Sheep take pride of place in Iceland - and NOTHING goes to waste!

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Last week I was in Iceland - the country not the discount food chain.

From a food perspective Iceland and Northern Ireland have a lot in common.

For instance they, like us, are justly proud of their lamb. A few weeks after lambing in May, sheep are sent to roam and graze in the mountain pastures until autumn. They’re then rounded up, by an entire community of farmers on horseback with the help of their sheepdogs. They believe this way is the best way as there is no chance of pollution from engines.

Plaques adorn restaurant walls announcing that they’ve been producing meat from the animal since the year 874. We tend to eat the more expensive cuts of lamb here like loin, shoulder and leg. In Iceland there is no waste. Sheep’s head is a national dish. One of the restaurants I ate in took the common sense approach to a new level by serving trout smoked with sheep dung. Honestly, it tasted a lot better than it sounds. They also serve lambs testicles and heart. However unsavoury that sounds it does make sense to eat all of the animal. If you’ve ever eaten cheap mass produced pork sausages you will have eaten every part of the pig...the Icelanders, like us, also appreciate buttermilk and the first recipe uses it in a brine for lamb which is then slowly roasted with onions and rosemary. The buttermilk tenderises the lamb to perfection.

The tradition of salting and air drying cod has existed in this Nordic country for over 500 years. The fish are split in half to open them up, salted and then dried in the wind. The resulting leather like product was used successfully as a commodity to trade around the world with. Salt cod is now embedded in Caribbean, Mediterranean and South American cuisine as a result of this commerce.

In Northern Ireland we salted ling in a similar way. Unlike Iceland we have largely forgotten about this traditional method of preservation. You can source salted ling from good fish mongers but you will never find it in the supermarket fish section. If you’re in and around Portrush on a Thursday local fishmonger Gareth has a van on the Coleraine Road and he always has salt ling in stock. Soak it in cold water in the fridge overnight to rehydrate it. In the past it was then cooked in milk with scallion and potatoes – a precursor to present day chowder.

Dulse is engrained in our DNA here and it is revered as an ingredient by our top of the world neighbours. In Iceland again, like here many young chefs travelled abroad to hone their craft. They brought back different ideas but applied them to the native produce. Dulse appears on every menu as an ingredient in its own right, as a seasoning for fish, lamb and vegetables, as an infusion for salt and oil and even as a flavouring for gin. Abernethy butter company in Dromara flavour their handchurned, golden elixir with dulse – sweet butter with salty dulse is a divine combination. I’ve used it in my other recipe to start a salt ling, leek and potato soup. Unlike chowder, this is a creamy, silky finished soup that’s topped with dulse and parsley. If you don’t like dulse simply leave it off the top and substitute regular butter, but it’s a unique flavour that should be appreciated.

The one thing that really struck a chord with me was the Icelandic’s almost reverential regard for the turnip. The country’s national vegetable board has promotional material that is full of photographs of this beautiful, often overlooked treasure. If that isn’t a recommendation for a visit I don’t know what is.