Iceland Saga 2018: Eating the North
I felt almost instantly at ease in Reykjavik. The city was quite legible, but the landscape beyond was more like an impossible lucid dream. The otherworldly feeling of the land was also met with a feeling that was more familiar — yet still dreamlike and mercurial. Even the swaths of mossy volcanic rock — which were subtle in comparison to geysers, glaciers, and waterfalls — had an epic character to them. This is the land of the Saga, after all. You can feel the stories.
And herein lie the stories of my own journey. If you're planning a trip to Iceland, have a long layover between flights, or just want to know about the culture, food, and geography of this beautiful place, then this Saga-blog is for you! Or perhaps you know me and this is my way of telling you the whole story, rather than pulling out all the photos over coffee.
There is so much I can continue to unravel from my Iceland experience. In particular, I hope to explore more about Icelandic banana production (yep, read on for a glimpse of that), the history of their bakeries and grains, of edible mosses, geothermal cooking, and fishing. Let me know in the comments below what you would most like to see explored next!
Iceland's non-city landscapes are plucked out of time — and I don't even know what time. Maybe it's all the Norse Mythology i've been reading lately. Or maybe it's that I have seen lots of movies with iconic scenes shot on Iceland (Rogue One, Interstellar, Stardust, Batman Begins, and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty), but I couldn't shake the image of ancient stories being tucked into all the mossy, rugged pockets.
What's amazing is that in geological terms, Iceland is still so young (the volcanic plume formed around 100 million years ago, and if we look at the timeline of evolutionary life, that's not that long ago). Today the island is being split in two where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are crawling apart.
Regardless of how many exceptional and aspirational pictures you have seen of Iceland, the whole landscape maintains a romance and mystery about it as you go through. It is more raw and powerful and textured than any photo can accurately describe to you.
And Icelanders themselves are among the kindest people. They are open and reflective, sharing their knowledge with a quiet and casual grace. Also, I learned that everyone knows everyone—which is no surprise, for a nation of about 335,000 people. The fact that I arrived without a plan to meet the premier food historian and writer of Iceland, and that I met her because of a new mutual connection by my last day, should be proof enough of the connections of this community.
The ineffable and haunting landscapes beyond the city were in a fascinating contrast to what I experienced in Reykjavik itself, which I found to be a relaxed and safe city to visit as a solo traveler.
Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world, was welcoming and uncomplicated from the first moment I arrived. I found parking downtown with ease (it was 7:00 am on a Saturday morning) and I enjoyed experiencing the city almost entirely without other visitors around, for a while. This start set the tone for my trip which of course, started with breakfast.
BREAKFAST, DAY ONE:
Every great journey starts with a great breakfast. After a nearly sleepless 8 hours on the plane, a rental car snafu, and a 45 minute drive from Keflavik International Airport, I had truly arrived.
Still sleepy despite the crisp, bright morning, I parked next to the modest Cathedral at Dómkirkjan í Reykjavík. It is one of only three Lutheran Cathedrals in the country. Its bell tolled just as I stepped out of the car. I mused to think that it was my own private welcome to the city — or perhaps a breakfast bell calling me dine. And dine I did!
I stepped down to the sunken café of Bergsson Mathus. The hearty and warm breakfast I had was a welcome and intriguing start to contemporary Icelandic cuisine. The meal came with an orange juice and pineapple, which was an instant reminder of how key international food commodity trade is for a northern island nation.
The plate was filled to the edge with hearty fare: cheese, meat, bread, potatoes, beans . . . but still not too overwhelming or heavy to ingest, for the hungry traveler. My favorite bit was the muesli over a yogurt and berry compote, and the fresh bread topped with prosciutto and cheese was an easy second.
What I ORDERED:
The Bergsson Brunch: Yogurt with muesli and berry compote, a soft boiled egg, prosciutto, cheese, salad, fruits, hummus, bacon, fried potatoes, fresh orange juice, sourdough bread and Bergsson baked beans and sausages.
And the endless coffee refills were a bonus as well, since I still had five hours until I could arrive at my Airbnb, and I needed to keep my sleepy self occupied until then. The café was right next to Tjörnin Lake (really a pond), and a 10 minute walk to the Culture House. So fueled by my hearty breakfast, I was off to explore more of the city.
