FIND. COOK. EAT. ICELAND.
A cooking adventure with Slippurinn’s Head Chef, Gísli Matthías Auðunsson.
The Icelandic Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) are an archipelago located off the south-west coast of Iceland. A 35 minute ferry ride from Landeyjarhöfn takes you to the harbour on the main island of Heimaey. The island has about 4,200 inhabitants, although this reduces somewhat during the winter months between October and May. Like the rest of Iceland, the weather is harsh, at times changing between four seasons in a day. The warm wind from the south crosses the Atlantic and hits the islands without any buffer, reaching speeds of 61mps (140mph). This wind gives Vestmannaeyjar the warmest temperature average of the entire country and, although rainy, the area sees little snow.
Over the centuries, the people who have called the island their home have relied on their fishing and foraging skills for sustaining their community. One of the most notable practices—though restricted now—was to forage for puffin and sea bird eggs in the nests hidden among the island’s steep cliffs.
This history and reputation of the Slippurinn restaurant’s local and sustainable approach to cuisine made it the ideal first destination in the Find. Cook. Eat. series.
The day I arrived on the island was sunny and a balmy (for Iceland) 10 degrees celsius in mid-May. (This was a nice change from the 3 degrees highs and hail storms I had been experiencing on the south coast of Iceland in the days prior.) I was able to set up my tent in the campground at the base of an old volcanic crater just outside of town and then walk the majority of the island before the evening, when I met Gísli and his sister for an amazing dinner at Slippurinn in the harbour of the city. The next morning Gísli and I met again and set out from the restaurant with a few basic supplies—oil, salt and butter, as well as my camping cooking gear and a few dishes from the restaurant.
Our first stop was the warehouse of his preferred fisherman in the harbour. We selected a particularly long Icelandic fish from a recent catch, cut and cleaned it, and were on our way. (Only after was I persuaded to try a taste of the traditional fermented shark shank that was hanging in the warehouse. It's definitely an acquired taste... one which I have still not acquired.)
We then went on to gather some fresh herbs. Even in the middle of May, Spring had not fully arrived in Iceland. So instead of foraging in his usual spots outside of town, we raided his mother's greenhouse. We were welcomed to the greenhouse behind Gísli’s childhood home by gnomes resting atop the door and a two meter whale’s skull found by his father.
Our next stop was along the coast and next to a farm where the restaurant often gets their lamb. After a brief visit with the newly born arrivals to the herd, we walked down a muddy path toward the rocky beach. A short climb down and we came to some tidal pools full of auburn seaweed, which was next on our list. To our great fortune, on the way back to the car he spotted the first shoots of herbs making their appearance along the path, and they were promptly added to the bag.
Our final destination was alongside a steep road which leads to the old weather reporting station at the far south of the island. I couldn't see much of anything there except a sloping golden field which seemed to end abruptly. Gísli took off, climbing over the shepherd's fence and descended down the field. When I caught up, I found him standing over a hole near the cliff's edge. This was the only entrance to our temporary kitchen for the day. When I expressed my doubts about climbing into the darkness, I was given the second option of climbing down the cliff's rocky face to enter. My vertigo seemed to prefer the 3 meter drop to the vastly larger one off the cliff, so down I went with Gísli guiding me from below.
Once inside, I discovered the cave was open and looked out over the sea. It is a favourite secret of locals, and from the looks of it, undiscovered by tourists. From outside, the roaring windand darkening skies were foreboding hints that we should get started with our preparations.
After my little camp stove was lit, he began by toasting the bread. Next, he sautéd the fish in butter and herbs, which were then set aside. The langoustines followed with butter, herbs and seaweed. The toast got a smear of fresh soft cheese and the fish and langoustines were placed atop separate slices. He then sprinkled the last of the fresh herbs over the dish just as the wind outside was picking up to a gale, signaling it was time to leave. However, first we ate under the watchful eyes of the seagulls peering in as they hovered at the mouth of the cave.
Our hunger now abated, we packed up our gear to head back to town. To my dismay, I learned that our entrance had been one way only, which meant the mouth of the cave was now our exit and the cliff face our only way back up. For a native islander, the ascent was effortless, while I on the other hand, was a tad less graceful and a bit more melodramatic. Once up though, I turned to look out at the sea, and the intensity of my phobia faded and was replaced with pride and a happiness for the success of this first adventure.
Open May - October