30 August 2012


The menu at Fjöruborðið restaurant proclaims that "people risk their lives in bad weather en route to the village of Stokkseyri for just a few spoonfuls" of their lobster soup.  I would.
Fish soup, or fiskisúpa, in dozens of permutations, is one of the Icelandic staples.  Served in waterside restaurants and mountain inns, with curry or tomato, langoustine or cod, buttered bread or cous-cous, fiskisúpa could be called the national dish (if the actual national dish wasn't, unfortunately, hákarl).
The version at Fjöruborðið is probably the island's most decadent.  Chock full of tiny "lobster" tails (really, northern langoustines) and butter, it's fishy, extravagantly creamy and about the best thing I could imagine eating.  We sat in awe as the North Atlantic crashed against the southern coast, seabirds wheeled and the steam rose from our bowls.
At Fimm Fiskar, in Stykkishólmur, I got my first taste of modern fiskisúpa.  Fragrant with citrus, spiced with curry, sweetened with coconut milk, their version of the soup was a surprise.  It turns out that Icelanders love curry; we have no idea how this happened, but cumin and curry are in everything, fish soup included.
Fimm Fiskar, a small and tidy bistro on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, stocks their broth with bell pepper,* shrimp, lobster and cod.  It's rich without being creamy.  The spices give off a heady vapor that smells as much of the south seas as the north.
*Another unexpected but common fiskisúpa ingredient.
The town of Rif, further out on Snæfellsnes, doesn't have much.  There are some fishing docks, a few corrugated-tin buildings and a tiny cafe, Gamla Rif.  The cafe was opened by two women whose husbands fished for cod on the open seas.  The fish soup is the only savory dish on a cake-filled menu.  It's full of toothsome bits of cod - "the only fish we have in Rif," our waitress said.  Also, lots of curry, fish stock, tomato and pepper.
Also, fascinatingly, canned peach.  "We use it to sweeten," the young woman said.  "We also put in some of the syrup."  The soup wasn't overly sweet, and had a raw seashore smell, something like kelp mixed with onions.  Served with coarse, homemade bread, followed by a slice of rhubarb-outmeal tart, it was one of the best lunches we've had.
My first experience with icelandic fish soup was also the simplest.  At the traditional-food bastion Búðarklettur, in the town of Borgarnes, we sat by big windows in a crowded dining room.  The soup was uncomplicated cod and tomato; rich with sea salt, safron and herbs; only slightly spiced and hot enough to scald the lips.  The fish was chewy and flaky at the same time - the perfect cod texture.  We had landed at Keflavik airport only a few hours earlier and were still agog at the island's crags and bays.  To my airplane-dulled tongue, this bowl of soup tasted more like the ocean than sea-water itself.
On a wind-whipped evening by Lake Laugarvatn, I had the most elegant fiskisúpa of our stay.  Lindin restaurant is a genteel place in an unlikely locale.  The food is delicate and far-reaching (minke whale on the same menu as reindeer burger), their fish bisque uses a broth of arctic char from the lake and dollhouse-tiny, tender shrimp.  The dish owed as much to Lyon as to Reykjavik, and was served with a caraway-flecked roll.

