We all have a place on our “I desperately want to go there one day” bucket-list. Iceland has thus far been this place for me.
Perhaps it is the remoteness that I find appealing, Iceland being a faraway island, floating somewhere in the north Atlantic, kind of near Greenland and the Arctic Circle, about halfway between America and Europe, and geographically as far from Australia as you can get.
Or perhaps it is the promise of the country’s fabled physical beauty, said to be unlike anything you will see anywhere else on the planet. A natural marvel, made up of barren windswept plains, snow-capped mountains and glaciers, volcanoes and lava fields and steaming geothermal springs.
Or perhaps it is the fact that my knowledge of Iceland is limited to only four (rather random) factoids:
- One, in 1986 when I was but 14, US President Reagan and Russian President Gorbachev met here, to lay a path for the eventual reduction in both countries’ nuclear arsenals, and setting the tone for the general geopolitical environment we all continue to live in today.
- Two, a few years ago the ash cloud from the explosion of Iceland’s impossible to pronounce Mt Eyjafjallajökull brought European air travel to a standstill, which unexpectedly left me stranded in France for three days (I understand this unbearable hardship may not win me much of your sympathy).
- Three, year-in year-out Iceland most valiantly tries to submit the worst entry in the Eurovision song contest. Often with much success.
- And four, this odd little island is where the even odder swan-dress-wearing singer-songwriter-actress Björk comes from.
Or perhaps I am attracted to the sheer absurdity that a country like Iceland should even exist at all. A land of ice forged by fire that is prone to periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and where night can last a whole season; a people tracing their ancestry to marauding Vikings, who have lived in perpetual cold and near isolation for centuries; an independent nation of fewer than 300,000 people, totally irrelevant on a global scale but which still made the whole world shudder when its banking system collapsed.
In short, I have no idea what exactly it is about Iceland that appeals to me so much. But I do know that I have always wanted to go there, and to see it all for myself.
Then a few weeks ago I learned that my cousin and his wife, en-route to a family wedding in Miami (see my previous post Nine Signs of Middle Age) would be spending a week in Iceland. They kindly invited me to join them there, though I don’t think they expected me to actually show up. But Reykjavik is a mere three hours from London, and at this time of the year there is a more than reasonable prospect of seeing the famed Northern Lights. So spur of the moment I booked a flight, and jetted off to meet them, landing in Keflavik International Airport in the pitch darkness of the late afternoon. Or maybe it was the pitch darkness of the early morning. Or then again, perhaps it was the pitch darkness of the night. At this time of the year in Iceland it is all a bit hard to tell, really.
In any case, I got off the plane and found that, quite literally, I was quivering. Not surprising, given the biting cold and the fact that I had idiotically arrived in little more than a t-shirt, jeans and a thin cotton jumper (it wasn’t yet winter but average temperatures were hovering around zero – what on earth was I thinking?). But I was quivering partly from pure excitement, as well.
And despite the massive weight of expectation built up over many years, Iceland did not disappoint. Instead, over a brief four-day visit this wonderful little country served me up one oddity after another, a veritable feast of weirdness that fulfilled everything I could ever have hoped for, and more.
Starting with the food…
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am partial to what might be described as “bizarre food” experiences. For me, heaven involves going someplace new and trying the local fare. If that local fare happens to be something I wouldn’t normally get to eat, then so much the better. And the ultimate joy: getting to eat something that gives me a whole new taste experience for the very first time. But Iceland, oh wow! Never before have I experienced such a complete and overwhelming food overload as I did in those four short days. It is like the good folk of Iceland live in a parallel culinary universe, where just about everything they eat is weird. Suffice it to say that I was in foodie nirvana.
So for your vicarious eating pleasure, here are the culinary highlights of what has to rate as the most extraordinary food adventure of my travelling life so far.
Skyr: Cheese of the Gods
After checking into my hotel I dozed off, and woke up sometime in the morning-afternoon-evening, and headed down for a bit of what I think was breakfast but could equally have been dinner. I immediately set upon the various platters of smoked and cured salmon, and the bowls of prepared herrings – there was plain, sweet, in cream, and in a tomato-based sauce. All delicious but there was nothing here that I hadn’t eaten before. That is, until I came across little tubs of something called skyr – technically a cheese, but more like a kind of yoghurt, although that is a bit like saying caviar is more like a kind of fish eggs. Because skyr is 100 per cent frikking delicious, and so much better than any yoghurt I have ever had: thick and creamy and yummy, but at the same time miraculously fat-free. As it turns out Skyr is locally made and only available in Iceland (heaven knows why this wonder-yoghurt has never been exported). It is so embedded in Icelandic culture that when factions in the country’s tiny parliament argue they have been known to throw skyr at one another. They even say that there is a particular bar in Reykjavik which hosts bikini-wrestling in a tub of skyr, but sadly I was unable to verify this claim for myself…..
