A Taste of the Wild

In the volcanic Westman Islands in the southern region of Iceland stands Slippurinn, a family-run restaurant with a simple philosophy. Here chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson cooks everything from scratch from wild herbs and seaweed to fruit and vegetables grown in his kitchen garden

By Gísli Matthías Auðunsson

April 26 2019

I was born in 1989 on Heimaey, the only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands). The archipelago was formed by volcanic activity during the last few thousand years, around the south coast of Iceland. Fishing has always been the main industry on Heimaey; I come from a hard-working family of fishermen and cooks.

In 2011, an idea came up in a family gathering to open a restaurant in Vestmannaeyjar. My mother had always dreamed of reviving this amazing old machine workshop that used to serve the slipways behind the building (where the name, Slippurinn, comes from).

A year later, Slippurinn became a reality. We built it from scratch. Along with my sister Indíana and my parents, Kata and Auðunn, I have always had a clear vision of what Slippurinn should be: a place that is charming, with an amazing atmosphere. It would only open in summer. Our objective was to keep it sustainable, to work with local island produce, and to be seasonal. We want our guests to experience a strong sense of time and place while dining with us.

Although the restaurant itself has changed since we first opened – every year it becomes more seasonal and more sustainable – our core elements have not.

The islands are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the weather makes for rough growing conditions, with high winds and saltiness in the air. Lava ash tends to settle everywhere. We have a volcanic soil that is rich in minerals and nutrients. When combined with ash, the soil becomes more acidic. It retains a lot of water so good drainage is important.

Chef Gísli Matthías  Auðunsson in the coastal garden of Slippurinn on the remote Icelandic island of Heimaey
Chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson in the coastal garden of Slippurinn on the remote Icelandic island of Heimaey

We grow some of our produce ourselves but we also work closely with farmers on the mainland, who use geothermal energy to power their greenhouses all year round.

We also forage on the island for wild herbs such as Arctic thyme and different types of seaweed, such as sugar kelp, dulse, sea truffles, kombu, and Irish moss.

Our garden is a four-minute drive from the restaurant, on the south coast of the island. It’s not very high above sea level and we use it for growing tough root vegetables such as kohlrabi, radishes, rutabagas (swedes), carrots, and potatoes. We also grow kale and salads, such as mizuna which has a spicy flavour, and we have a small greenhouse for more delicate things like black currants, nasturtiums, lovage, and herbs.

My mother takes care of the garden together with an islander called Bubba, and occasionally our cooks give a helping hand. The garden is only active from May, when we sow seeds and plant out; those crops are then harvested in July and August. On non-flowering crops, such as the root vegetables, we use well-rotted horse manure. We stick to simple organic methods. For deterring pests, we mainly use a blend of garlic and water. We simply blend the garlic with water and spray it on the beds. It’s good for aphid attacks.

The local people know that we love wild produce, and many of them let us take the rhubarb from their gardens in exchange for a voucher for cocktails. We also get herbs like peppermint, parsley, and lovage that way. We wanted to create cocktails with only hand-foraged herbs, berries, and spices from the islands, with the idea that people would sense the time and place in the first sip. We felt that it would be more fun and unlike anything anyone else is doing.

Preserving vegetables from the garden is another key activity. All the stems of various herbs we either turn into seasoned salts or dry and make powders and seasonings. We also pickle a lot of root vegetables, such as turnips, rutabagas, and carrots, to use early season, a little over a half year after they are harvested.

We work on our menu in close connection with the garden and the wild ingredients that we are able to forage. Seasons change quite dramatically; we have many micro seasons throughout the summer. After exploring the island for produce over the past seven years, we feel that we know exactly when each herb will be hitting its prime.