WHEN Iceland's President goes off on state visits, she usually takes along a suitcase, a hat box, and Hilmar Jonsson. Mr. Jonsson is this country's gastronomic giant - both figuratively and literally. He's owner and founder of Iceland's only gourmet magazine, Gestgjafinn. When Jonsson travels, he packs a few knives, a chef's hat, and sometimes as much as two tons of codfish.
``That was for a `Scandinavia Today' celebration in the States,'' he says, curling his flounder-size hand around a delicate china teacup at a local Reykjavik restaurant. ``We gave five dinner parties with President Finnbogadottir in five different cities. Usually two fish starters, a sorbet, and then lamb.''
With such a short growing season, Iceland's native cuisine is somewhat limited - and definitely expensive! Most fruits and vegetables have to be imported. The cuisine is based on lamb and fish, for the most part. Especially cod - the fish that launched the ``cod war'' between Iceland and Britain in 1975.
Jonsson, a rather taciturn man with a rugged build, looks as though he'd be more at home hammering out horseshoes than flipping flapjacks. Not surprising.
``I was lazy as a kid,'' he says, rubbing his reddish beard. ``So I quit school and started working as a blacksmith,'' he adds, not seeing the humor in the contradiction. ``Then one day my grandmother said they needed help at a restaurant so I said, `OK, I'll try it.'''
School, an apprenticeship, mountains of messy pots and pans later, and his vocation was sealed tighter than a vacuum-packed jar of herring.
Icelandic cuisine has come a long way, too. Exactly how far is illustrated by this example of an ancient recipe Jonsson related:
``They'd catch a shark, cut it into large chunks, and bury it in the rocks where the waves would wash over it. After a few weeks, they'd dig it up and hang it to dry for a few more weeks. But that's nothing to how they used to prepare seal in Greenland....''
Today, the food is more sophisticated, but still no threat to France.
``It's much like Scandinavian cuisine,'' Jonsson explains. ``We were a Danish colony until 1944, and a poor country. We also had strict currency laws that didn't allow us to take much money when we traveled out of the country. That meant we'd often take our own food with us, often dried salted fish.''
As he explained it, the laws changed, and the monetary situation improved. More Icelanders traveled and began eating in foreign restaurants, returning home with more experienced palates.
``Before that, people didn't eat in restaurants here very often. They were mostly cafeteria-style and served the same thing you'd get at home,'' he says.
Food here still has its limitations. Strict laws restrict what can be imported. ``We can't get any foreign meats, for instance,'' Jonsson moans, ``and we have very little in the way of game - some puffin, ptarmigan, and guillemot. And occasionally reindeer.
``But still, I think we have the best lamb. It's young and raised on sweet, unpolluted, unfertilized mountain grass. We serve it every way - smoked, dried, and sometimes marinated raw. It's even used instead of beef in hot dogs.
``And our fish comes from some of the coldest unpolluted waters in the world.''
Next evening, I was kindly invited to dinner at Jonsson's home with his charming wife, Elinand, and son, Jon-Karl.
Jonsson prepared an example of just how fine, simple, and delicious a typical Icelandic meal can be.
He carefully broiled two pounds of tiny Icelandic lobster tails, flavored only with a little salt, pepper, lemon juice, and oregano. ``And there's no garlic. We like to taste the fish,'' said Mrs. Jonsson, as her husband served us at their candle-lit dining table.
This was followed by a superb young roast leg of lamb: pink, tender, and full of juicy sweetness.
``Icelandic food has changed a lot in the last 10 years, but now I think it's standing still,'' said Jonsson. ``But I think I can say it's very good at the moment.''
Icelanders eat more lamb than any other meat. It is often served in a variety of interesting ways. Jonnson suggests the following dish for a special occasion: Lamb Filets With Wild Herbs and Mushrooms 2-pound loin of lamb cut into 8 fillets 16 slices bacon 1 tablespoon dried rosemary Butter for saut'eing 1 cup fresh chanterelles or other wild mushrooms Salt and pepper 1 cup all-purpose cream Cooking or olive oil
Wrap 2 slices of bacon around each fillet of lamb. Fasten bacon with toothpicks. Season both sides with rosemary and pepper. Refrigerate 4 to 6 hours.
Slice mushrooms and saut'e in butter. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Heat cooking or olive oil in heavy pan. Fry fillets for 4 to 5 minutes on each side. Add cream and simmer briefly. Remove lamb from cream sauce. Place on serving platter and remove to warm oven. Add wild mushrooms to cream sauce. Simmer 4 to 5 minutes. Pour sauce over lamb before serving. Serves 4. Jonsson suggests fresh peas and potato peaks to accompany lamb. Salt Cod Au Gratin 1 1/4 pounds dried salt cod 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk Salt and freshly ground pepper 6 medium-size boiled potatoes, sliced Fresh parsley, finely chopped Butter 1/2 cup grated mild cheese 1/2 cup bread crumbs
Soak salt cod in cold water for 24 hours, changing water occasionally.
Place cod in pan with cold water to cover. Bring to boil. Remove from heat. Skim any scum from water. Cover, and let cod stand for at least 20 minutes.
Melt butter in saucepan. Stir in flour. Add milk and stir until smooth. Season with a little salt and parsley.
Cut cod into small pieces, mix with potatoes, and add to sauce. Place in buttered ovenproof dish. Place under broiler until golden brown. Serve with crisp buttered toast or pumpernickel. Baked Potato Peaks 2 pounds potatoes, peeled and quartered 2 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt 2 egg yolks 1/2 cup all-purpose cream
Boil potatoes until tender. Drain, let stand a few minutes. Mash with butter and salt. Beat egg yolks into cream, add to potatoes, and mix thoroughly, adding more cream or milk if mixture is too stiff.
Spoon potatoes into pastry tube attached with large star nozzle. Squeeze into soft peaks onto greased baking sheet. Bake in preheated 400-degree F. oven until peaks begin to brown.