This article was written by Deborah Quaile and originally appeared in The Guelph Mercury on December 16, 2001:
An Icelandic culinary adventure

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most unusual cookbooks on the shelf today.

Coastline Publishing of Guelph, Ontario, has recently released The Culinary Saga of New Iceland: Recipes from the Shores of Lake Winnipeg. It's a compilation of traditional Icelandic recipes as prepared by the first Icelandic settlers in 'New Iceland' (also known as Manitoba's Interlake region). This was the largest Icelandic settlement in North America and still has many descendants living in the area.

The Culinary Saga of New Iceland

Coastline Publishing is a family affair, comprised of Dundas author Kristin Olafson-Jenkyns, husband Mark Jenkyns, and son Mackenzie Kristjón of Eden Mills.

When Icelandic families immigrated in New Iceland in 1875, they had to adapt recipes and cooking methods to indigenous ingredients of their new environment. Gradually, availability of other ingredients and interaction with different ethnic groups evolved into new recipes and traditions.

"My initial motivation for creating this book," the author relates, "was to compile a small collection of favourite traditional recipes for my children and nieces. The collection grew incrementally over a number of years as other Icelandic descendants offered recipes and encouragement."

While experimenting with these dishes, Olafson-Jenkyns was reminded of the warm hospitality that she felt as a member of the Icelandic community. Aromas and tastes evoked memories of celebrations and everyday life, which is really what good cooking is all about. "The foods we choose to eat provide more than physical sustenance. The cooking of food, like fine art or music, is emblematic of cultural tradition and as such serves to foster out identities."

Even when women were no longer so concerned with food preparation and preservation (through the use of stoves and refrigerators), Icelandic families continued to prepare the same dishes "with a love and respect for their tradition," Olafson-Jenkyns comments. "Hopefully the retention of these recipes will serve to foster the spirit of hospitality and the love of social entertainment that has always characterized the Icelanders."

As well as an introduction to New World Settlements and the founding of New Iceland, the thick book runs through categories such as Lake Winnipeg Fish, Meats and Soups, Desserts, Bread, Cakes and Cookies, and Refreshing Drinks. For the uninitiated, she includes a phonetics section at the back to help make sense of the fascinating accents.

Early local cookbooks (one circa 1915), the New Icelandic newspaper Framfari (1877-79), and recipes from friends and relatives were the sources of inspiration.

As with many old "demonstrative" styles of cooking -using a "handful" or a "pinch"- many family recipes had to be taken into modern exact measures. Honest comments from Icelandic descendants and often non-Icelandic spouses follow each recipe and give their own particular flavour to the work. Some of the recipes are not for everyday use, such as sheephead -but are important for historic purposes. And as Olafson-Jenkyns adds, it's a "delicacy unlikely to have mass appeal."

Many of the items, however, will have a broad welcome from food aficionados, like the creamy rice pudding, rich brown bread, smoked fish appetizers or saddle of venison.

Photos illustrate the book as a reference, but not of the dishes. As a bonus, a quick history of the area and settlers has been provided.

Altogether, The Culinary Saga of New Iceland: Recipes from the Shores of Lake Winnipeg is very nicely put together -a gem to sit down and savour. The book is available in Guelph at The Bookshelf, in Toronto at The Cookbook Store, and otherwise through www.coastline-publishing.com. Readers are encouraged to submit comments regarding the recipes at the Web site, because their goal as publishers is to open dialogue about Icelandic-Canadian culture.

Order this book.