Forty-Eight People

Pan in from a birdseye view of Iceland to its northwestern appendage, the Westfjords.  The inkblot lobster shaped collection of fjords reaches up and over toward Greenland.   Zoom closer to the eastern coast of the Westfjords, a coast so full of inlets and bay that its name (Strandir) literally translates to "coasts."  This is a land that was once chock full of sorcerers, witch hunts and spells cast.   It was also a haven for criminals, so remote that you could be sure to escape the authorities' clutches for good.  At the northern tip of this wild and woolly Strandir Coast is Árneshreppur.  For the most intrepid tourists, it is the very last bit of civilization before heading into uninhabited Hornstrandir for subarctic hiking.  Zoom in, finally, to this dock at dusk and down beside it, to a dead jellyfish.   Its translucence was so perfect that it acted like a gooey, rimless magnifying glass.  The stones below it were smooth, black and shining.  Árneshreppur is not just the end of the world, although the moniker wouldn't be too much of an overstatement.   It is a world unto itself.
That dock and this one both stuck out into Reykjarfjörður, the fjord into which Djúpavík is nestled.  As Eva and Ási's laundry billowed and snapped violently in one of the oft-occurring bouts of heavy wind, this line of drying, headless cod held strong.  "The young people don't like to eat it like that anymore," Eva said of the age-old preservation method.  Once the 15 - 20 day process is completed, the harðfiskur (wind-dried fish) is eaten in strips, dipped into butter.   Nor do the young people like to stay in Árneshreppur anymore.   Population decline is nearly an epidemic throughout the Westfjords, with a 20% average decline in the last 80 years.  The largest rate of decline has happened right here.  50% of the population has disappeared since the 1920s.  Kind rounding places the population of Árneshreppur at 50 people.  Accurate data says 48.  This is the least populous municipality in Iceland, the least densely populated country in Europe.
The whole "there are more sheep than people," thing is very, very literal here.   Approaching Árneshreppur from further down on the Strandir coast, at just about the last house we'd see for two hours before reaching Djúpavík, we saw sheep down by the water, nibbling at kelp.   There was something bizarre about the scene to me. My brain just couldn't marry the images, the atmospheres, the feelings that are usually attached to "oceanside" and "grazing sheep."   It was like two icons of isolation, the lone sheep in the mountainside and the waves that lap with no one around to hear them had met and decided to go it together for a while.  Our guidebook reports that its not uncommon to taste a hint of seaweed in the local lamb.  Oceangrassfed.
The residents of Árneshreppur are proud, resilient, welcoming.  Appropriately, the heart of their municipality is its northernmost point, the village of Norðurfjörður, less than 5km from where the road just... ends.  Its cafe is one of the northernmost in Iceland, its store (the Steingrimsfjordur Coop) is lovingly stocked with the expected canned and dried goods and the delightfully surprising ripe bananas.  Three women with identical, unflattering bowl cuts, stood and talked near the door. Most likely the work of the one 'hairdresser' for miles.  We walked into the Bank to get more cash and found a man sitting behind a desk among piles of papers and folders.  Just north of town, right near the last steps we could possibly take, was the geothermal swimming pool at Krossness.   This nearby spigot shot the scalding water out.  The spray and steam was cast into the cold air like a rippling flag marking the spot - the furthest north I have ever been in my life.
The landscape is just gob-smacking everywhere you look. This is a wilderness made of clean lines and somber hues.   We thought that the big, rusted ship on the shore in front of Djúpavík was perfectly picturesque.  The boat docked here in the 1940s, brought in as extra housing for workers in the Herring Meal Factory's heyday.   Eva saw the rusty ruin differently, as a blight on the scenery.  Its deterioration saddens her.  The corrosion is weighted in meaning.  Next to the factory is an old, unremarkable car similarly rusting away.  Its windows are covered in garbage bags.  Her neighbor refuses to remove it or store it away inside the factory with Árneshreppur's other dead cars.   "It is part of the landscape!" the neighbor argues.  They are rarely around to have to look at it.
The wider sections of Árneshreppur's shores are covered in driftwood, settling here after a journey all the way from Siberia.  As we marveled at the Siberian wood at our feet, at our place on the earth, one rainbow and then another appeared in the sky.   Sometimes our brains can do nothing but incredulously ask, "Where are we?"
A cleverly drawn map of Árneshreppur was given to us upon arrival at Djúpavík.   Each settlement up the coast was given a rectangle of promotional space on the back.  Their presence on the map itself was so accurate that if one little red house and two blue ones were drawn next to the name of one of the more populated villages we would find exactly one red house and two blues ones upon arrival.   There is Árnes, whose farmers make eiderdown pillows, blankets, etc, gathering the materials from the eiderduck community on Árnes island right offshore.  There is the old meat freezing plant turned hostel in Norðurfjörður.   There's the couple, Badda and Bjorn, who offer a very small scale summer camp experience for children 5 - 12 at their farm in Melar.   An immersion experience if there ever was one.  This old shed was in Gjögur just up from the coastal air landing strip.
It is impossible to get around in the winter, harder still to reach the rest of Iceland. The airstrip at Gjögur and the landing dock at Norðurfjörður become the only options.  When Ási and Eva moved to Djúpavík, there wasn't yet a road connecting Árneshreppur to the rest of the country.  So, they got a motorboat.  Amazingly, they were only people in the region to have one.  The lifelong residents of Árneshreppur were just used to moving slower, staying put, living off of the sea - fishing, hunting seals, using driftwood to build houses.   The people that remain here are content. Some site the fact that this part of the Westfjords has the lowest unemployment rate in Iceland as a sign of promise.   One could just as easily say 'there are only as many jobs as people.'
There is nothing easy about life in Árneshreppur aside from the simplicity of it all.   Eva believes her children have a self-sufficiency from growing up here, moving from Reykjavik at ages 4, 5 and 12.   She told us that they love it at Djúpavík and come back every summer.   It makes me feel like that corner of Árneshreppur is safe for at least another generation, it is protected by an attachment and a love.   Hornstrandir, that hikers' netherworld in the center of the Westfjords, was still inhabited as recently as the 1950s.   Once the last people left, Iceland put the area under national protection as a Nature Reserve.   An uninhabited wilderness.   Forty-eight people keep Árneshreppur from a similar fate.

