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Northern lights

Categories: Features

Market Life meets the founders of Icelandic Pantry, the market that transformed a nation

Words: Mark Riddaway
Images: Orlando Gili

Imagine you’re a cheesemonger. Energetic, vivacious, bullish and completely in love with food. You’ve put on a few events at your shop and they’ve proved something of a smash, so you hire a bigger space and cross your fingers for a decent turnout. And then, over the course of a weekend, 10 per cent of the nation’s population rocks up.

That, in a nutshell, is the rather improbable tale of Eirný Sigurðardóttir and The Icelandic Pantry—a food market, partly inspired by the ethos of Borough Market, which has had a transformative impact upon the food culture of Iceland.

Eirný’s story, told with great verve over coffee at Rabot 1745, is a hugely entertaining one. It began with a 17-year stint as a resident of Edinburgh, where she became immersed in the local food scene. When she moved back to Reykjavik in 2007, Eirný’s plan was to start a cheese business.

Fine cheeses
“I knew people at Neal’s Yard Dairy, so I decided to open a cheese shop and import Neal’s Yard cheeses to Iceland,” she says. As a purveyor of fine cheeses, she would have very little competition. “We weren’t allowed to import cheeses until 1986, and our own cheese culture is very young. So I could see a gap.”

Timing is everything. Eirný opened her shop in the autumn of 2008. Two days later, Iceland’s entire financial system imploded. “But the crash was actually positive for the food industry,” she says. “People started caring more: if I’m going to spend my money, I want to know where my produce came from.”

Eirný’s biggest headache had nothing to do with finance. “I needed some lovely local goodies,” she says. “And it was ridiculous—I couldn’t find anything. Iceland is a small marketplace with very tough regulations, so it simply wasn’t fruitful for small producers. But I wouldn’t give up.”

Eirný Sigurðardóttir

Changing the environment
Her efforts brought her into contact with Hlédís Sveinsdóttir, the chair of the Farmers Direct Association, a grassroots organisation committed to helping farmers expand their businesses. “We shared the same passion for changing the environment in Iceland,” says Hlédís. She became the Thelma to Eirný’s Louise, as the pair set out to introduce small producers to the Reykjavik public.

In December 2011, for Terre Madre Day—Slow Food’s worldwide celebration of local produce—Eirný and Hlédís decided to “do something big”. What began as a plan to invite a single farmer to stand outside Eirný’s shop selling beef, soon began to snowball out of control as more and more producers agreed to come along. “Next thing,” says Eirný, “we’re hiring a tent.”

This was all easier said than done. Anyone who thinks Britain’s regulatory system is stiflingly severe needs to spend a while chatting with an Icelander. In Iceland, public liability rules mean that the authorities carry the can (so to speak) if anyone gets food poisoning. The result is a bewilderingly pedantic food safety regime that makes our system seem enlightened.

Nibble away
Cooking outdoors is an absolute no-go. Eirný cites an outdoor event at which a salami producer was hoping to slice his meat at the stall, then serve it on plates so that people could sit and nibble away. “Health and hygiene said, ‘No way, we’ll never allow you to slice meat outside. Something might blow on it. You have to slice it and vacuum pack it, then take it outside.’ It really is insane.”

Confronted by these highly restrictive laws, the women’s solution was a simple one: to, as Eirný puts it, “push the boundaries”. “We told the health and hygiene people that the producers weren’t actually selling anything, just showing it to people,” she says, with a giggle.

The next challenge came from the only thing in Iceland more intransigent than the regulatory system: the weather. “It was minus some ridiculous number. High winds—the tent blew away. It was insane. And yet three to four thousand people came. I loved it.”

Icelandic Pantry at Borough Market

Disgruntled authorities
The following year they did it again, and when even more people turned up Eirný and Hlédís managed to add the Reykjavik police to a growing list of disgruntled authorities. “We caused traffic mayhem,” says Eirný. “We knew we could never do it there again.”

Their choice for a new venue was spectacular in its ambition. “A few years ago in Reykjavik we built this massive music and conference venue, Harpa. Beautiful, but a monster. It cost loads of money that we couldn’t afford, split the nation in half. We thought, where is big enough, won’t block the traffic and won’t blow away? We phoned them and they said yes. We’ve been in Harpa since.”

Three times a year for two days, dozens of farmers and artisans gather from around the island to sell direct to the people. A lot of people. “In March last year we had 32,000 come to the market—a tenth of the population.”

A revolution
To put that in context, the UK equivalent would be six million people showing up for a food fair—and this in a city that, prior to Eirný and Hlédís’s intervention, hadn’t hosted a farmers’ market for more than a century. “I call it a revolution,” says Eirný. And like all revolutions, its impact has been widely felt.

It has helped make food quality and provenance part of the national conversation. For chefs and restaurateurs, it has provided easy access to producers and helped fuel a trend for ingredient-led menus. And for the producers themselves, “it has often made the difference between carrying on or giving up completely”.

The Icelandic Pantry has one strict rule: “The producer has to be there. We had to spend hours on the phone convincing them to come, as farmers aren’t always the most talkative people. But their presence makes all the difference.”

Icelandic salmon

Terroir and tradition
As time goes by, the whole team is getting better at educating people about the importance of terroir and tradition. “At first we thought all you need to do is put the producers in front of people with some food and that would be enough. But we’ve realised unless you spell it out, people don’t get it.”

What no one has failed to grasp is the exceptional quality of the produce. Eirný and Hlédís sing the praises of perfectly smoked Arctic char, of the island’s “almost sweet” water, of milk from the Viking cow, of reindeer from the east coast, of pale blue gulls’ eggs and deep black berries.

In 2015, visitors to Borough Market were given the chance to try many of these amazing flavours when The Icelandic Pantry loaded up its longboats and disembarked in Southwark for a special four-day residency in the Market Hall. The event was a huge success.

Sets the bar
“For me Borough Market is massively important,” says Eirný. “It has managed to keep its integrity. Its history is inspiring. It sets the bar that a market like ours can aspire to.”

The Icelandic Pantry will continue to grow and evolve, and Eirný and Hlédís will continue to work like Trojans. “Hlédís has a full time job, she’s a single mum, I have my own business,” says Eirný. “But when you start something like this it becomes this hungry animal that you have to feed more and more.”

Thankfully, feeding the hungry is something these remarkable women have proved exceptionally good at.