Whole Foods to Sell Exclusive Icelandic Delights

"Haute cuisine" and "Icelandic food" are terms not often heard together on these shores, but our perception may be on the verge of change: Whole Foods has been granted exclusive rights to sell Icelandic delicacies including lamb and high-fat butter, and Americans will be able to truly appreciate what the chilly island has to offer. Essayist Bonny Wolf recently sampled Icelandic treats at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

You don't often hear people say, `Let's go out for Icelandic food.' And you're not likely to hear it any time soon, but food from the big island with the chilly name is, well, hot. Now that the winter solstice is almost upon us, a big turning point each year in the dark North Atlantic, WEEKEND EDITION food essayist Bonny Wolf tries to understand the food's appeal.

BONNY WOLF reporting:

Rotten shark and burned sheep's head are staples in Iceland's traditional cuisine, and with the popularity of the movie "March of the Penguins," I hesitate to add that they also eat smoked puffin. The Vikings who settled Iceland smoked, dried, salted or pickled just about anything to get them through the long Arctic winter and their descendents still occasionally indulge in the delicacies of their ancestors, washing it all down with Black Death, a caraway-flavored liquor that apparently goes well with rancid shark.

But breathe easy. Icelandic marketers don't envision such exotic foods on the shelves of American grocery stores. Instead, they're sending fresh fish from pristine waters, tender meat of coddled lambs and untainted dairy products. It seems that Iceland practiced sustainable agriculture long before the term was invented. Much of the land is as unspoiled today as it was when the Vikings arrived more than a thousand years ago and smart Icelanders have figured out that purity sells in the farther reaches of the New World.

Tourism and agriculture officials have been luring chefs from around the world to Iceland to cook with local products. The chefs come back as converts. Whole Foods, the mega food store chain that has thrived on promoting all that is natural, just got exclusive rights to Iceland's lamb, cheese, high-fat butter and milk chocolate. Whole Foods promotes all natural, not necessarily all good for you.

At a recent luncheon in Washington, DC, Icelandic and American chefs prepared a feast using only Icelandic ingredients. This stuff was up to the hype. The lamb is so good I can almost overlook the fact that islanders eat adorable puffins. The lambs are from the same stock the Vikings brought 1,200 years ago. They run wild for months munching on vegetation that's never even heard of pesticides and fertilizers that, like antibiotics and growth hormones, are against Icelandic law.

About this time of year, the pre-Christian Vikings would be preparing for their annual winter solstice festival. Something was needed to break the humdrum of months of days with only two to three hours of sunlight and nothing to do but read really long sagas on Norse mythology while munching on salted seal flippers. For their big mid-winter party, they broke out that tender free-range lamb smoked over a dung fire to mark the halfway point in a long far northern winter. You could try it for Christmas this year over charcoal.

HANSEN: Bonny Wolf's book of food essays will be published next fall by St. Martin's Press.

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