A friend indeed…Eirný Sigurðardóttir has become the go-to expert in Iceland for everything to do with cheese and the dairy industry, farming history and food production. She has brought curds right up the agenda in Iceland and on to restaurant menus in Reykjavik. She’s the driving force behind several excellent food markets in Iceland, where more and more local producers can share and promote their wares. In 2015 she set up the ‘Icelandic pantry’ in Borough Market which brought producers from all over Iceland to London with meats, fish, cheese, herbs, jams and much more.
Combining her passion for cheese culture with her Icelandic roots, Eirny opened the doors to her pantry and deli in October 2008, a little way away from the centre of Reykjavik. I remember finding the shop one cold wintery day when I was on a research trip to Iceland, and once I had got inside knew that this was something different and exciting. Although Eirný was busy somewhere else, I was able to see where the cheese workshops took place in a galley shaped space beside the shop, enjoy a tasting and to buy some cheese. As I left I handed over a business card and a note to invite Eirny to call me if possible.
Over the next few years, I heard Eirný on radio interviews including BBC Radio 4, read about her in the Icelandic press and then visited one of the food markets that she had introduced to promote local food producers in Iceland. ‘Matarmarkadur’, Iceland’s largest Artisanal Food Fare is held twice a year at the Harpa conference centre in Reykjavik, an event that has become one of the most visited of the year. Having seen the effect that good promotion had made for producers located in far flung corners of Iceland, Eirny contacted me early in 2015 to tell me that she was bringing her market to the UK.
So how could a small band of determined Icelanders introduce UK shoppers and food enthusiasts to the many and varied tastes of Iceland? As a small country, there’s a great deal to work with and in spite of some climatic challenges, Iceland benefits from natural and traditional production methods and its own slow food approach (rókostur). What appeared in the Icelandic Pantry at London’s Borough Market in October 2015 was a wonderful mix of meats, cheeses, herbs, fish, patisserie and liqueurs. Amongst the more unusual contributions were rhubarb brittle, organic fermented vegetables and tinned cod’s liver. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of the producers on their stalls, the English palate was cleverly introduced to these tasty and unexpected delicacies. During the week, we were able to assist by sharing our passion for Iceland and to offer ideas for making it a future holiday destination. Serendipity, in the form of a visit by food writer Diana Henry, also led to the success of our own Iceland Traveller food tour to Iceland in August 2016, which subsequently featured in BBC Good Food Magazine (more here).
The Borough Market event showed that anything is possible. It was an enormous and exciting undertaking and a worthy showcase of Icelandic produce. However, with such a peculiar and quirky pattern of small scale, seasonal food production and in a country where local and slow is so much part of the Icelandic tradition, it really is best to go there to capture the true and authentic experience: arctic thyme, anise and wild fennel, extraordinary milk from isolated breeds of cow, sheep and goat, the freshest fish and meats such fabulous lamb and even reindeer.
Then in November 2017, I visited Iceland on a new sort of journey – with a group of networking girl friends from the UK for a very short, very busy ‘look see’ trip. One of the highlights was our networking supper in Reykjavik. Calling on my Icelandic girl friends, I arranged a wonderful venue, a great Icelandic foodie menu and an amazing guest namely Iceland’s leading female crime writer, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Among my Icelandic friends that came along was Eirný, who I hadn’t seen for some time such is the nature of her very full on and busy life. Enough to say that the evening ended with our decision to combine our skills and set up an al fresco cooking and eating experience in Iceland ‘before too long’.
And now here we are in 2018. I’ve recently been to Iceland, had a meeting with Eirny, and plans are in place! She made a special visit to stay with us in Surbiton during May to host a unique pop up supper and attend the village fete as part of the Surbiton Food Festival. This was a great success and the delicious cheese that she brought over were extremely well received. In June 2019 we’ll be leading Iceland Al Fresco, a rustic food and cooking holiday in West Iceland, details of this midsummer journey are here.
What can you expect from a journey with Eirný? In spite of her Icelandic name, Eirný’s accent places her firmly as a lady with a Scottish influence. With Icelandic parents, she spent much of her life in the UK and enjoyed many of our great cheeses. Her workshops and our pop up covers the distinctively different history of dairy as well as that of cheese, in a land without wood to burn or bread to eat. There’s so much of interest to learn from her, and ‘curd nerd’ is an apt descriptor for her. Since Borough Market, she’s written the Icelandic section for the ‘Oxford Companion to Cheese’ published in 2016, and remains busy with interviews, television and running her successful Reykjavik Cheese School. Of course, for the whole package it’s imperative to experience this for yourself, but here’s a little of what you might encounter during our forthcoming Al Fresco holiday. Be ready for tastes of cooked-curd cheeses, Ísbúi and Tindur, or Búri, a semi-soft, cratered cheese; perhaps Gráðaostur, a solid wedge of rindless blue or Stóri Dímon, a large dense circle of cheese with a pale coloured rind. Then there’s Ljótur, an 8-week aged cheese with a mottled rind. Real rarities include a sweet and tangy brie, made from the milk of the very small herd of Icelandic ‘settlement’ goats. As for skyr, historically a vitally important staple in the Icelandic diet and worthy of several paragraphs of its own, you’ll just have to find out more from Eirny herself!