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Bakery dishes Icelandic delicacies

Residents of Gimli thankful for arrival

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GIMLI -- The province's venture to match unemployed Icelanders with jobs in Manitoba has been a major bust but people here are thankful for at least one thing: fresh vinarterta for Christmas.

Birgir Robertsson made the jump and opened a bakery here in April. Now vinarterta cakes are flying off his shelves like terns off the shores of Reykjavik from where he came.

Robertsson's Reykjavik Cafe has filled a giant void for the community, providing freshly baked Icelandic treats.

In addition to vinarterta (VEEN-ar-ter-ta), Robertsson bakes items such as kleinur, Christmas laufabraud (to be eaten with beefsteak), kransakaka (cake rings stacked so they look like a game of ring toss), Danish vinarbraud, and, of course, rugbraud, bread as black as a Viking's heart.

"He's a master baker. He's the tops," said Gretar Axelsson, a friend of Robertsson's who encouraged him to set up in Gimli.

They take baking seriously in Iceland. Robertsson holds a masters in baking: four years of technical school and a year to earn his master's.

He emigrated from Iceland in June 2009. Robertsson's story would be more colourful if he'd fled the island after its three banks went bankrupt within a week, leaving the country in financial ruin. His story would be even better if he was one of the bankers.

But Robertsson luckily sold a bar he owned two weeks before the collapse. He was preparing to move to Gimli before former then-labour minister Nancy Allan visited Iceland two years ago, to much fanfare, offering Icelanders jobs.

There was great interest in Allan's message. About 700 people, including Robertsson, attended a Manitoba government workshop to learn how they could move to Manitoba. Officials had to set speaker boxes outside because there wasn't enough room for everyone in the hall.

But just a dozen people have come over from Iceland since the province signed an agreement March 5, 2009, to fast-track immigration. Icelanders told this reporter on a visit to Iceland last summer the process was just too complex and there was little assistance. Most people gave up.

Robertsson said it is much easier to move to a country like Norway, where you can practically start work the day after you arrive.

It was quicker for Robertsson to immigrate to Manitoba because he planned to open a business, not find a job, and therefore fell into the business class of the immigration nominee program. It took him just six months.

The main bakery in Gimli, Central Bakery, closed about two years ago and Robertsson, 46, saw a "good opportunity," he said.

For the uninitiated, a slice of vinarterta, a Christmas staple in many Manitoba homes, looks like a slab of sedimentary rock. It has six strata with a spread of rhubarb or raspberry or strawberry jam between each one.

Robertsson makes both a "white" and "brown vinarterta." The white has a more almond taste. The brown contains more ginger clove and cinnamon.

Vinarterta is delectable but rugbraud has a better story. The black bread is over 500 years old. There are hardly any trees in Iceland so the bread was cooked with geothermal heat in the early days. The dough was put in cookie tins, buried in the ground in a geothermal vent, and removed two days later. With all its volcanoes, Iceland has many hot springs.

It's a dense and moist traditional rye bread with a sweet flavour and is "best eaten with fish," said Robertsson, who slow-cooks his rugbraud for 12 hours.

Kransakaka is a marzipan cake baked in rings that are then stacked into towers. Something called kleinur are deep-fried dough. "Some people say it's an Icelandic donut," Robertsson said. Definitely not to be overlooked are plain old oatmeal biscuits that are square and perforated like crackers.

Christmas laufabraud is also deep-fried and has bird tracks running along its round shape. The marks are made with a tool called a laufabraud jarn. At Christmastime in Iceland, children will write their names or make designs in their laufabraud.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2010 A10

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