29 August 2012

Geothermal Iceland!

If you can believe it, all geysers on earth get their name from one Icelandic steam feature – the original Geysir, in south-western Iceland.  It sends up a few high plumes daily, but is rather irregular and infrequent.  A minute’s walk away, though, is this one, Strokkur, which gushes every ten minutes.  It’s still surprising, even when you’re expecting it – even in a country full of geysers.
Iceland is the most volcanic island on earth.  Over one quarter of the country is an active volcano zone.  This is somewhat frightening, and has its numerous downsides.  But there are also benefits to living where the earth’s crust is so thin and fractured.  For one thing, there’s no shortage of energy – heat from the earth’s core is readily accessible, and used for everything from producing electricity to growing exotic flowers.  Then there are all the hot springs and vents, which have myriad uses.  We’ve discovered that the Icelandic people have turned steam and geologic heat into a kind of magic.
“And back here,” the guide said with perfect nonchalance, “we have our volcano.”  We were taking a short tour of the Hellisheiði power plant, some twenty miles outside of Reykjavik – it’s a new facility, with lots of brushed aluminum accents and billowing steam.   From pipes drilled several kilometers down into the heart of the volcano (“No danger, it erupts every five thousand years,” we were told), the plant extracts superheated steam and water.  The steam runs turbines that power the entire Reykjavik area - free of charge - with plenty of energy left over.  The hot liquid is used to heat up potable water, which is piped to the capital.  All the hot water in the city come from here.  “We only lose two degrees,” the woman said, with obvious pride.
Also, the hot water is used to heat the buildings in Reykjavik and is run through pipes beneath streets and sidewalks to keep them free of ice and snow.  “It’s very handy for heavy traffic points,” our guide told us.  It’s amazing – they have more heat and electricity than they know what to do with.
Iceland produces almost one hundred percent of its own energy, mostly from geothermal turbines (though there are some hydropower dams, too).  Almost all of it is provided to the population at zero cost, and the surplus is sold to industry.
Of course, the geothermal experience that most travelers in Iceland have is one on a far smaller scale.  Almost every town in the country has a hot spring bath.  The formality of these places varies from built-up, spa-like centers to simple holes in the ground.  As my cousin (and Iceland guidebook author) Evan Spring told me, “all you have to do is dig a hole in the ground and hot water comes up.”
The baths are generally cheap and friendly places, used more by locals than visitors.  This pool, at Krossnes, is one of the northernmost and most remote.  At the very end of a long, dirt, Westfjords road, it’s exposed to bitter wind and drizzle off the sea.  Still, the water is warm enough – a constant one hundred degrees Fahrenheit – that it doesn’t matter.  It always feels luxurious.
There are also wild hot springs and pools, steam holes and warm streams.  About a half hour hike into the mountain valley of Reykjadalur, the Klambragil “river” is a comfortable bathing temperature nearly year round.  The air was only about forty degrees Fahrenheit when we visited (in late August!), but the water was hot-tub temperature.  We spent half an hour soaking with a dozen or so other hikers.
Icelanders also use the geothermal hotspots for natural steam rooms, and many houses have their own “hotpots” - small, spring-fed tubs.  From these are derived the similar “mudpots,’ which are obviously much dirtier.
They grow bananas in Hveragerði, amazingly enough.  They also have a thriving tomato industry, and beautiful local roses.  Heated by water from deep within the core, lit by geothermal electricity, the town’s many greenhouses are almost completely self-sufficient, even with so many dark days in the winter.
From the roadside, as evening approaches, the orange grow-bulbs burn like firelight through the trees.  It’s a pretty sight – comforting, but also curiously alien.
Hveragerði has an unusual amount of geothermal activity, even for Iceland, and its residents have long taken advantage of the abundant steam-vents and bubbling water.  In 1930, a local dairy began pasteurizing all its milk using natural steam.  Before that, farmers baked their dark bread in the hot earth.  Some of the houses have used geothermal heat for centuries.
Kjöt og Kúnst – a bakery and café in town – prepares most of its food with steam and hot-earth ovens.  Everything on this plate was cooked with heat from the earth’s core: the steamed carrots, the bread and the pot of plokkfiskur (mashed cod and potato with cream and cheese).
Even simpler is hard-boiling eggs in one of the hot streams.  The Hveragerði geothermal park is free, but a local egg to cook is 100 kroner (about eighty cents).  The dangling mesh sack is provided free.  Here, a tourist lowers two eggs into a pot submerged in the steaming trickle.  Fifteen minutes later, she pulled her eggs up, fully cooked.  I asked her how they were.  “Perfect,” she said.  “Fudgy center, no rubberiness to the white, not a trace of grey.” *
An information board in the park tells of a (possibly mythical) “hot spring bird."  They are said to have dived and disappeared when people approached.  If caught, they were very strange to eat.
“…their meat does not become tender in boiling water,” we read, “but if they are immersed in cold water they become cooked and edible within one hour, but have a ‘chilly taste.’”

