“In 1998 a poll revealed that 54.4% of Icelanders said they believed in elves” – Michael Booth, The Nearly Almost Perfect People
I had intended to introduce this recipe with something about the prevailing mania in the UK for all things Scandinavian, when I came across this statistic in Michael Booth’s recent book about the supposed “Nordic miracle”. And how could we possibly talk about Borgen, minimalist furniture, Angry Birds, cinnamon buns and Lordi when we could be talking about small magical elven people? Disappointingly, after a bit of cursory research, it turns out that our most northerly Nordic friends’ belief in these fairy tale beings is a bit more nuanced. A 2007 University of Iceland study found that 54% of them don’t deny the existence of elves. So they don’t believe, they just don’t disbelieve. Are you still with me? Only 8% actually believe in them. And only 3% claim to have seen one. So that’s all OK then! My ‘research’ also told me that these Icelandic elf people (the huldufólk or hidden people) may not actually be very small at all. It is thought that they are human in size and appearance, but are believed to be better dressed – usually in olden-times attire – and wear ornate jewellery. So basically like Cate Blanchett and Orlando Bloom in Lord of the Rings? LET’S ALL MOVE TO REYKJAVIK!
And now I feel bad. It isn’t really very kind to mock the folklore of other nations, is it? By all accounts Icelanders are utterly sick and tired of being asked about elves (and about how a country with a population roughly the same size as Reading’s played a pivotal role in the global financial crisis). And is believing in elves any less explicable than believing in a form of God or higher power? But, you know, ELVES! I have been to Iceland on several occasions, predominantly in the aftermath of The Collapse of the World of Money and it is truly fascinating and very beautiful (in an other-wordly, have I accidentally landed on the moon? kind of way). The Icelanders I have met are often a bit quirky but are very smart, interesting people – who may or may not believe in elves, I stupidly never thought to ask. Plus, their language is mind-bogglingly awesome when you see it written down. Oh, and also: Björk.
(I went to a fancy dress party as Björk when I was 15. I stuck pink sequins in a row just above my eyebrows with vaseline and the colour leaked into my skin during the course of the evening. My mum had to scrub my forehead with Jif.)
I have to confess that I don’t know whether they eat much salmon tartare in Iceland, although they do eat absolutely loads of fish (as well as putrified shark, puffin, whale, a ubiquitous yoghurt cheese thing called Skyr and excellent hot dogs). What I can tell you is that they eat a lot of rye bread, in common with their Nordic brethren, the Scandinavians – who definitely DO eat salmon tartare. And that readers is the sort of entirely tenuous link that we go for round here.
When I made this for supper recently I realised that I could probably eat this every single day. It is precisely the sort of food that I am trying to find and write about here. It is utterly delicious and feels like a treat, but also happens to be light, perfect for spring and really good for you – salmon with all it’s oily fish omega-3 goodness and fibre rich low GI rye with its potassium, zinc and vitamins. You could definitely serve this as a starter if you had people over but for me it is a perfect quiet dinner for 1 (or 2, if you must) coupled with a glass of cold white wine and that copy of Vanity Fair you never have the time to read anymore.
The rye crackers really are an absolute doddle, particularly if you have a food processor but if you really can’t be bothered you can of course source some shop-bought Scandi rye crackers instead. Or buy some of these sourdough and rye crispbreads from Peter’s Yard (a Swedish bakery in Edinburgh) – something we discovered about a year ago and have never been without since. They are the best thing for making open sandwiches for lunch or to shove some avocado on as a snack. As well as buying direct online, Waitrose and Ocado stock them and they can be found in delis across the country (and our local garden centre, randomly) too. Just don’t serve this with a Ryvita – if you’ve gone to the trouble of hacking up some raw salmon, it deserves something a bit more sophisticated.
The rye cracker recipe includes milk and a small amount of butter. There are plenty of recipes online that use just rye flour, water and either yeast or baking powder as a leavener (I prefer the baking powder route as you don’t need to wait for the dough to rise). I tried this one from Nigel Slater but it was an absolute disaster that ended up in the bin and while I would love to spend hours testing lots of recipes until I found a dairy free version that works, I am not being paid for my trouble so you’ll just have to find one yourself. Or if you are avoiding grains/gluten altogether, this would also be really nice served with a potato rosti type thing.