Dinner, DAY ONE:
My first Icelandic dinner was delicious. I am not vegan, (if you couldn't tell by the bacon, cheese, and egg on my first breakfast plate), but I do love trying the new latest and greatest foods in contemporary vegan cuisine. Gló did not disappoint. The atmosphere was not as refined as it looks in the photos, since the bowls that Gló is known for have a kind of salad bar feel, but I asked the girl at the counter what she recommended and she said the burger. The food was still a solid meal with interesting flavor combinations and an interesting story, to boot. I was impressed to learn that Sólveig Eiríksdóttir, founder of Gló, had both opened up the first vegetarian restaurant in Iceland and founded an organic foods product line called Himneskt.
What I ORDERED:
The Oumph Burger: An open face sandwich with preserved peppers, arugula, nutritional yeast, dense, spongy rye bread below, fries, and spicy "mayo" sauce.
Breakfast, Day Two:
I woke up at 5am, so I wanted coffee and pancakes as soon as Sandholt was open. They are one of the oldest bakeries in Iceland. I actually had guessed that their competition in the Reykjavik Grapevine, Brauð & Co, would have been around longer, but Sandholt actually takes that cake. With cacao pods stitched to their uniforms, you can see that they pride themselves on their chocolates, but their bread is also wonderful. They have been in operation for four generations, and today they study old recipes to inform what they bring out in their contemporary menu. A bonus take-away is to get a jar of jam — always made from scratch.
Iceland is known for its scenery and photographic marvels, but there are no shortage of food stories to tell, either. My lesson of the day was: if the agenda is to try bread, also try the pancakes.
What I ORDERED:
Pancakes with bacon, candied pecans, and syrup.
After that yummy start to the day, I hopped in my car to chase an a food experience recommended to me via a connection at Atlas Obscura: geothermal bread. I made one solid promise to myself before traveling to Iceland, and this was it: I would try the geothermal bread. And I am so glad I did.
Geothermal Rye Adventure:
To taste bread from the Earth, it was off to Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal wellness spa situated on a cold water lake with a view of Mount Helka. Helka has long been shrouded in superstition, and was called the gateway of hell. It is slated to blow any year now.
But on my way there, I stopped to see a bit more of what was going on in the landscape. This meant that I pulled off the main road to marvel at a small airplane landing strip, and for some time with the iconic and beautiful Icelandic horses.
And finally, I arrived at the spa and I tried the Geothermal Rye Bread, or Hverabrauð. The experience deserves its own blog entirely. The sweet cakey bread they make at the spa was a treat, for sure—baked for 24 hours in the bubbling ground, it's also loaded up with enough sugar to qualify it as a cake. It is also as spongy as a cake. The awesome guide Veronika (a super nice gal from the Czech Republic) was not the normal bread experience guide, and she couldn't find the bread because someone had moved the stone which typically marked it! This snafu resulted in her having to leave the group, run back to the main building for help, and come back with another helper. And so the tour group that I temporarily merged with and I just just stood around the bubbling earth, all of us just wondering if there was bread below, or if maybe we would not get to taste it that day. After lots of smiles and laughs about the lost bread, we found it! The adventure of almost not finding it made the slices of rye with heaps of Icelandic butter that much more delectable. It also felt particularly special to try this treat, which was baked in the sandy boiling oven of Mother Earth, on Earth Day.
Sigurður Rafn Hilmarsson, who typically hosts these bread events, was not in the day I visited. This bread has been covered by other outlets like the BBC Travel, who called him "something of a national icon" for his rye bread. Rye has a fascinating history in Iceland, too. It has always been imported, and was never commercially grown here.
My last full day in Reykjavik was probably my best; I think I found my own Cheers bar. Really, though. Skál means both cheers and bowl, and is thought to be a reference to when Vikings would drink from giant bowl-like vessels. But I also found my Cheers bar because I stayed for hours, worked on a book proposal, and chatted with the staff, chef, and owners through lunch, then dinner, and beyond. The intention of leaving never even crossed my mind.
I found this little slice of Valhalla because I woke up and followed the signs. Literally. The little sign on my desk in my Airbnb said "There are many great cafes in Reykjavik. We like Bismút." And with that, I was off. I met the sweet owners of Bismút Cafe and we chatted about the Reykjavik art scene (they are super knowledgeable) as different guests came in and out, each a character wanting to chat more. I had just missed a really interesting exhibition at Bismút: they had just hosted Bjorn Steinar, an artist who is also involved with very cool project called the Ministry of Icelandic Vegetables.
I got two nice mochas at the cafe, and after a long chat with co-owner Katla, she pointed me straight to the the Food Hall at Hlemmur Square Bus Station for my lunch. I would not have gone there without this push, but I could not be more glad I did! This is the most un-missable stop for a foodie in Reykjavik, by far.
