Food is a hugely valuable device for a writer. There are few better ways than evoking those aromas and to nail down a sense of location. Writing about France, Spain or Italy? Then it’s those sun-kissed tomatoes, fragrant herbs, olive oil, tarte au pommes, garlic and fresh, young red wine. Yup, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
Anywhere on the southern side of the Mediterranean and it’s those subtle blends of elusive spices, savoury and sweet, meat cooked tender in a tagine with fruit, honey and mint tea. Try central Europe and those aromatic goulashes, monster schnitzels, sauerkraut and beer made by people who have been growing hops and practising their art to perfection for centuries.
Britain, well… there are chips, sausages and pies, spotted dick, custard, warm beer. That’s not quite true. We Brits do see decent food, contrary to what the rest of the world believes and laughs about, but you have to search it out.
You can understand why crime writers set their work in exotic locations; India, France, Italy, South Africa, Turkey, South-East Asia. It’s warm pretty much all year round and the food is great.
There are a very few of us who have been misguided enough to venture north. There are a couple of us Nordic Pretenders who have set our work in places north of Shetland for one reason or another, but it’s not because of the low prices, easy access in winter and the fantastic cuisine.
I went to Iceland first at the end of the seventies and it was the food rather than the weather that was hard to get used to, not to mention the bizarre drinking culture. Icelanders were pretty much cut off from the rest of the world for centuries while the Norwegian and Danish kings ruled the roost. A few ships sailed to Iceland with precious goods, taking away with them saltfish, ponies and the few other things that Icelanders were able to produce. But for centuries items such as flour and sugar were luxuries.
The two grocery shops in the town where I lived had identical ranges of onions, potatoes, green and red apples that tasted of paper, occasional bananas or oranges, and vegetables in tins – tinned peas, tinned carrots, tinned carrots and peas, or red cabbage. Fresh veg was swede. Oh, there was also tinned fruit, but ruinously expensive and only for special occasions.
The diet was meat and potatoes, or fish and potatoes; these being the mandatory potatoes that accompanied every meal. The meat was mutton, and normally laden with the fat that people working long hours in the cold need to keep themselves insulated, and fish was haddock, cut into steaks with skin, bones and the rest of it and boiled. Occasionally there’d be fried halibut or catfish, or boiled saltfish. The Nordic countries produce saltfish as part of a long tradition that goes back to the trade to supply Catholic Europe with something to eat on meatless Fridays. But saltfish in Iceland is nothing like the way it’s cooked in southern Europe with tomatoes, onions, garlic and all that good stuff. Icelanders have their saltfish de-salted and boiled, served with rendered lamb fat. I’m not kidding. I mentioned this in Frozen Out and it’s one of the things I received many questions about, but I assure you it’s entirely real.
In fact, there used to be so much meat and fish in the diet that newcomers would occasionally come out in a rash and run to the doctor thinking they’d caught an obscure arctic disease, only to be told that they were suffering a reaction to the sheer volume of protein in their new diets.
Strong flavours weren’t appreciated. Food was pretty bland and the misguided efforts of the ship’s cook (me) who overdid the curry one day with what I thought was a perfectly reasonable dose of chilli powder is still talked about to this day in hushed tones.
‘My God, it was enough to make a blind man see,’ the mate groaned. But he still finished his plateful and asked for more, albeit with a litre of milk to wash it down.
These days, in spite of the ongoing financial crisis, shops carry everything you’d expect to see anywhere in Europe – from extra virgin olive oil to every exotic fruit. There are TV chefs extolling the virtues of every mysterious ingredient and there are restaurants and takeaways of every flavour and description.
But now we get to the seasonal part that gives this blog post its tenuous topicality. The traditional food Icelanders ate before freezers and supermarkets is still there. Christmas is traditionally the time for smoked lamb, eaten on Christmas Eve, accompanied by boiled potatoes and white sauce. This delicacy now appears to be somewhat on the decline, as Icelanders are choosing smoked pork, ptarmigan or reindeer. The same can’t be said of the traditional skate dinner eaten on the 23rd of December, the feast of Saint Thorlákur. This is skate that has been allowed to putrefy as a means of getting the ammonia out of the meat that would otherwise be poisonous. The smell alone is an experience, and it carries.
Late winter is known as Thorri, when a festival of traditional foods is held in practically every village and town to feast on sour whalemeat, scourged sheep heads and a few other goodies – and shark. The ammonia-rich Greenland sharkmeat is allowed to putrefy in much the same way as skate, buried below the tideline. Whoever tried this stuff first must have been seriously ravenous, as it takes a strong man to get past the smell alone that rivals surströmming – Swedish fermented herring –in being so pungent and unappetising that just cracking open a jar of this stuff can clear a room in seconds.
After just thinking about that, my appetite has unaccountably vanished, and I haven’t even mentioned the pickled testicles yet. If you want to get under the skin of a place, and especially if you want to write about it, avoid the ubiquitous international cuisine of steaks, burgers and the rest of it, and eat where the locals eat, in snackbars and truckstops. Talk to the cook, the guy behind the counter and the girl clearing the tables, if they have time. Get yourself up close and intimate with the local food culture. It may be a challenge, but it’ll always be interesting.