I ate this with pickled cucumber, as Diana suggests, albeit I didn’t follow her recipe as I always make quick pickled cucumber the same way and stuck to that. (Slice cucumber very finely, salt and stick in colander for 10-30 minutes – the longer the better – rinse, dry well and then add 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar and 1-2tbsp sugar. Taste and fiddle until you like salty/sweetness of the cure. Add some chopped dill and then keep in the fridge until ready to eat). Pickled beetroot would make a really good alternative. Diana also suggests some greek yoghurt with a little dill in, but I didn’t bother. Creme fraiche would also work. If you were to put dill rather than parsley in the tartare, though, I would serve the picked cucumber (and any yoghurt) without – I love the stuff but could definitely see the possibility of dill overload here.
SALMON TARTARE AND RYE CRACKERS (for 2)
The recipe makes quite a few rye crackers – I got about 6 side-plate sized ones from the dough – but it would be a bit fiddly to start making a smaller amount of dough and they keep for a few days in a airtight container – try them with smoked fish, cream cheese, paté or egg mayonnaise. We snaffled them in 24 hours.
I buy the stoneground rye flour from Whole Foods because you can buy it from the big dispensers there in small amounts as you need it – the tub I bought the other day cost 32p. If you live near a Whole Foods, or other ‘health’ food shop that sells flours from bulk dispensers, it is a really good (and cheap) way of trying things out without committing to a whole bag. All wholegrain flours go rancid relatively quickly (because of the oils that remain in them because the whole grain – bran, endosperm and germ – are all milled). So, if you do buy a big bag and aren’t going to use it all within a few weeks. keep it in the fridge.
This recipe does, of course, call for raw fish and you need to make sure that you use really fresh salmon from a trusted source, particularly as this preparation doesn’t ‘cook’ the fish in the way that a proper ceviche would. If you are in any doubt at all as to how fresh yours is or as to its provenance, blast it in the freezer at -4 or below for 24 hours (or longer if your freezer is warmer) and then defrost before serving, which will kill anything nasty. The texture is then supposedly not as fabulous as if you’d eaten it fresh but it is pretty hard to tell the difference and you won’t be worrying about parasites.
Pictures of the various stages in the cracker process at the bottom of the post, after the salmon recipe.
For the crackers you will need:
- 250g rye flour, plus some to dust – it is pretty sticky dough so be prepared to dust well
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 1 tsp brown sugar (I used coconut palm sugar but any brown is fine)
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 25g cold butter, cut into cubes
- 150ml milk (whole or semi-skimmed is fine)
Preheat the oven to 200C. Flour one large or two medium baking sheets (I just cooked these in two batches).
- If you are using a food processor, dump everything in and blitz very quickly until it it looks like breadcrumbs (when you pinch it between your fingers it should stick together), tip out onto a floured surface and roll into a lump of soft dough.
- If doing this by hand, rub the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingers and then mix in the milk (ideally with a butter knife as you would if making pastry by hand) and then pull together into a soft dough with your hands.
- Diana says that the dough will be sticky – mine was actually slightly on the dry side (possibly as a food processor is very adept at mixing the milk into the flour) so I added a tiny tiny amount of water to bring it together. If it is sticky – bear with it and do not add more flour, it will become easier to handle if you knead it a little before rolling it out. Pictures at bottom of post.
- Divide the dough into pieces and roll out into roughly round shapes – they have to be thin thin thin. Diana describes it as “basically thinner than you can measure” and that is pretty much it. Transfer to the baking sheet and prick all over with a fork – they will rise and twist if you don’t do this. A bit of rising is fine – mine did and then flattened back but you should be sure to prick them well.
- Bake for 8-10 minutes, checking them after 8 minutes as they burn easily. Cool on a wire rack.
For the salmon tartare you will need:
- 100g salmon fillet, skin and pin bones removed
- 1/2 small shallot,very, very finely chopped
- 1 tbsp parsley (or dill, or chervil – which I randomly had and used)
- 1 tbsp capers, rinsed drained and chopped (optional)
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1-2 tsp vodka or aquavit (really very optional)
Chop the salmon into small chunks – roughly 1cm cubes. You need a very sharp knife for this as you don’t want to reduce your salmon to a mush. Then mix with the other ingredients. Taste and add more salt and/or lemon juice as you see fit (it will be quite salty if you’ve used capers though so go carefully). Ideally you should eat this straightaway as the lemon juice will begin to ‘cook’ the fish (as with a ceviche) and it will start to turn opaque and get a bit firm if you leave it too long.
There are endless variations to this – a particularly nice one is to take a more Mexican theme and use coriander, lime juice and green onions. In that case drop the rye crackers and serve with corn tortilla chips and some sliced avocado.
Kitchen Song of the Day: Big Time Sensuality – Björk (Debut)