Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Norwegian tyranny, single malt, and how to greet an ambassador

October 15

As you might have read, Iceland is in a financial crisis, its banks having overextended themselves, making the country’s currency untradeable at the moment. It’s a problem, and embarrassing for a country that by some measures has the highest per-capita income in the world.
Hlynur Gudjonsson, Iceland’s trade commissioner for North America, indicated to me that Icelanders have even temporarily lost their penchant for sarcasm.
I really like Icelanders. To me they seem like more Viking versions of Scandinavians, which makes sense, since that’s what they are. Their little island country of 290,000 people was founded a thousand years ago by the Viking Eric the Red, who was fleeing Norwegian tyranny.
Don’t you love the notion of Norwegian tyranny?
I’ve only been to Iceland once, and briefly, but the people seemed just a bit rougher around the edges than Scandinavians, if for no other reason than that their most common toast when drinking is not the Swedish skål but skál, which is pronounced like “scowl” and just sounds scarier.
The island itself is eerily beautiful. Above is a picture of a frozen waterfall I took a few Februaries ago, when I was in Iceland for the country’s Food & Fun Festival. Below is one of, well, I forget what, but isn’t it eerily beautiful?
In the middle of this financial crisis, Iceland also is vying to join the United Nations Security Council, and as part of the campaign the country is having a sort of culinary festival at the U.N. These festivals are common practice, and the delegates dining room often features delicacies from one member-nation or another. And sometimes that country’s tourism authority or an exporter from there or someone else sponsors a luncheon in the kitchen and invites the media, which is what Icelandic, a large seafood supplier with much interest in Iceland, an Icelandic vodka company and other members of the Iceland Naturally marketing group did yesterday.
Usually the media they invite are food and travel writers, but this time Thomas Lane from the BBC’s UN bureau was there, too, with a professional recording device in hand, I presume to report on Iceland’s security council bid amid (or amidst, since he’s British) a financial crisis.
I liked Tom a lot, if for no other reason than he made me feel like an absolute peasant when he was introduced to an ambassador, who also was joining us for lunch. If I remember correctly she was the Icelandic ambassador to Sweden, but I’m checking on that, because what would she have been doing in New York?
I’m glad he went first, because he said something like: “Ambassador, it’s very nice to meet you." Or maybe even: “Madame ambassador, it’s very nice to meet you, indeed.”
He was no older than I, and probably younger, but so well brought up.
I probably would have just said, “Hi.” But instead I followed his lead.
I wonder if I should have called her “Your Excellency.” Probably not, or Tom would have done it. He’s a Londoner working for the BBC at the United Nations, surely he knows how to greet an ambassador.
Hlynur greeted me and other guests at the U.N.’s main entrance and took us upstairs. Did I mention he’s the trade commissioner for all of North America?
(His name, by the way, is often pronounced "linner," rhyming with “dinner,” in the United States, but the initial consonant, he explained, is really much rougher than that, involving a course Germanic-sounding guttural sound along with the ‘l,’ and the final ‘r,’ as Icelandic final ‘r’s do, comes to a screeching halt with that sounds almost like a ‘k.’ It’s very odd, but it still mostly rhymes with “dinner”).
One of the great things about Iceland is that it’s such a small country that you usually get a ministry head or two even at small press functions. I met the country’s president a few years ago at a reception at Cafe Gray featuring Icelandic lamb. On my trip to Iceland, my tour guide, Hannes Heimisson, was the consul general for New York.
Hannes’ wife was fascinating, by the way. She was an ethnographer who had interviewed many Icelanders about their beliefs in elves. Here’s a common belief: Elves make delicious pancakes because they have much better wheat than we do.
Yesterday’s chef, Hákon Már Örvarsson, served up tiny Icelandic shrimp and big langoustines and scallops and a haddock-potato dish and several salmon preparations and two caribou preparation — one cured and one made into a terrine — served with berry preserves, as well as that lamb I mentioned before. For dessert was little fried dough called kleinur and pancakes (perhaps made by elves, I couldn’t say) stuffed with whipped cream and covered with another berry jam.
So I was two days' worth of full, but I had a dinner that evening, at Double Crown, Brad Farmerie’s new place, hosted by Highland Park scotch.
One reason I’d planned to go to that event, apart from the food and scotch, was that my friend Clark Mitchell of Travel + Leisure was going to attend, and I hadn’t hung out with him in months. Really, it’s been months. He canceled at the last minute, though: T+L is sending him to Switzerland tomorrow and he had to make his travel arrangements immediately, which is fair.
But who arrived late and sat next to me but Peter Hellman? I’d never met him before, but we knew each other’s names because we were both regular contributors to The New York Sun’s food and drink section until it died last month. I did mostly restaurant openings, he did mostly wine. Seems like a nice guy.

What we ate and drank at Double Crown:
Highland Park Fig Smash
(12 year old scotch with muddled figs, fig & port reduction and crushed ice).

Streaky ham and fenugreek-glazed figs with whole grain mustard
Highland Park 15 year old scotch whisky

Miso glazed bone marrow with orange-olive marmalade and brioche
Highland Park 18 year old

Roast half duck with sherry-braised prunes, red onions and orange salt, served with sides of garam masala potatoes and green bean salad
the 25 year old

Bitter chocolate trifle, malted Devonshire cream, English toffee and a chocolate crumpet
35 year

And then finally, the debut of the Highland Park 40 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

And because Hákon was nice enough to send it to me, the full menu from our luncheon in the kitchen of the UN delegates dining room:

Hot smoked salmon with chopped egg vinaigrette
Smoked salmon with cream cheese and pancakes
Cured reindeer loin with herbs and balsamic sauce
Reindeer terrine with blueberry sauce

Cold water shrimp salad with 1000 island dressing
Marinated scallops with confit of bell peppers

“Plokkfiskur”: Shredded cod and potatoes in cheese and bechamel sauce, gratinée
Broiled Icelandic langoustines in the shell with parsley and garlic
Roast loin of free range Icelandic lamb served with lamb jus, barley and rutabaga

Icelandic pancakes stuffed with jam of mixed berries and whipped cream
Icelandic doughnuts: “Kleinur”

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