WNC Dining Editor Constance Richards ruminates on Saturday’s New Nordic Table dinner held at Warren Wilson College
On a dewy evening overlooking Swannanoa Valley farm fields, the tangy aroma of smoking hay signals the start to an enchanting evening of Icelandic cuisine. To begin, Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason of Dill Restaurant in Reykjavik treated onlookers to a unique process of flavoring oil with smoked hay and liken. The oil would be used in the second course as an aioli, but certainly its scent transported diners sipping on ale and moonshine whiskey to the naked fjords and tufted fields of Iceland.
Striking pale green liken, rich mosses, and birch bark created rustic centerpieces in the dining room of the transformed Cowpie Café, Warren Wilson College’s vegetarian eatery, as Katie Button, executive chef and co-owner of Cúrate in Asheville, teamed with Gislason, the College, the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts, International Association of Culinary Professionals, and Asheville Wine & Food Festival to create an evening of “new Nordic cuisine.”
“We’ve never really defined our cuisine,” Chef Gunnar said. “It’s trying to find local, traditional ingredients and making it in the traditional way—like the Vikings.” If that means smoking items with sheep’s dung, for example, then so it will be.
Dinner began with a delicate first course of celery root and goat cheese, mounded with fresh, tender garden cress. A dusting of sweet rye ash (from bread brought by Farm and Sparrow’s Dave Bauer), looked akin to dried caviar.
The smoked dill oil was drizzled atop a finely prepared strip of halibut and whipped into an aioli that imparted an unusual but welcome flavor-combination, with paper-thin slices of fennel and micro-radishes. Toasted hazelnuts lay scattered around the dish.
These courses were accompanied by a Sicilian white, Case Ibidini Insolia 2010, a crisp floral and peachy wine. Later, Felix Meana, the affable host and co-owner of Cúrate, poured a Spanish red, the Joan d’Anguera Garnatxa 2010, to accompany a tender Icelandic lamb, part of it fricasseed and served with rutabaga chunks, seaweed, and a pickled cabbage.
Diners couldn’t quite get over the young lamb, until the dessert course arrived—a mélange of icy, creamy, fruity, piney essence of field and forest. Lying on a bed of crumbled pine tree oil cake, a little globe of sour apple and celery ice lay under a cap of creamy skyr (a typical crème fraîche-like Icelandic dairy item). A sprinkling of pistachios and finely peeled iced celery intermingled with purple blossoms. One can only postulate this was a taste of an Icelandic field of wildflowers and grasses.
—Written by Constance E. Richards