A Simple Hotdog
Yes really, a hotdog. And I mean the sausage in a bun variety, as opposed to the cooked canine variety (c’mon, I wasn’t visiting Korea). Making the most of the few hours of daily sunshine, I went for a brief stroll around central Reykjavik. In the course of which I passed a hotdog wagon located next to a picket fence alongside a car park. To be honest it looked like any old hotdog wagon you’d find just about any old where. Except that in the freezing cold there was still a solid queue lined up, suggesting that Baejarens Beztu Pylsur makes a damned fine hotdog. And indeed it was, a lamb sausage covered in ketchup, raw and fried onion, sweet relish and mustard-mayonnaise. The place was once voted best hotdog stand in Europe, and proudly boasts as its most famous customer one William Jefferson Clinton, who allegedly hoed down several of these fabulous Icelandic wieners with much gusto.
Kleinur – the Deviant’s Donut
An indigenous Icelandic donut, formed by taking a lump of triangular-shaped dough, twisting it, cutting a slit down the middle and deep frying it (traditionally in sheep tallow, but nowadays mostly in regular oil). I would never have included it on this list but for the fact that I saw some kleinur on a tray in a bookshop-cafe. I asked the grungy-looking guy making my latte what they were. He explained they were a uniquely Icelandic bakery item, and then leaning towards me and lowering his voice to a near whisper, he suggested I should have one because they “look a bit like a woman’s pussy”. Hello? Did I hear right, or did I miss something in the translation? But now I was in a bind, as I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I mean, I couldn’t very well ask for clarification, now could I? – “sorry, can you please repeat that, because I thought you just suggested your country’s national donut resembles a female’s private bits”? Instead I took the easy way out, and just ate one. Appearances aside, nothing special is my final verdict.
Snacks – what’s wrong with simple chocolate?
Out driving in the magnificent Snaefelness Peninsula, we pulled into a service station to fill-up on gas, and buy some snacks for the road. There were spongy cream-filled creations, hard black liquorice bars covered in chocolate (in Iceland this is considered a “sweet”), and racks of the preferred form of Icelandic snack-food: hardfiskur – catfish or haddock or cod, gutted, hung until dry, then sold either in long crackly strips of “fish jerky”, or in bite-sized flakes. A bit like fishy potato crisps, really, and truth be told, probably a lot better for you. Although I am not sure the same could be said for sviolappir, which is a sheep’s foot, barbecued and sold whole, to be gnawed on in the same way that a dog might gnaw on a bone.
Malt og Appelsin – an unholy union
All over Iceland they sell bottles of appelsin, a local version of Fanta (orange soda). And all over Iceland they also sell bottles of malt extract, a thick, black, locally produced drink that looks and tastes a bit like sweetened stout beer, albeit with a hint of Vegemite stirred through, and without any alcoholic content. Where it gets kind of weird though is that Icelanders like to mix the two, creating a popular beverage known simply as “Malt og Appelsin”. All I can say is that with this combo the basic premise of math collapses, in that mixing malt extract and appelsin is a case of One plus One makes Minus Four. As drinks go this one thankfully remains strictly confined to Iceland, long may it remain that way.
Mysa – seriously, you drink this?
While on the subject of utterly inexplicable drinks, there is also mysa – whey – which Icelanders seem to love guzzling, never mind that anywhere else in the world this stuff gets thrown away after cheese is made (mysa is actually the by-product from making skyr). I discovered that in Iceland mysa is sold on the dairy shelf, so that foreign visitors might innocently purchase it and then feel like a complete dunce for complaining about being sold a carton of off milk. Smell: gross. Texture: gross. Taste: sour and gross, a bit like drinking curdled baby vomit. Still, Icelanders not only consume mysa in vast quantities but use it as a pickling agent for many other dishes (which explains a lot about Icelandic cuisine in general). They will proudly tell you that this is the drink from which Vikings drew their strength. A bit of a strange boast, don’t you think, given how many Vikings are still with us today….
Lysi – “an acquired taste”
On my second morning in Iceland I noticed a bottle of what looked a lot like oil lurking at the back of the breakfast table. I noticed it because anyone local was pouring a good shot of the stuff into a large tablespoon, and then slurping it down. Intrigued, I decided to try it for myself, and discovered that the reason this substance looked a lot like oil is because it was oil. Fish oil to be precise; fish-liver oil to be more precise; and stinky, unctuous fish-liver oil at that, made from a blend of cod-liver and shark-liver, to be extremely precise. A helpful waitress explained to me that I had just sampled lysi, something that all good mummies in Iceland give their kids each morning. It is rumoured to protect against everything from common colds to insanity. Although I wouldn’t know, given that my only encounter with lysi nearly caused me to throw up all over the breakfast buffet.
Rudolph – who knew he tastes so good?
Overlooking downtown Reykjavik is The Pearl exhibition centre, which as the name suggests resembles a big round ball balanced on a hill, inside of which there is a revolving restaurant. It is most famous for its “wild game buffet”, served each day in the months leading up to Christmas. The star attraction at this particular buffet is Iceland’s number one type of wild game, being reindeer. It is a low-fat and tender meat, and is served up as reindeer pâté, as thinly sliced reindeer Carpaccio, as delicious little reindeer meatballs, in reindeer mini-burgers, and as a wonderful roast leg of reindeer. All of which are utterly scrumptious, no matter how wrong it may seem to be eating Santa’s red-nosed helper.
