This Icelandic Chef Is Cooking with Yellow Snow
Agnar Sverrisson's “snow” is made by boiling goat cheese and whipping until fluffy. It looks exactly like the newly fallen powder you pray will fall overnight on Alpine slopes, and is served with wood sorrel and English asparagus.
We're in central London at the start of summer, and chef Agnar Sverrisson is serving snow.
"I come from Iceland and there's plenty of it there," he says. "I miss it! I use it on quite a lot of dishes. It gives you a freshness and punching flavour."
At first glance, you might think that Sverrisson is another Redzepi acolyte, jumping on the Scandi bandwagon to offer high-end "foraged" and "wild" food, and putting snow on the menu as a gimmicky fad to be swapped for something even more absurd next season. But you'd be very wrong.
"When I was a teenager, I read White Heat like so many chefs did, and thought Marco Pierre White was so cool, I wanted to come to London," Sverrisson explains. "His book was groundbreaking. But the biggest influence on me is Raymond Blanc and Le Manoir Quat'Saisons. I was there for five years and that made everything happen."
Looking at Sverrisson's menu, it's hard to trace the Blanc influence. The Icelandic chef has been serving what he describes as "Modern European Scandinavian food" at Texture in Marylebone since 2007—and that includes snow.
"You have to remember that in 2007, to serve snow in a high-dining restaurant on tables with no tablecloths, and to be seasonal, to use no cream, no butter … people thought I was crazy."
The style of cooking must have also been far removed from the dishes Sverrisson was preparing at Le Manoir, I point out.
"But the thinking is the same," he says. "Raymond uses lots of cream and butter which I don't, but he taught me so much about seasonality and seasoning."
Blanc trained his team's savoury palates by filling ten glasses with water and adding different amounts of salt to each one, before doing a blind taste test.
"Seasoning is very personal but you couldn't be way out," says Sverrisson. "Some chefs think more salt pushes the flavours up—we had to get it just right."
So, before Nordic dining was cool, before we'd heard of hygge or noma, when "Scandi food" still meant Dime bars and IKEA meatballs, Sverrisson opened Texture. Today, the restaurant's premise—seasonal, simple, carefully sourced food, beautifully plated—doesn't sound radical at all, but back in 2007, it was a different matter.
"Ten years ago, people didn't think about seasonality and now it's a topic that won't go away," says Sverrisson. "We use things when they're at their peak but it does make December, January, and February boring months for us, when there's a few root vegetables and that's it. But we've got all kinds of things that we pull out to make it work."
Which does make me wonder a little about the seasonality of snow. As it turns out, snow needn't be confined to winter and Sverrisson isn't importing scoops of Arctic permafrost south to England—he's making his own.
"You can even make it yourself at home if you like," he says.
Alongside asparagus, which enjoys a brief moment in the limelight when the English season begins in April, the Texture menu includes "goat cheese snow."
"I boil goat cheese in water with lemon, salt, and black pepper to get the maximum flavour," Sverrisson explains. "Then we spin it to get air into it so it gets fluffy. If there's too much fat or sugar in it, it becomes ice cream. It's very important to get it as snow."
He shows me a metal tub of goat cheese snow and it looks exactly like the fresh powder you pray will fall overnight on Alpine slopes. Only when you eat a big spoonful, which I over-enthusiastically do, does it taste like a mouthful of very potent cheese.
Eaten properly, it's served with leaves like wood sorrel, a slick of goat curd, and the main event: English asparagus. Oh, and a sprinkle of Icelandic seaweed.
"Quite a bit of Icelandic-ness gets in," Sverrisson laughs.
He never uses Icelandic produce (or anything, for that matter) for the sake of it, a topic that elicits strong feelings.
"Just because I could walk over to the square and pick some grass does that mean I should put that on a plate? That's ridiculous," Sverrisson says. "Some places do things like that, but how is it going to taste? At the end of the day, if it doesn't taste good, forget it. Don't use it. Don't use something because it's foraged, or called 'wild,' or you got it from a nature zone, but because it tastes good and you want to eat it."
You do want to eat Sverrisson's snows. Next to the greenness of the season's asparagus, the snow is cool and contrastingly soft against the vegetable crunch.
"I'm not in it for the trend," he explains. "I don't think we'll get fed up of Scandinavian food but we will get fed up of the gimmicks around it—people picking grass and so on. I respect and appreciate food of all kinds—you can serve hot dogs, it doesn't matter—as long as you do it properly."
Still, Sverrisson can't help but serve some of the more notable Icelandic gastronomic delicacies.
"I always have hákarl—rotten shark—for if people want it," he says. "It's not on my menu but it's for my close customers."
Texture serves the shark with a shot of what Sverrisson has dubbed svarti dauði (translated as "black death"), an aquavit called Brennivín.
"I use Icelandic lava salt which is black," he explains. "It looks interesting but the most important thing is that it tastes good. I love giving people a taste of Iceland and showing them things they haven't seen before."
While Texture has become a restaurant of the moment, it's clear even the more "gimmicky" elements of its menu (the shark and the salt and the seaweed and even the snow) are there because they're genuinely good. Imagine the reception those dishes must have received ten years ago.
"It wasn't a success overnight, for sure," remembers Sverrisson. "We tried too hard. When you're not confident, you try too hard. Now, I know exactly what I want. I was too complicated in the beginning but the older you get, the more you see simplicity can often be the best."
Still, Sverrisson isn't done yet.
"I'm looking for satisfaction. I've been looking since 1992 but I've still not found it," he says. "I thought opening my own restaurant would be it, but it wasn't. I'm still looking for something else."
Whatever future menus hold, Sverrisson's snow and shark and seaweed and lava salt are likely to stay the course, regardless of food fads.