I’m at a boozy dinner party in Reykjavik, Iceland, and a dozen or so boisterous Scandis are garlanding each other with seaweed and toilet roll, as they dance around to Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance. It’s possibly not my usual Saturday night, but I’m here on the invitation of Emiliana Torrini and Antto Melasniemi – the dream team curating the menu for the next Ja Ja Ja Festival, showcasing the best music and food from the region for Brits hankering after a slice of Nordic cool.
Icelandic-Italian singer-songwriter Torrini, who headlines the festival this year, is a self-professed gourmand from a long-line of restaurateurs – while Melasniemi is an incredible Finnish chef, who also just happens to be a former member of seminal Metal band HIM. I’ve come to track him on his first ever trip to Iceland, as he attempts to develop the perfect modern Nordic dishes for the festival.
Melasniemi is famous for his creativity, with impressive pop-ups at the London Design Festival and a much-publicised roving solar kitchen on his CV. He’s also, as I discover, a man of big smiles and great kindness – but very few words, not really keen to explain his thought processes. Essentially he’s a spontaneous punk rocker, even in the kitchen.
So why has the Finn gone to Iceland? For one thing, the collaboration could really help to bolster the country’s foodie reputation – for while we’re all used to lauding fancy cuisine from the likes of Copenhagen’s Noma, Icelandic food has for a long time continued to be equated with such ’delicacies’ as rotting shark. “It has been very difficult to get people to do new things,” agrees the ever-merry and twinkly-eyed Torrini, stirring a pint glass filled with prosecco, juniper spirit and crowberry liquor with the pointy end of a giant knife. “But now new ambitions are coming, and all the ingredients we have to work with are so fresh – our food could be so exciting.”
Melasniemi is creating a mixture of old and new, with elements from all the other Nordic countries thrown into the mix. This dinner party marks his first attempt to present the ideas he’s been working on for Ja Ja Ja, with guests including the festival organiser, and other musicians set to perform.
In a big, glass-fronted apartment overlooking the sea, I settle in with some dangerously delicious rhubarb liquor on ice sourced from the 64 Reykjavik Distillery, which turns out to be owned by the friendly couple sitting opposite me. Clearly, good people to know. We kick off snacking with Torrini’s favourite – cod cheeks, deep fried into golden morsels of oily, meaty flavour and served with an aioli-style sauce and seaweed salt. Scampi and tartar sauce is over for me, frankly, from now on. Next up are pancakes, filled with crispy red cabbage and what Melasniemi cheerfully but gruffly explains is: ‘lamb’s face.’ I’m slightly perturbed by the idea but take a bite, and enjoy the distinctively sweet taste.
We sit down for the main event – a lobster and fish stew in a light and herby broth, deliciously offset by a sumptuous stodgy island of buttery fried rye bread. Afterwards comes not one but two puddings – a seaweed crème brûlée, in which the almost-bitter unami taste perfectly cuts through creamy sweetness a second or so afterwards, and a chocolate liquorish pot which is so gorgeous it practically makes my eyes roll up in their sockets.
Hopefully by now you’re feeling hungry and a bit jealous – but all this should be recreated (in affordable form) on the Ja Ja Ja Festival menu come November, with the addition of a Goat curd and mushroom sandwich for veggies. So those going to catch the likes of Torrini, When Saints Go Machine and Highasakite can look forward to munching on an experimental extravaganza, that’s several cuts above the usual festival fayre. Cheesy chips with curry sauce anyone? Nope, didn’t think so.