And here's how it became my favorite spot: I sat down at the bar at Skál. The staff saw me snapping photos, and since I didn't introduce myself, they looked at me from across the bar inquiringly. One young cook came up and politely made conversation, and also started asking me some questions about who I was, what I was doing... and sharing lots of great information with me in return. Then the bartender and another cook were taking photos of their cocktail of the week for an instagram story, and I just said... "I have a camera, do you want me to take a photo for you?" The answer was yes, and from there, I was able to try the best food and cocktail experience I had my whole time in Iceland. This is how my new friendships were formed and how everybody got to know my name, like the Cheers jingle.
What I ORDERED:
But in particular, the BBQ pork cheek, vegan buffalo cauliflower, cod flakes with brown butter and pickled dulse (a seaweed very typical of traditional Icelandic fare), and a couple of amazing cocktails — one with chartreuse, another highlighting elderflower and Arctic Thyme. I also walked away with a box of this divine salt by Saltverk, which is made sustainable harvesting techniques and geothermal energy — and which produces a stunning irregular and flaky salt.
While sitting at my new Cheers spot, I met the creator of the Icelandic Vegetable Calendar, the Chef of Skal itself (her name is Fanny, and she rocks), and one of the owners of the restaurant who is also a co-owner of Saltverk. The Saltverk connection (his name is Gísli) was the one who suggested that I contact Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, whose book I was reading throughout the trip (see below for more on my meeting Nanna).
One other experience on my list was to see the Icelandic banana production for myself. One of my new friends from Skal had a friend who worked with the bananas, so I got a screenshot map with a circle sent to me, over Messenger, and off I went.
The Banana Grows in Iceland:
Yes, this is Bananas, and yes, you're still reading a blog about Iceland. In Hveragerði there are bananas. They are not something you would just come upon, but they are unquestionably there. Exploiting the local geothermal energy, its greenhouses are heated by hot water from volcanic hot springs underfoot. The Icelandic Agricultural University conducts research in Hveragerði, and some of its greenhouses are for bananas.
After seeing the bananas for myself, I got to try my first Icelandic "meat soup." I met some more nice folks who own a rose greenhouse operation, and then I headed back to Reykjavik to meet Nanna.
Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir has a very special perspective on Icelandic food. She is the country's premier culinary historian and a prolific contemporary cookbook writer, as well. Meeting her deserves its own blog, but I was floored at how gracious she was to open her home to me. She let me ask her bunches of questions, browse her amazing book collection, and then eventually she also invited me to have dinner with her and her son. The whole night was a delight — and I forgot that the sunlight lingers at this time of year until nearly 10pm, so we talked until quite late.
Then just like that, my last day of adventures was upon me. I went down the coast to Vik, and back to Grindavik.
I finally got my remote shutter working, so I have one photo of me, in the moss. I love the book "The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert, and being in the moss made me think of that story, which is about a female Victorian-era plant taxonomist and moss expert.
For my last proper dinner in Iceland, I was in the fishing town of Grindavík. Naturally, I ordered the fish and chips. The restaurant is a block from the dock where the fish are unloaded, and half a block from the Icelandic Saltfish Museum! I didn't order saltfish, instead I went a little in the irreverent side, and got the iconic British fish and chips. I am glad I did, because that was certainly the butteriest and best battered fish I have ever tasted.
I also ordered the Brennivín and fermented shark . . . but said hold the shark. The whole shot of caraway-spiced "black death" proved too much for me, so I asked for a beer to cut it, and then wound up sneaking the rest out in my pocket, taking it to the hotel for later, but I never got back to it.
To the last bite:
Condé Nast calls it the one dish to eat while in Iceland. So at the airport, when I realized that that food experienvce box was un-checked, I got a hot dog!
My final meal had to be the Icelandic hot dog (pylsur), I guess. The one I got, from the airport food court, was actually perfect to end the trip with. It had literally everything: “ein með öllu”! This means it was donned with fried and fresh onions, mustard, and remoulade. Sometimes boiled in hot springs (by campers/backpackers), the Icelandic hot dog is what everyone from Bill Clinton to the Kardashians try in Iceland. And if you order “the Clinton” at Bæjarins Beztu, the famous Reykjavik stand, that you’ll get it with only mustard. I am glad I went for the whole she-bang.
Thank you for following along in this Saga with me! I hope you enjoyed it, and again please comment below to tell me what you would like to learn more about, in the future. Thank you!