Lamb – No Part Left Behind
Wherever you go in Iceland, fluffy sheep dot the landscape, like little pompoms. And wherever you eat in Iceland, sheep thus feature on the menu, with no part of the animal considered off-limits for the eating. Start with lamb chops and steaks, cold smoked lamb served thin-sliced on bread, and hearty meat soup, chunks of lamb and potato floating in a salty lamb broth. But then quickly move on to slatur, which is essentially the Icelandic version of haggis – bits of minced sheep innards and blood, mixed with oats, stuffed into a sheep intestine, and boiled. Although the traditional Icelandic way of eating this – that is, cold and sprinkled with sugar – leaves much to be desired. Need something weirder? Try lundabaggi, a very fatty sausage made of sheep’s colon stuffed with off-cuts, which is then deliberately soured by pickling it in mysa. Still not satisfied? Then you’d like svid – a whole sheep’s head, burned to remove the wool, cut in two, boiled, and then the whole face is eaten: lips, eyes, ears, skin, the lot. Believe it or not, these half-heads are available in the deep-freeze section of most Icelandic supermarkets. And then there is hrutspungar – ram’s testicles, sewn up in their own scrotum, pickled in whey to make them sour, set in gelatine, and them pressed with garlic. The result is a spongy, lemony-sour, garlicky abomination. If there was a restaurant in Hell, they’d serve this.
The Greatest Dinner Ever
It would seem that my cousin is cut from the same genetic cloth as me, and so on our last night in Iceland together we headed off to feast at a grill restaurant that specialises in traditional Icelandic fare. We had some pretty delicious but otherwise entirely normal dishes: salmon cured three ways, and succulent lamb loin in a sweet berry sauce. But very quickly we dived straight into the weird stuff. Like a blood-red slab of Minki whale, served sashimi-style with soy sauce. Think of the best tuna you have ever had, triple it, and you are still nowhere close to how delectable this was. Or like the hunk of superbly tender grilled meat that arrived on a plain wooden board. I thought it was a beef fillet, until my cousin pointed out to me that I was in fact munching on Icelandic horse, prized around the country for its flavourful yet low-fat flesh. But the unquestioned highlight of the meal was a simple mini-burger, where the meat patty was made of lundi, otherwise known in English as puffin. Yes, that’s right, puffin: that most adorable little black and white bird, which look and walks like a miniature penguin, only with a yellow clown nose. No matter, cute as they may be, In Iceland puffins have always been considered food, and are eaten grilled, in burger form, roasted, and boiled in milk-sauce. It was really exquisite, gamey and slightly sweet, and all I can say is that for me, puffin is the new quail. In a few years time, when you see puffin popping up on fine restaurant menus all over the show, remember you read about it here first.
Now just in case you thought it couldn’t get worse than eating cute little sea birds you are mostly used to seeing in Disney cartoons, it does. Consider these other Icelandic delicacies:
Hvalrengi – hunks of raw whale fat, made sour in milk. Apparently this tastes like you are eating papier-mâché, and is incredibly bad for you in terms of fat content, cholesterol, and everything else that might kill you. What’s not to love about this?
Selshreyfar – in Iceland they eat seals (said to be a very black, strongly flavoured, almost gamey meat). But that is not the worst of it. They also then eat the seals’ flippers, which are chopped up, made sour in milk (this seems to be an Icelandic food signature of sorts) and then salted. According to just about every local I asked, they taste pretty slimy, and are utterly disgusting. Yet still they eat it…..
Hakarl – for me, this has to be the undisputed Holy Grail of bizarre foods, and I am totally gutted that I couldn’t find any to try. To make it, a hunk of shark meat is buried in sand, and is left there to rot for about six months, before being dug up and hung out to dry (as well as stink up the place). That is about the full extent of culinary prowess required to prepare this Icelandic specialty, otherwise known as “rot-cured shark”. The secret to good hakarl is in the rotting (but of course). If not left to fester for long enough, you might die eating it, on account of the lethal neurotoxins and ammonia that build up in the meat. But if left for the right amount of time, the poisons break down and hey presto – your rotted shark is safe to consume, and ready for the table. Assuming, that is, you enjoy dining on something that smells like bad fish mixed with off cheese, that has the texture of rotted slippery fat, and that tastes like used army socks flavoured with household chemicals. Served cold in little pieces, more than a few bits is said to bring on instant diarrhoea. Now why wouldn’t you want to eat that?
Sadly, however, I ran out of time, and was thus unable to track these down, possibly the three most revolting foods imaginable. But on the bright side, this does provide ample reason for me to return to Iceland one day.
I can’t wait.
Next week: Oddities in Iceland Part II – Bursting Day, Surfing, Nude Yoga, and the Israeli Connection