Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Reykjavik Kitchen Exhibition

We’ve recently returned from a short break in Reykjavik and whilst we were there we visited a small exhibition about food in Reykjavik. It runs until 23 November, so if any of you are there then, I’d recommend you go and have a look too.

The exhibition is in one of the oldest houses in Reykjavik and shares the building with Kraum – a shop containing work from 80 different Icelandic designers.
The displays take you through different periods in time, showing how the people of Reykjavik have changed their eating habits over the last hundred years. There are kitchen artifacts, old photos and handwritten recipes and although all the information is in Icelandic I found I could get a pretty good idea of the ‘story’... okay I’ve cheated a little – I picked up a leaflet which had an abridged version in English!

The story told in chronological order, begins in 1900 when Reykjavik was a growing town of 6700 residents.

1900-1930 Reykjavik was primarily a fishing town, and its residents lived on seafood but also had access to a variety of food in stores. Shortages often occurred due to communication difficulties and farm products, especially milk were affected. The diet in Reykjavik was considerably different to that in other parts of Iceland, where mutton, milk and butter were more readily available. In Reykjavik, the ordinary person’s daily diet was fish, skyr (a cultured dairy product, rye bread, margarine and coffee. Well-off people tended to indulge themselves in the Danish tradition – the Danish influence being strong at the time as Iceland was ruled by Denmark. Most common people ate fish twice a day, either dried, salted or fresh, with swede or rye bread. Skyr was also a daily food item. Rye was the main cereal staple, but all other types of grain had to be imported because of the harsh climate and short summers.

1930-1960 Import restrictions stretched right into the 1960s and many foreign foods disappeared from Reykjavik’s tables, this forced people to return again to domestically produced food.
As domestic food production grew quickly, the diet of the townspeople differed greatly by class and there were often great food shortages for poor people. Fish was still a common food for all classes, and in most families fish was the main meal three or four times a week. As no fruit is grown in Iceland, fruit was a scarce commodity, with its import being greatly restricted, as was the case for vegetables. Plots for growing vegetables were available to the residents of Reykjavik where they grew potatoes, carrots, swedes, rhubarb and kale. However, imported sugar was an important part of the diet, and sugar consumption in Europe seldom equalled that of the Icelanders.
During World War II the diet improved, and meat was seen more often on the table. The British and American occupying forces brought new things with them, and canned meat, beer, chewing gum and various delicacies became popular with the townspeople.
Even a group of idealistic vegetarians emerged, despite the import restrictions on fruit and vegetables.

1960-1975 Free trade was instituted in the period 1959-1971, and the selection of goods in stores increased greatly. International food culture began making itself felt, and various speciality food stores sprang up. Freezers and other home appliances had a dramatic effect on food preparation. The popularity of cured, pickled and salted foods dwindled, while fresh and frozen foods became readily available. Fruit and vegetables became an important part of people’s daily consumption. Self-service stores and shopping centres began to appear.

1975-2000 Exotic foods and food traditions came to Iceland with free trade and Icelander’s trips abroad. The hamburger and pizza generation grew up and turned to pasta, Mexican and Asian food. Fish, the everyday diet of the people of Reykjavik, became popular for holiday meals and restaurant courses, and people went out to eat more and more often, instead of the friendly shopkeeper on the corner, ever bigger shopping centres took over, and the selection of food became incredible. Fast food seized the day, and the family’s eating habits changed in the daily grind. The family meal lost its former status and became rarer. Around 2000, Reykjavik became a city of 111,000, and the food patterns became more like those of big cities abroad.

Well, there you have it, a potted history of Reykjavik’s food culture.

Reykjavik has become quite cosmopolitan and experimental in the food arena over the last eight years. When we first visited in 2000 there were only a couple of ethnic restaurants in the city, but now that number has grown into a substantial quantity of establishments. The people of Reykjavik have embraced more diverse flavours and the chefs are not afraid to apply some kitchen alchemy to produce fusion style dishes using top quality Icelandic ingredients. Maybe fusion has had its day in Britain, but Iceland has had a fair deal of catching up to do – and it’s doing it very well.

The organisers of the exhibition, Matur-saga-menning (Food-history-culture) whose aims are to strengthen people’s knowledge of Icelandic food and to call attention to the cultural heritage of food traditions, are currently in the process of collecting old recipes from different regions and districts and this is high on the association’s wish list.
So, if I have any Icelandic readers out there who feel that they could help the association in their quest, you can get information to the association and/or join it on its website www.matarsetur.is.
You can also send a letter to:
Hringbraut 121,
107 Reykjavik.

Matur-saga-menning website – all in Icelandic but has some interesting pictures from the exhibition. There are recipes too, but again, in Icelandic.

A couple of Icelandic recipes from my previous posts.
Fiskibollur (Fish Balls)
Piparkökur (Icelandic Pepper Cookies)

For an insight into Icelandic cooking you can see some recipes here

The Icelandic Design centre


Anonymous said...

I was in Iceland in July and, while in Akureyri, they had what sounds like a similar exhibition, with old kitchen artefacts etc. I got very excited when I saw that one of the items they had was a Bosch fridge from the 1950's which was exactly the same as the hand-me-down fridge that we had in our house growing up in Ireland!

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