*Disclaimer: the tourist was Rebecca.

28 August 2012

The Djúpavík Herring Meal Factory

Eva Sigurbjörnsdóttir and her husband, Ási, first started to get interested in Djúpavík when they heard a report on the radio.  It was the early 1980's, and the news was that Djúpavík was about to be deserted.  The last residents of the hamlet were moving south, to more comfortable places.  Left behind was a small clutch of houses at the head of a bay - and one gigantic, decaying, abandoned herring factory. Not long after, when Eva and Ási moved in, the factory was full of garbage.  The windows were broken, the machinery was rusted.  A dead seal had somehow been deposited in one hallway. Today, after decades of work, the Djúpavík herring factory is mostly free of trash, lighter, more ordered.  The decay has been halted, but the industrial core of the place remains.  We took a meandering tour through the building with Eva, marveling at how beautiful a ruin can be.
The road to Djúpavík is a long one, the scenery is desolate.  On the last hour of our drive - meandering along a string of lonely fjords, kicking up dust on the dirt road - we saw nothing but wind-touseled sheep.  There are no houses or people.  It feels like a road to the end of the earth.
When Eva, Ási and their three young children arrived here, the place felt even more bleak.  It had seemed like a foolish move at the time.  Ási sold his business, Eva quit her job as the Reykjavik kindergarten headmistress, they sold their apartment, they went into debt.  In their new home, groceries were delivered infrequently, neighboring kids broke their new windows, the northern winters were very dark.  A few farmers remained in the hills around, but the roads were almost impassable.  The trip to school was by boat in autumn, snowmobile in winter.  There was industrial trash scattered everywhere.
Still, they loved the simplicity and rawness of the place.  "It was a once in a lifetime chance," they say.   Some other people moved into town, a little community grew. Eva taught her children to ice skate in one of the huge factory tanks, where standing drip-water froze solid.  "The only problem," Eva said, "was that we only had one pair, and we all had to share." Since then, the north has opened up, the Westfjords aren't as isolated.
A project from the start, the factory has consumed much of their last three decades.  There are roofs to patch and walls to shore up, windows to replace, metal to move, machines to fix up, bulbs to keep burning.
The question, of course, is why?  There's no real answer - or none that makes sense.  The factory won't be used again, the space isn't good for much, it will always be cluttered and rough-edged.  People come to see it, but not in great numbers.  At the same time, it's striking and engaging - almost like a dreamworld of mechanical time, where nothing has a purpose but everything's connected.  The building  seems infinite.  Doors and stairways lead to darkness, pools of light, vast spaces or clusters of wire.  Every sound echoes, pipes run in awkward patterns, holes open in the floor, monstrous machines stand in the gloom.
The Djúpavík factory was, at the time it was built, one of the largest concrete buildings in Europe - and it was a questionable venture from the beginning.  In 1917, during the height of fish speculation in the North Atlantic, a separate herring packing facility had been set up at the head of the bay.  Like many other Icelandic salting enterprises, this original gamble failed in 1919.  A global drop in demand for herring wrecked havoc on the industry.
In 1934, renewed interest in the northern fish stock and new technology brought Djúpavík Ltd. to town. They built their enormous plant in a little over a year, using tiny cement mixers and timber offloaded at sea and floated ashore. In 1939, the company advertised at the World's Fair in New York - herring was booming again and the plant thrived.  
