How to eat like an Icelander and enjoy long, healthy life
MICHELIN star chef Agnar Sverrisson (otherwise known as Aggi) was a pioneer of the new Nordic food scene when he brought his restaurant, Texture, to the UK in 2007. It’s still going strong today. Sverrisson serves light dishes centred around ingredients from land and sea, mixing British and Icelandic influences.
Is he on to something with his Icelandicinspired approach to eating well?
“I like to feel satisfied – not hungry, but never full,” he explains. “I like to go to restaurants and be able to go out afterwards – and not be so stuffed that I just want to go home and sleep.
“You should enjoy light, amazing food that makes you pleasantly satisfied.”
According to nutritionist Lily Soutter, the Icelandic diet is typically low in saturated fat, yet high in healthy omega 3 fatty acids.
“This combination is perfect for supporting cardiovascular health,” she says.
“Most of these healthy fats come from fresh, locally caught fish; in fact the Icelandic cuisine contains four times the amount of seafood found in the cuisine of other countries.
“The diet of an Icelander tends to be high in fibre and low in sugar, both of which are great factors for balancing blood sugar and preventing type 2 diabetes.
“Much of the food is local and seasonal, meaning it will be fresher and in some cases more nutrient-dense.
“Typically, there is very little processed food within the Icelandic diet.”
How does the Icelandic diet compare with the widely lauded Mediterranean diet?
“As a whole, consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables may be lower in Nordic countries than in warmer Mediterranean climates. However, the Icelandic diet is not so different from the Mediterranean diet in that it advocates moderate consumption of fat and protein,” Soutter said.
“Mediterranean diets tend to focus on olive oil, nuts, beans and sardines while Ice- landers focus on canola oil (rapeseed oil), wild berries, root vegetables and cod.”
While Iceland is known for questionable delicacies such as whale sashimi, rotten shark (kæstur hákarl) and puffin, many staples of the diet are far more palatable.
Sverrison is particularly proud of Iceland’s famous lamb. “We take the shanks and we braise them for a very long time in mother’s broth – traditional Icelandic broth for a cold day with barley, carrots, potatoes, swedes, rosemary and thyme.
“I also tend to cook a rack of lamb sous-vide and then chargrill it afterwards. The temperature should be around 60°C, so it’s pink but not too pink. I serve it with barley, and I like the shoulder best.
“Icelandic lamb is lean and game-like, because a lot of the sheep and lambs live in the mountains and eat lingonberries and wild herbs. Then they go to the sea and eat all the sea herbs.”
According to Soutter, lamb is packed with iron. “As a result, it contributes to the reduction or tiredness and fatigue as well as supporting immune function,” she says.
“They also provide a source of omega 3 fats and B vitamins which both play a role with supporting cardiovascular health.”
Herbs like sorrel, dill and thyme are widely used.
“I love sorrel with fish,” says Sverrisson. “It has a very distinctive flavour and it helps to bring out the flavour of the food.
“And who doesn’t like dill in Iceland and Scandinavia? Dill is just everywhere. I love it with salmon, but not only that – I also love it with vegetables. It’s not for everybody: you either love it or you hate it.
“You also get so much wild, Arctic thyme and lemon thyme here, which is beautiful with lamb. I always use it fresh: if you cook it with the lamb it stews and gets a completely different flavour – you massage it a little bit and it releases the flavour.”
As well as providing flavour and seasoning, there are health benefits too. “Herbs are a perfect way of flavouring food without the need for salt,” stresses Soutter. “They are also often high in antioxidants.” Then there is the famous Icelandic fish. Sverrisson likes to cook cod on one side in a very hot pan so it’s very crispy, then hardly cook the other side so it’s very soft.
“Cod is brilliant cold as well, marinated in a salad.”
From a nutritionist’s point of view, Soutter approves of Iceland’s liking for cod. “Cod is a low fat source of quality protein, an essential macronutrient needed for maintenance of muscle mass and healthy bones. Cod is also a good source for vital micronutrients such as Vitamin B12, iodine and selenium.”
Salmon is another staple of the Icelandic diet. “It’s a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids. These essential fats may help to support cardiovascular health, and also play a role with mood, memory and concentration,” Soutter says.
Skyr is Iceland’s famous cultured dairy product, which claims to be high in protein and low in fat. It resembles yogurt, but has a milder taste.
“It’s perfect for balancing blood sugar, as well as maintaining muscle mass and bone health,” Soutter says.
There’s been plenty of noise of late about sea weeds and sea herbs. “It’s rich in minerals, which contributes to normal thyroid function, a key organ involved with our metabolism,” Soutter says.
“It’s also rich in iodine, which contributes to the maintenance of normal skin, nervous system and cognitive function, along with zinc, magnesium, potassium, copper and even calcium.”
It’s a lesser known fact that Iceland is abundant in rhubarb.
“I love rhubarb. It’s not too sweet and has a little acidity,” says Sverrisson.
Apparently, it’s also rich in vitamins K and C, supporting the immune system. – The Telegraph
IMMUNE SYSTEM BOOSTER: Rhubarb is rich in vitamins K and C
LIGHT FANTASTIC: Smoked salmon with dill and fresh fennel
PROTIEN PUNCH: Grilled cod with chiffonade of sorrel