What is skyr and why is it the new craze? - Everything you need to know about the Icelandic diet
High in fibre and low in sugar, Nordic food can support cardiovascular health and offer an alternative to the Mediterranean diet, writes Madeleine Howell
Michelin-star chef Agnar Sverrisson (otherwise known as Aggi) was a pioneer of the new Nordic food scene when he brought his restaurant Texture to the UK back in 2007. It's still going strong today. Is Sverrisson on to something with his Icelandic-inspired approach to eating well?
"I like to go to restaurants and be able to go out afterwards - and not be so stuffed that I just want to go home and sleep," he explains. "You should enjoy light, amazing food that makes you pleasantly satisfied."
According to nutritionist Lily Soutter, the Icelandic diet is typically low in saturated fat, yet high in healthy omega 3 fatty acids. "This combination is perfect for supporting cardiovascular health," she asserts. "Most of these healthy fats come from fresh, locally caught fish; in fact the Icelandic cuisine contains four times the amount of seafood found in the cuisine of other countries.
"The diet of an Icelander tends to be high in fibre and low in sugar, both of which are great factors for balancing blood sugar and preventing type two diabetes. Much of the food is local and seasonal meaning it will be fresher and, in some cases, more nutrient-dense. Typically, there is very little processed food within the Icelandic diet."
How does the Icelandic diet compare with the widely lauded Mediterranean diet? "As a whole, consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables may be lower in Nordic countries than in warmer Mediterranean climates. However, the Icelandic diet (also) advocates moderate consumption of fat and protein. Mediterranean diets tend to focus on olive oil, nuts, beans and sardines whilst Icelanders focus on canola oil (rapeseed oil), wild berries, root vegetables and cod."
While Iceland is well-known for questionable delicacies such as whale sashimi, rotten shark (kæstur hákarl) and puffin, many of the staples of the Icelandic diet are far more palatable...
Sverrisson is particularly proud of Iceland's famous lamb. "We take the shanks and we braise them for a very long time in mother's broth - traditional Icelandic broth for a cold day with barley, carrots, potatoes, swedes, rosemary and thyme. My mother used to cook it every week when I was growing up.
"I also tend to cook a rack of lamb sous-vide and then chargrill it afterwards. The temperature should be around 60 to 62 degrees, so it's pink, but not too pink. I serve it with barley and I like the shoulder best. Icelandic lamb is lean and game-like, because a lot of the sheep and lambs live in the mountains and eat lingonberries and wild herbs. Then they go to the sea and eat all the sea herbs."
According to Soutter, lamb is packed with iron. "As a result, it contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue as well as supporting immune function," she adds. "They also provide a source of omega 3 fats and B vitamins which both play a role with supporting cardiovascular health."
Sorrel, dill and thyme
"I love sorrel with fish," says Sverrisson. "It has a very distinctive flavour and it helps to bring out the flavour of the food. And who doesn't like dill in Iceland and Scandinavia? Dill is just everywhere. I love it with salmon, but not only that, I also love it with vegetables. It's not for everybody: you either love it or you hate it. You also get so much wild, Arctic thyme and lemon thyme here, which is beautiful with lamb."
As well as providing flavour and seasoning, there are health benefits too. "Herbs are a perfect way of flavouring food without the need for salt," stresses Soutter. "They are also often high in antioxidants."
"The love of my life," Sverrisson jokes. "I try to use very large pieces of fish, and I only ever pan-fry the neck. I cook it on one side so it's very crispy, and hardly cook it on the other side, so it's very soft. Cod is very good for confit; I use the rest with olive oil and cook it with potatoes. Cod is brilliant cold as well, marinated in a salad." Soutter adds: "Cod is a low fat source of quality protein, an essential macronutrient needed for maintenance of muscle mass and healthy bones. Cod is also a good source for vital micronutrients such as Vitamin B12, iodine and selenium."
Salmon is a staple of the Icelandic diet and according to Soutter, a portion packs some significant health benefits. "It's a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids. These essential fats may help to support cardiovascular health and also play a role with mood, memory and concentration," she says.
"It's so versatile," says Sverrisson. "It can be beautiful cold, warm or semi-cooked. Some people even like it overcooked, so it's difficult to go wrong with salmon. The traditional gravlax is marinated for 24 hours, but I marinade mine for one hour, clean it, cook it sous vide, then cool it down and put the dill on fresh. But I love both ways. Wild Icelandic salmon is just out of this world. It's lighter, cleaner and less meaty."
Iceland's famous cultured dairy product claims to be high in protein and low in fat. "It's perfect for balancing blood sugar as well as maintaining muscle mass and bone health," Soutter suggests. "It's also a rich source of calcium, which can support healthy bones and teeth.
"The grass-fed cows grazing on Icelandic land provide more nutrient dense milk than corn-fed cows, which means the skyr produced is also higher in antioxidants, including beta-carotene and Vitamin E."
Sverrisson swears by it as a vital component of his healthy regime. "I use skyr in pretty much everything," he admits. "I get about 400 kilos once a week from Iceland. I use it for mayonnaise, dips, gravlax sauce, horseradish sauce and desserts. It can be sweet or savoury, and it's very fluffy. A crème brûlée is completely different with skyr: you need to use less egg as it's almost like a curd itself."
Langoustines are another Icelandic delicacy which get a green light from Soutter. "They're low in saturated fat and calories, yet high in protein and two important minerals - iron and calcium," she says. According to Sverrisson, they're simple to prepare: "Pan-fry on a high heat, take it off and heat under the salamander, then add a little langoustine juice on the top. Delicious with textures of raw cauliflower and some seeds. I hate eating just baby food: it's great to add nuts and seeds into the dish for contrast. They enhance flavours, as well as the crunchiness that you need with soft seafood. A few years ago it was all purée after purée."
Soutter says seaweed is notoriously nutritious. "It's rich in minerals, which contribute to normal thyroid function, a key organ involved with our metabolism. It's also rich in iodine, which contributes to the maintenance of normal skin, nervous system and cognitive function, along with zinc, magnesium, potassium, copper and even calcium."
Sverrisson uses it prolifically in his cooking: "It's extremely healthy, but be careful of making a dish too salty: you can have it either fresh or dried, so we powder it and use it as a seasoning on a dish. I use it in sauce. I even put it in skyr with butter and lemon juice in a KitchenAid to serve with bread."
It's a lesser known fact that Iceland is abundant in rhubarb. "I love rhubarb. It's not too sweet and has a little acidity," says Sverrisson. "I grew up eating a lot of it, like the English. It never used to be used for fine dining when I was young, it was an everyday food: you can use it for everything."
Apparently, it's also rich in Vitamin K. "Vitamin K is crucial for bone health as well as brain and neural health," Soutter says. "Rhubarb is also a source of Vitamin C, which supports the immune system. Importantly, it's extremely low in sugar - but it can be used in many popular desserts."