Iceland

I took a vacation in Iceland in June and I wanted to share some things I saw and learned there with you. One of the coolest things about traveling is trying out the local cuisine. The food in Iceland was really good for the most part and there were several things I found very interesting.

First of all, their livestock (sheep, cows, horses) are directly descended from the original lines brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th Century. After establishing the world’s first democratic assembly in 930 AD one of the things the Icelanders did was ban the import of foreign livestock so the lines have stayed pure up to the present day.

There are between 4,000 and 5,000 small farms around Iceland, which are family owned so you don’t have to worry about factory farmed meat.

Icelandic sheep look more like what we would consider a mountain sheep and are free range for the most part. Once a year, all the sheep farmers in Iceland get together and ride horses into the highlands to gather the sheep. They shear the wool and take the lambs to slaughter, which is often the first human contact the lambs have had. They don’t seem to eat mutton in Iceland, but lamb is a staple and is very good there. Lamb soup is a traditional dish.

The horses are probably of Mongolian origin and have been bred pure in Iceland for over 1,000 years. They are very adapted to Iceland’s climate and terrain. They are small so we might call them ponies but they can easily carry two people. And yes, Icelanders have traditionally eaten horse meat and still do to some extent. I was curious but as it turned out I didn’t have a chance to try it.

Icelandic horses

Icelandic horses: Friends or food?

I did try puffin, which was really interesting. It is a very dark and tender meat but it tastes like fish due to the puffins’ fish diet. It was a very intense flavor and extremely salty- I could only eat a few bites!

The fish and seafood was incredibly good and I had some really good lobster, which is often baked with garlic. Whale meat is also served at many restaurants. Iceland is one of only three countries that hunts whale commercially today, along with Japan and Norway. I didn’t try any whale.

Lobster

Garlic baked lobster tails in Höfn, Iceland's lobster capital.

I visited Lake Mývatn where trout are caught and smoked in stone smokehouses and eaten on a dark rye bread that is put into a tin box and buried underground in geothermal fields to be baked by steam.

Trout

Shanita enjoying a nice lake trout.

There are some far more exotic “local” choices if you want to get really traditional, but they don’t seem to be eaten on a daily basis by modern Icelanders. One of these is svið, a sheep’s head cut in half, singed, boiled (eyes and all) and then pickled or eaten fresh. Yum! More well-known is the Hákarl, or what you and I would probably just call rotten shark cubes. It’s a Greenland shark that rots underground for six months before it is considered edible. Needless to say, I did not eat either of those things.

I did sample the Icelandic schnapps Brennivín, which is flavored with caraway. It’s rather… strong, shall we say.

It's a dark picture but I've got a sheep horn shot glass. It was inside a turf Viking longhouse and it was, well, dark.

I also happened upon some other weird food items like a sandwich I was eating that turned out to contain one thin slice of some sort of odd smoked ham-like meat and what seemed to be potato or egg salad with cooked peas and carrots in it. I think every sandwich in Iceland contains cooked eggs.

Danish open-face sandwiches also seem to be a big deal over there; I even saw an entire restaurant dedicated to them in Reykjavik. I had one that consisted of a thin, dryish piece of wheat bread topped with a thin slice of roast beef, tomato, cucumber, what could have been a prune(?), pickle slices, an unidentified chunk of something transparent white and pickled, and some weird little things that were sort of like a cross between sprouts and bamboo shoots… all topped with a drizzle of tangy yellow mystery sauce and some crunchy fried onions. Odd.

Hot dogs are also incredibly popular but the Icelandic hot dog was a wonder to me. The hot dog part is pretty much what you’d expect but bigger than standard. Then it gets interesting, with three sauces squeezed on it. One was a yellowish, sort of tangy sauce similar to what was on top of the sandwich above. One was a brown sauce, like gravy, and the third sauce was red but didn’t appear to be tomato based and had crunchy fried onions in it. I don’t have a clue what any of it was, but it actually was delicious.

The mystery dog.

I also really enjoyed going to an organic fish and chips shop, where they even breaded the fish with barley and spelt flour.

Shanita with some tasty AND healthy ling cod and potatoes.

Something I really loved and ate a lot of was skyr, which is similar to yogurt but is actually a fresh cheese. You could buy it flavored and sweetened at supermarkets or get it as a dessert in restaurants mixed with berries and cream. It’s really very tasty, especially when served in the latter fashion. I am going to try to make some so I’ll let you know how that goes.

I love skyr so much that I literally ate it on a boat, with a goat. Okay, there was no goat.

This is getting pretty lengthy and I could go on forever, but one more cool note is that they grow produce in geothermally heated greenhouses (all of their energy is produced geothermally, but that is an incredible story for another day). They are Europe’s #1 exporter of BANANAS…. they are also Europe’s only exporter of bananas.

Well, that’s the food version of my holiday. There are some non-food pictures of my vacation over here if you care to see more. Vacation’s over but it’s good to be back on the farm!

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