The Djúpavík factory processed herring into two separate products.  First, and most importantly, they separated oil from the fish and stored it in gigantic, concrete tanks.  These tanks were heated, so that the oil could remain liquid, and had a combined capacity of almost six thousand tons.  Secondly, the factory produced herring meal - ground and dried fish meat stored in 200 pound sacks, intended for human or animal consumption.
This immense boiler was scrapped from a wrecked ship and floated to the bay.  Because there is a large spigot-head at the top, the workmen had a hard time rolling the salvaged piece into place - ultimately, the foreman measured the circumference of the thing, then dug holes every sixty feet so that the huge cylinder could be moved without damaging it.
During WWII, Djúpavík enjoyed its best years, with high fish-oil prices and plenty of stock.  After, the plant began a slow decline.  By 1954, it was defunct.  It was truly abandoned soon after, and left to fall to pieces.
The factory is still rough.  It's too big to be completely cleaned or made neat.  And, as they've come to understand, nobody wants Eva and Ási to sanitize the place completely.
In fact, the roughness of Djúpavík is exactly its charm.  It feels fossilized, a relic of a forgotten civilization, closed up and left behind.  There is so much twisted rust and mildewed cement, so many shapes and shadows and interesting corners.   It's ugly in some ways, but haunting and pleasing in others.  The thickness of the cement muffles the noises of the outside world (waves, a nearby waterfall, car engines - all left behind), but causes voices and footsteps to boom against the walls.  It's hard to imagine the racket of the grinders, the heat of the fires, the vibration of the pumps - it's all very intimate in the closed-in present.  There are stories of men competing to see how many hundred-kilo sacks they could carry, women running the machinery and dances held in the dormitories.
The factory has become a collection place for ideas and things; Eva and Ási have convinced the people in the lands around to store their old cars inside, to keep them from rusting into the landscape.  There are ancient tractors, too, plus dusty Volvo trucks and a few unseaworthy boats.
Since 1985, the couple have run a guesthouse in the old women's dormitory, a few steps away from the factory - the building is also their home, and is one of the cozier places we've ever stayed.  The Westfjords are a lonely place, and the people that go there are generally adventurous, end-of-the-earth types.  The "hotel" offers welcome rest, with good food and great company - the kind of gathering place where everyone at dinner has some kind of story.  Some guests have stayed months or come back, putting their own stamp on the factory. 
Artists have installed works in some of the lighter, more open spaces.  There are photographs hung in the upper breezeway and tiny sculptures of horses.  Eva calls this work - made of fishing line and metal weights - her "sunbeams."  She couldn't bear to take it down after it was put up; she loves the way it catches and reflects light.  The factory has hosted an international chess tournament and the band Sigur Rós.  The people who come here remember it.
After about an hour and a half, we stepped out a low door and unexpectedly found ourselves outside.  The smell of the sea was the first thing I noticed, then the sun on my face.  It was a strange, wonderland moment - as though I had emerged from my imagination and found myself awake in the real world.  Somehow, the Djúpavík factory feels even older than it really is, and it's hard to think of it actually being used for anything.  Some kind of disconnect happened, where the place became a concept more than a remnant.
But there are still people alive who not only remember the factory in its glory days, but actually worked in it.  We were shown pictures of young men and women, told which ones were still around.  In the wooden walls of one gallery, signatures and small graffitis were carved.  Eva pointed out names of people she had met, told us stories about some of the others.  It made the place feel even more magical.

