locally caught, grown and harvested foods primary resources.

Opening Dill Restaurant in 2011, Gunnar presented “new Nordic cuisine”; a dedication to keeping traditional Icelandic culture alive with a contemporary and fine dining aesthetic. 

North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland, released this October, is more a tribute to Icelandic nature than a recipe book. Disappearing culinary traditions and specialties are key, such as foraging for arctic thyme, sorrel and angelica, using geothermal heat for baking, smoking lamb and fishing for pristine blue mussels. Chapters are named after Gislason’s local suppliers and farmers, such as “The Arctic Char Smoker”, “The Birch and Mushroom Forager” and “The Barley Farmer”, complemented by photography of stunning dishes and arctic landscapes. 

DEPARTURES: Briefly explain your culinary background and what led you to open your own restaurant?

Gunnar Karl Gislason: I started washing dishes when I was 15 and I found out that I felt good in the kitchen, so I have been there ever since. I opened my first restaurant 5 and 1/2 years ago and I have no idea what led to it. I guess I wanted freedom to do whatever I wanted, good or bad. I´m still not sure if it was a good idea.

What makes the food scene in Iceland so interesting and distinct?

GKG: I´m not sure about Icelandic food scene in general, but if I answer the question from Dill point of view then I would say it´s our unique ingredients. We use a lot of ingredients that are very traditional, from the time of Vikings. We then experiment with them and find a way to use them in modern kitchen.

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A dish from Gislason's Dill restaurant, using mushrooms, cheese & birch tree

What traditional ingredients, flavours and preparation methods award the Nordic cuisine of Iceland its character and individuality? 

GKG: I would say our preservation method. Drying, salting, smoking and pickling in whey. Those where the traditionally way to prepare for the winter, those ingredients are very unusual and truly Icelandic.

For the coming winter months, which foraged ingredients and dishes are you most looking forward to working with and preparing?

GKG: Well now we are getting in all the wild berries – as well we are preparing for the winter so we are getting in a lot of stuff to preserve. I love that time of year, I love preparing for the winter.

What’s the charm in living off the land as opposed to a busy city environment? 

GKG: Collaboration with local vendors, producers and farmers is the most important thing to me. And getting closer to nature and therefore knowing your ingredients better.

What dishes or flavour combinations are your favourites? 

GKG: My favourite is the first potatoes of the summer, there is nothing better then brand new potatoes boiled and served with good butter and salt.

<< Click here for one of Gunnar Karl Gislason's recipes >>

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