Mystical creatures are believed to dwell in the peculiar landscape of pumice rock and lava ropes, formed by Iceland’s volatile volcanic past. By their sheer edginess the dark rocks pushed from the earth in odd angles seem to hold faces and figures. Add to that the occurrence of steam, sulphur smells and blowing geysers and you can understand why in Iceland even grown men believe that an entire underground population of Huldufólk live out here, perhaps better known as elves.
“You don’t believe me?” said our guide on our full day tour of waterfalls and lava fields, geysers and lakes that make up the famed Golden Circle looping from Reykjavik. We had just passed a grassy mound. In all sincerity he said the elves who lived there hadn’t been too happy with the road cutting right through their community. Our guide, a fit man in his late sixties who grew up in rural Iceland, believed in the existence of elves with the conviction of someone who “saw with his own eyes”. He told us a story of how one day as a young teenager, out hunting, he got lost in a snow storm. He found cover in a hollow between rocks and stayed warm under his sheepskin cover. When the storm passed snow had covered everything, including his tracks. He was lost until suddenly, plof, a black lava stone fell in the white snow. Plof, another one. A trail of strategically dropped black lava stones guided him back to the main road and finally, home. “Elves saved me. There were no footsteps in the snow, nothing but the black stones that helped me find my way back.”
These days perhaps he could’ve just followed the Nesjavellir geothermal hot water pipeline. Snaking from source to the capital, the insulated pipeline transports natural hot water — after it is pumped into a lake to be filtered from harmful chemicals and to cool down from scalding — directly to Reykjavik where it keeps streets ice free in winter, houses warm and showers naturally hot. No wonder the shower water had a vague yet unmistakable smell of rotten eggs.
In a land so defined by lava and sulfur smells, strong and bold flavors are bound to influence its gastronomy. And they do. Fish is dried in the wind; fish and meats are smoked over dried sheep dung; ram testicles are pickled and pressed; whole sheep’s head is singed and boiled, its contents used to make an equally popular head cheese. It goes well with rúgbrauð, Iceland’s dense and almost black rye bread, and washed down with spirits distilled from potato and caraway seeds: Brennivín.
And then of course, there is hákarl, fermented shark and Iceland’s putative gastronomic treasure. When my Icelandic friend heard I was in town she invited me over for nibbles and drinks. Did I try the shark yet, Olga asked, and without waiting for my answer she said she’d get it. “You’ll want to try it”, she said. I was ambivalent. She opened the jar with shark cubes and instantly a foul smell lodged in my nostrils, the way a cat litter box that needs cleaning does. Still, I picked one to try. The initial bite was not too bad; rather like a strong-tasting cured herring. But then, ammoniac and something gone bad kicked in and one bite was quite enough.
Olga considers it a delicacy and finished more than half that jar in the span of a pleasant late afternoon out on her terrace on Reykjavik’s southern shores. Her Icelandic friends however didn’t share her enthusiasm for the rotten fish. Neither did her son, disproving the belief that all Icelanders love hákarl.
(Mal)odorous foods are only a part of Icelandic gastronomy that is equally influenced by wild edibles that grow even in Reykjavik’s sidewalk borders like lovage, sorrel and elderflower; by the ‘greens from the sea’ like dulse (seaweed); by wild berries and licorice root and lichens like Icelandic mosses.
Here’s brief, personal summary of some of Iceland’s foods:
Skyr — Love at first sight, skyr is Iceland’s Greek yogurt-meet-mascarpone dairy product. Traditionally made with raw milk, it’s also popular for breakfast, lunch and for dinner dessert.
Rugbrauð — This Icelandic rye bread is almost black, moist and chewy. It is flavorful and perfect for the more hearty flavors, like dried fish and lamb head cheese but equally tasty with butter and a good dollop of rhubarb or local berry jam!
Hakarl — Fermented shark that comes in cubes in sealed jars. The initial bite is not too bad, until a putrid taste burns your taste buds. A guy working at the supermarket volunteered that he can only choke it down (his words) if he has a shot of Bernadine (‘burning wine’, brennevin is Icelandic schnapps) right after.
Sviðasulta — Different from Svid (which is a sheep’s head boiled and served whole), Svidasulta is sheep’s head cheese (boiled, pickled and pressed head meats). Somewhat stronger in taste than pig’s head cheese, if you like head cheese, you will love Svidasulta.
Sheep-dung smoked trout — The lush red-orange, succulent-looking sheep-dung smoked trout shocked with a pungency way more pronounced than its appearance suggested. But on dark, solid rye bread with a lick of good butter, it was quite tasty.
Kjötsúpa — Sheep in Iceland roam free noshing on wild grasses, mosses, flowers and berries. It makes Icelandic lamb incredibly flavorful, meaty and lean. In this traditional soup, lamb lends a natural sweetness to the hearty flavors. It is a rustic soup, loaded with root vegetables and pieces of meat.
Pylsur — Iceland’s hotdog is made with a variety of meat, including delicious local lamb. Look for it at the butcher, supermarket or order from a pylsur stand like PylsuHusid or the (famous) Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Anthony Bourdain went here).
Plokkfiskur — It literally means “plucked fish”, plokkfiskur is Iceland’s fish stew that is basically potatoes mashed with cod or haddock. Comfort-food like nothing else, a plate of plokkfiskur made from scratch hits a craving lunch or dinner!
Lamb & Rhubarb — A traditional Sunday meal in Iceland is lamb roast with rhubarb jam. The flavor combination of the tart rhubarb and meaty sweetness of Icelandic lamb found its way to modern interpretations and one to order if you spot it on the menu: lamb and rhubarb.
Iceland is located on the fault line that divides the American and the European continent. The result, in a nutshell, of the geological friction is a country that has more than 100 active and inactive volcanoes, giving the land an incredible natural resource of geothermal energy. A fun result of that geothermal activity are Iceland’s recreational attractions: hot pots and natural baths, found throughout the land. Check the hot pot website for maps and GPS waypoints!
For a “little nibble” of Reykjavik here’s another post: Pitstop in Reykjavik’s Grandi Harbor!