27 August 2012

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

"I wonder how many car commercials are filmed here," Merlin said.  We drove through the lava fields of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the road cutting through the seemingly endless stretch of jagged basalt rocks.  Cooled lava.  A yellow moss covered whole patches of rock like a golden crumb topping over baked blueberries.  In the far distance, you could see the chartreuse grassy patches of the next terrain in an endless progression of surreal landscapes.  You could almost hear the car commercial voice over speaking slowly and deeply about natural beauty, the open road, horsepower.  Intrigue.  Beauty.
We'd see only one car at a time on the road.  Mostly, we were alone, free to stop for photos, brake for sheep, turn around for signs that read "Dead Whale."  At times, I was reminded of the lunar landscape of Pag Island, Croatia, whose desolation was achingly beautiful.  Then, the lusher landscapes would conjure up childhood memories of watching The Secret of Roan Inish
It's impossible to really compare Snæfellsnes Peninsula with anywhere else.  Real or imagined.  It feels so surreal and otherwordly that Jules Verne chose its large glacier as the setting for A Journey to the Center of the Earth.  I think Merlin really put it best in our daily notes on our first night: "This looks like a fictional land, made up to be filmed in New Zealand and computer enhanced to become unbelievable."
The largest town on the peninsula is Stykkishólmur, the sort of town you can imagine being painted and glued down piece by piece by a pair of enormous hands creating an idyllic setting for their model train set.  The cookie cutter houses mostly date back to the late 19th century and have been protected from the harsh weathered fate of most harbour buildings by the big, basalt island right off shore.  It stretches out like a protective wall, its lighthouse blinks away mist at the top.  Once can imagine this scene being mostly the same over a century ago.
People call Snæfellsnes Peninsula "Iceland in Miniature." You can get a taste of the diverse natural beauty of the whole island in a drive around its western appendage, they say.  You've got your fishing villages with bright orange mussels and your lonely farmstead in the shadow of a hulking mountain.  You've got the sea, the springs, rivers, lakes, sheep, horses, birds galore.  Corrugated tin roof houses painted bright colors and prefab cottages with red or blue roofs. 
Black stone beaches, golden sand ones, water brimming with islands or lapping up in turquoise turning to foam.  This beach, on the northern coast of the peninsula, was flanked on both sides by craggy, imposing 'bird cliffs.'  There were no birds at the moment, but their plentiful white droppings acted as a "we were here" tag.
There are viking ruins, ancient water sources, elf cathedrals, craters and fresh water pools, fjords, cliffs, museum cafes selling 'love balls.'  And very few people.  Every house seemed to hold court over its own mini kingdom, a majestic buffer zone between it and its closest neighbor.  
As we left Snæfellsnes Peninsula, taking the road east on the northern coast, the scenery became downright pastoral.  The first trees we'd seen in days popped up, carefully planted around houses to offer some privacy.  The whole experience, the last 48 hours, started to feel like a trip to Oz as we left.  Except that here we were in a technicolor Kansas that was as fantastically beautiful as any of the rest.  I'm starting to feel a little bamboozled by all this awesomeness. 

