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Travel: Iceland and pan-seared salmon

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We Are Never Full

(Read caption) This dish plays with the flavors and textures of fall vegetables. Enjoy the taste and the color contrast on your plate.

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My guidebook assured me that three out of five Icelanders believe that faeries, mischievous sprites and trolls are real. Many, it continues, actively take precautions against them, refusing to set foot in the spots they are thought to inhabit. My first introduction to the country, the drive from the airport into Reykjavik, past a giant aluminum smelting factory set in a jet black lava field against gun-metal clouds, felt more like Bladerunner than the redoubt of spirits.

The homogeneity of the Icelandic population is such that, I, a tall, fair-haired white man, was always addressed in English. This was possibly for the best since Icelandic sounds like an even more inscrutable version of the Elvish tongues lisped so cloyingly in the Lord of the Rings. Happily, though, for students of this, the original Norse, there are no regional accents, slang or dialects of Icelandic to contend with. That there are less than 250,000 native speakers helps keep the number of foreign students limited to either the truly committed or the mildly eccentric.

However, spending my week there with an Icelandic family meant that my exposure to the language was greater than the average tourist, and so it was that by its end, I could both write and pronounce “Hej, hvað segir Þu?” (Hi, how are you?) and “Fint, takk fyrir!” (Fine, thanks very much!”) well enough that everyone still responded in English.

On my final, gorgeously sunny evening, with the light dancing off the twinkling wake, I took a boat across Reykjavik harbor to dinner on the island of Viðey with a consequent degree of pessimism about my prospects for a decent meal. The summer though, is an inversion of everything that is awful about Icelandic winters, from the weather to the cuisine, and I was delighted by everything on offer, that is, until the arrival of the almost preposterously enormous bill.

On my plate that night was a gloriously simple pan-fried arctic char of the most luminous orange over a cauliflower mousse that the chef had sculpted to resemble a ski-jump, surrounded by some tiny, inky-hued Siberian tomatoes, greenhoused locally. The combination of fish, snow and black boulders felt like a distillate of the country itself, in microcosm. Perhaps only a sprinkling of pixie dust was missing.


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