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Erlingur Erlingsson Talks Skyr, Salmon and Iceland

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Welcome back to Eater in the Embassy, where we ask ambassadors, diplomats and the chefs behind DC's diplomatic receptions and events about their native cuisine, working in an embassy kitchen and their favorite places to eat around the city. In this latest edition: Erlingur Erlingsson, counselor for the Embassy of Iceland.


As one of three diplomats based at the Embassy of Iceland (the embassy does not have a chef), Erlingur Erlingsson's duties run the gamut, from convincing companies like Whole Foods to carry Icelandic food products to organizing events which promote the Icelandic culture. Erlingsson sat down with Eater and WAMU's Rebecca Sheir, who once again partnered with the site for this feature, to talk about Iceland's culinary landscape. He also prepared some dishes, from a cake made with the Iceland yogurt skyr, to a simple poached haddock with potatoes and Icelandic butter, that are representative of the cuisine. Fish jerky made an appearance as well.

Head to WAMU.org to catch Metro Connection's interview with Erlingsson (it will air at about 1:40 p.m. today), and read on to hear about why Erlingsson thinks his native country serves the best lamb in the world, and the fact you can buy sheep's head at the train station.

If you're looking for Icelandic or Icelandic-style food in D.C., you're probably not going to find it at a restaurant (well, at least not until Look opens on K Street later this winter). But according to Erlingsson, the grocery store is a sound bet for finding the ingredients that influence the country's cuisine.

"We have a good relationship with Whole Foods," he said; the grocery store stocks up on Icelandic lamb in the fall, and also sells such Icelandic items as butter and chocolate from the country, as well as seafood such as Arctic char. One of the most popular items there is skyr, which Erlingsson served to Eater and WAMU both on its own and in the form of a no-bake cake, with a Snickers and digestive biscuit crust.

"It's essentially like an Icelandic relative of Greek yogurt. Technically it's a cheese," Erlingur explains. "This one is vanilla flavored." In Iceland, skyr is often eaten as either a breakfast option or a snack. It also works as a dipping sauce for meat. Whole Foods carries two brands: skyr.is and Siggi's.

Beer and wine are not as much a part of Iceland's history as they are for many other European countries, Erlingsson explained. "Beer and Iceland have an interesting history. We went through Prohibition like everyone else, and when it was lifted, they allowed spirits in but they didn't allow beers or wines." Now, the country is starting to develop more of a microbrewery scene, but beer wasn't allowed into the country until the 1980s. One of the better lagers now is Egils Gull. Health-conscious Icelanders, a growing population, drink carbonated water with dinner, for the most part.

What they do have is liquor - Brennivin, which has earned the nickname "black death." "Every country has a schnapps," said Erlingsson. He described Brennivin as "a pretty aggressive spirit. There's not a lot of flavor. Maybe some cumin but otherwise it is a very clean spirit." Tradition holds that it is meant to help choke down hákarl, or fermented shark meat, which is consumed in Iceland. With the drink comes a traditional toast; "Skål," which translates to "bowl."

Erlingsson prepared a traditional dish of poached haddock with potatoes, served with Icelandic butter. "I know I'm not the only one who when he goes home, says to his mother, 'That's what I'd like'," he said. Icelandic butter is also often paired with harðfiskur, which is essentially fish jerky, a healthy but expensive dish sold in Iceland (a small packet would go for about $10-15 U.S. dollars). "It's really a premium product," he said. Another traditional preparation is graflax, a salmon cured with dill, salt and sugar and thinly sliced. It's often served with bread and a mustard sauce.

When Erlingsson thinks of home, it's the lamb he misses the most. "The lamb is really quite special. It's all free range, raised on the hoof in open pastures." Iceland has strict laws governing the animal population, which has been disease free for decades. Monkfish is his favorite fish to eat in Iceland. Since he can't head to an Icelandic restaurant in DC yet, Erlingsson finds homestyle Japanese restaurants to be most reminiscent of the food from back home.

Icelandic restaurants, though, have seen a boon in fame and popularity, particularly with the rise of the Nordic Noma, sometimes ranked as the best restaurant in the world, where DC's own Dan Giusti cooks. As a result, more tourists are seeking out Iceland for food, he said.

If they aren't into molecular gastronomy, though, they can swing in the other direction and get an Icelandic hot dog. They're made of lamb, wrapped in a soft white bun. Order the "Bill Clinton" and you'll receive one with only mustard, he said, which is how the former president had his when he visited. Another delicacy there is sheep's head, which is commonplace enough to find at even the train station (Erlingsson bought one for his girlfriend as a surprise when they recently visited; she was less than thrilled with the present). And some even eat puffins, the bird of the sea often associated with the country. Erlingsson says the country's sea birds have a gamey flavor, but that they also taste of the sea they come from.

The recipe for Graflax (it's known as Gravlax in Norway)

Ingredients
Two 1.5 - 2 lbs tail pieces of salmon fillets (total weight 3-4 lbs)
4 - 5 tablespoons salt (preferably Maldon)
1 tablespoon crushed pepper (peppercorn blend or black pepper)
3-4 tablespoons fennel seeds (whole)
fresh dill to cover the fillets
1 small to mid-size onion finely chopped

Instructions:
Take the fillets (total weight 3-4 lbs) and dry them off. Lay them down, meat side up and drizzle on the spices.
Start with salt and pepper and fennel, mix those together in a little bowl and then distribute evenly over the fillets.
Then evenly distribute the fresh dill across the fillets, followed by the onions.
After this, place one fillet on top of the other (meat on meat) and place in plastic wrapping (2 bags or generously of film).
Store in fridge for 48 - 72 hours, turning every 24 hours.
Clean the spices off the filets (scrape off with a knife) and slice the fillets thinly.

Graflax sauce
1/2 lb. mayonnaise
2 tablespoons honey mustard (Honeycup uniquely sharp Mustard from Canada)
1 tablespoon honey (a runny type)
1/2 tablespoon dill (dried & fresh finely chopped)
salt and pepper according to taste
brown sauce coloring - a little bit (we use Gravymaster browning and seasoning)

Instructions: Mix everything together.

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