The Gourmand: A contemporary food, arts and culture journal
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Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice

  • Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice - The Gourmand
  • Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice - The Gourmand
  • Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice - The Gourmand
  • Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice - The Gourmand
  • Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice - The Gourmand
  • Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice - The Gourmand

Foraging For Mussels in the Land of Fire and Ice

  • The day is gloriously sunny and we’ve driven from Reykjavik to Hvalfjörður to collect wild mussels and seaweed for our lunch. “They have to be closed and not heavy. If they are heavy, they are full of sand. If they are a little bit opened you hit them, if they close they are ok.” Chef Ulfar Finnbjörnsson, also known as “The Wild Chef”, has been foraging for food in the otherworldly landscape that surrounds us for over 30 years. 
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  • May 1st marks the start of mussel season in Iceland and we are not the only ones on the beach, “I’m surprised to see so many people. Ten years ago we would be here alone,” remarks the Wild Chef.  Armored with thick plastic gloves and carrying buckets we head to the shore,  “just look under the rocks,” he instructs, mussels filter iron from seawater to produce the adhesive that they use to attach themselves to just about anything. “Hopefully we will find some horse mussels, I can’t promise you but we might find sea urchins as well.  We eat them raw, or you can make soups and sauces with them, they are very very tasty,” Finnbjornsson tells me enthusiastically. 
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  • He bends down and picks up two kinds of seaweed to show me, “the green seaweed we call belt seaweed, it’s thicker and very long and it takes a long time to dry, much longer than this red one we call sol.”  According to the Icelandic Sagas, sol (Rhodymenia palmata) has been known to be edible since the year 961. Traditionally it was washed thoroughly in fresh water, dried like hay and packed in barrels or special huts. It is highly valued in Iceland as a nourishing food and cure for many ailments including nausea, indigestion, and seasickness. 
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  • “Before the bank collapsed nobody went out foraging. When I was learning to be a chef, I’d pick up wild thyme, sorrel, people would look at me like I was crazy.  They’d say, “It’s dirty, somebody has probably peed on it!” Most people used to think that everything that was imported was better.  We even used to import sorrel! We didn't used to eat lobster because it looked ugly. But that’s all changed with the crash. Nordic cuisine now is all about finding what is close, in nature.” 
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  • “What else can you forage in Iceland,” I ask. “You see that little forest up there?” He points to a small cluster of pine trees. “Where you have trees in Iceland you have mushrooms. We even have cèpes,  in this area there are five types of mushroom, and at least three types of berry. These little red grasses will turn green and be covered with berries in summer.  Traditionally, we used the herbs more as a medicine than for cooking but this is changing. In spring and summer we find arctic thyme, the leaves are good for cooking and the flowers are delicious in salads and teas. Because we have such short summers and everything grows very slowly, everything has more taste. “ 
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  • “How do you know what is edible?” I enquire. “Thirty years ago, I met this herb man and I asked him, ‘what can I eat from nature?’ He told me to come back the next day and on my return he gave me a very short list, ‘Only this?’ I asked, ‘No,’ he said, ‘this is poisonous. Everything else you can eat.’ I’ve been on my knees ever since, eating and trying everything.”
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  • He looks up from the bed of rocks he’s been sifting through, I think “Oh no, he’s caught me taking a swig of Reyka vodka.” Unfazed, gazing beyond my shoulder he tells me: “When you see a group of birds like that, you know there must be a lot of mussels near-by because they live on mussels.” Feeling warm, for once, and adventurous, I pick up my bucket and head straight for the birds. The wild chef was right. 
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  • After an hour or so of collecting, we drove to a sheltered spot to cook our findings.  With our feet dipped in a stream of warm water we ate our mussels, simply prepared with onions, carrots, arctic thyme and white wine. As we ate I looked around, to my right was Iceland’s largest lake, under which lie the fault lines that caused Iceland to emerge from the Atlantic Ocean some billion years ago. To my left, the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station, which delivers hot water to Reykjavik and its neighbouring towns.  As plumes of steam billowed skyward from the ground I thought this could be heaven. Just then, an Icelandic from the group stripped naked and got into the water. No, I concluded, this is Iceland.