25 August 2012

Dead Whale

The sign, handpainted and hung low enough that it could have been a child's handiwork, was simple, but baffling. Dead Whale.   Sounds pretty self-explanatory, and if the words had been Fresh Corn or Yard Sale we could have easily taken it at face value.  But the words, again, were DEAD WHALE.  It's the sort of sign that stops you dead (ha!) in your tracks.   In our case, it had us reversing our rental Toyata Yaris after a few seconds of discussion.   "Do you think it really...?" "Is there actually a...?"
We weren't the only ones who followed the lead.  Along a rocky ridge, we saw a family of five and a young couple standing and looking out toward the water. As we moved closer, we noticed that their chins were tucked into their necks.  They were all looking down at something.   Maybe they were looking down at nothing.  The three youngest gazers turned and walked away silently and we took our place up on the viewing platform.
I'm not sure why I was so startled by the enormous lump rising from the rocky shore.  Why I yelped, "Oh my god!" and slapped my hands over my face.  What else was I expecting?   I hadn't really thought it would be a hot dog truck named "Dead Whale" to reel customers in as I'd joked.   (Though Icelanders do love their hot dog trucks).   This is what I was hoping for, what we'd turned off the road to see.  A dead whale it was, plain as day.   A young woman climbed on top of the beached whale while her boyfriend took a picture.   I imagined her hitting a soft spot and falling straight through into the rotting corpse of a giant whale.   Jonah! the horror movie.
The thing is - the waters surrounding Iceland are some of the best for whale watching in the world.  Humpback, minke, fin, sei and blue, they're all regularly sighted around the coast.  So, I arrived in Iceland with anticipation.  Would I get to see a whale?!   I guess that's what made the dead one so jarring.   It was a whale all right, my very first outside of the technicolor captivity of Sea World, but I wasn't really getting to see it any better off than Shamu.  It was still amazing to see the majestic creature, a little smushed but without swarming bugs or snacking seabirds disturbing its rest.  There wasn't even a stench.  More amazing was the fact that we'd found it following a sign put up on the side of the road.  Just another day of driving around Iceland.

Lights In the Icelandic Fog

In fog, the coastline reminded us of a knife under thin cloth.  Basalt rocks, sharp to the touch; waves hurled up, the sea licking its chops.  The boats here are small, the landscape is many edged.
It’s a quick-weather place.  Clouds roll over the Snæfellsnes Peninsula like passing cars. Mists arrive and depart with every gust of wind.  A day can begin rainy, turn to sun before noon, then plunge into vagueness and fog.  Lighthouses are small comfort on a drizzly night, but we were ashore, not out on the deep.
Above the cliffs of Súgandisey island, on the outer edge of Stykkishólmur harbor, a lonely light blinks through the evenings.
Even in the waning nights of summer, as the earth tilts back away from the sun, it’s never quite dark.  Iceland’s grass is paradise green.  But I can imagine the winter, when light is scarce and the northern seas are cold and high.  Men have long gone out for cod and herring in these waters, even as their gunnels froze and the wind tore at their skin.
There are at least seven lighthouses on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a long, westward tongue of land jutting fifty-five miles into the sea.  There may be more that we couldn’t see from the safety of land, or that weren’t marked on our road charts.  This one, at Malarrif, looked something like a spaceship.  Just down the shore from it, twin lava towers jut into the sky – the locals call the pair Lóndrangar, and believe them to be a fairy church.
Öndverđarnes is built like so many Snæfellsnes buildings: short, simple, sturdy and small.  It barely rises fifteen feet above the sheep-clipped grass and lichen.  Nearby is an ancient stone well, the only one in the near surrounds – it’s built underground to keep it from freezing. The water is down a long, low, rough-rock corridor.
There is an un-translateable poem - titled “Stökur“ - in brass plate pinned to one side, written by Jón Jónsson.
From land, this lighthouse is called Skálasnagi; from sea, the name is Svörtuloft.  Maybe it’s the other way around.  It is one of the lonelier spots on Snæfellsnes, all the way at the western extreme.  High bird cliffs teem with nesting gulls – puffins too, we were told, but earlier in the year.  The waves come up against rock more violently at these open bluffs, and, with the torturous Neshraun lava field inland, the spot feels totally inhospitable.  The rest of the peninsula is cut off from view by the Snæfellsjökull Glacier.  We peered through salty glass, but there was nothing  inside except a wooden ladder.
Skálasnagi/Svörtuloft feels particularly Icelandic.  There’s mist-diffused light and whipping winds, the noise of the sea and the call of Arctic terns.  As we walked there, we watched a few small boats round the point, heading from the harbors in the north to the bay to the south.  Their crews were barely visible on deck.  We thought of the black afternoons in January, when land would be reduced to the sound of waves and a blinking signal.  A very small comfort in the night, to know where the worst rocks are.

22 August 2012

A Rotten Bite of Iceland

Icelandic people have a famous delicacy – a vice, some might say – that they hang in little drying houses and eat with pinched noses.  It’s called kæstur hákarl, but is more commonly called just hákarl.  What is it?  Rotten and dried shark meat.  Is it all that bad? Well…
Here, a small family drying house sits by a chilly bay.  The meat inside had crusted on the outside and turned yellow.  It was protected from varmints by chickenwire, but left open to the wind and flies.  It smelled of fish, ammonia and barnyard.  This is a delicacy that’s not exactly delicate.
Hildibrandur Bjarnason (left) and his son, Brynjar Hild Brandsson, are the biggest hákarl producers in Iceland, processing about eighty of the big sharks a year on their remote farm, Bjarnarhöfn.  Hildibrandur is a jolly man who seems to thoroughly enjoy his product and his life.  Besides rotting fish, the men are especially proud of their prize Icelandic horses, which roam semi-free in green pastures by the North Atlantic.  The father and son have the mixed sturdiness of fishermen and farmers; they live solidly and simply.  We were shown pictures of Hildibrandur hoisting one-ton fish with the bucket of his tractor, the earth muddy beneath the wheels, the sea misty behind.
Hildibrandur’s family ferment only the native Greenland shark, a coldwater species that lives further north than any other shark.  The huge fish can grow over twenty feet long, weigh as much as a ton and fish at depths of seven thousand feet. Extreme levels of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide in the flesh act as anti-freeze, allowing the shark to stay alive in water barely above freezing – but also making the meat highly toxic to humans.
A frighteningly easy process has evolved to deal with the problem.  Hákarl is simply left to rot for six to twelve weeks until it’s completely putrefied and (supposedly) ready to consume.  At Bjarnarhöfn farm, they assured us that this was done in the colder months, so that “it never goes bad.”
To get rid of the toxins, medieval Icelanders discovered that they could piece and bury the fish in sand, then let it slowly rot until most of the poison was gone.  Huge rocks were placed over the sand to press out liquid.  After unearthing the huge creatures, to preserve the meat, they let it dry in open-sided barns.  As Brynjar noted, the process was still much the same – “we never use salt,” he said, “no chemicals, no smoke, it is just pure.”  He did say that the rotting process was done in plastic now, instead of sand.  At their drying house, we could smell the sea better than the shark.  Chickens scratched in the high grass, show horses grazed in the meadows nearby.  Everything felt perfectly clean, scoured by the cool ocean breeze.
We were given a tiny taste of the hákarl, accompanied by a nibble of strong rye bread.  The taste wasn’t as extreme as some have made it out to be – it smells intensely of ammonia, but not more so than a piece of too-old cheese.  The texture was softly chewy, there was little nuance.  It’s fishy stuff, but not overpowering.  One little bite was enough, though, and we had no desire to buy ourselves a packet.  Even Hildibrandur and Brynjar admit that Icelanders only eat the stuff on special occasions, and then only in small quantities.  “It’s very healthy,” they said defensively, perhaps misunderstanding the problem.
Greenland shark have become rarer in recent years, mostly due to unintentional killing by commercial trawlers.  Because there’s not much demand for hákarl, and the fish aren’t eaten otherwise, it’s not a seriously threatened fish – but Bjarnarhöfn Farm has still given up fishing itself and relies on bycatch specimens brought to them by larger boats.  In the past, the big sharks were thrown overboard when they were caught in nets, but now they’re sometimes saved to be sold and cured.
By one of the barns, we noticed this shark’s head drying, stretched out over a plastic barrel.  The skin was rough and studded, the little teeth were less frightening than numerous.
There’s a little museum attached to the farm, where the family has displayed their collection of shark artifacts and other island curiosities.  There are fishing lines and harpoons, stuffed puffins and seals, horse yokes and seashells.  Two wooden boats take up most of the room indoors, and one wall is haphazardly arranged with shark teeth and jaws.  There were baby sharks in formaldehyde; because of the intensely cold water, the Greenland shark incubates its hatched young internally, giving birth to a live litter.
Brynjar showed us a dried patch of polar bear fur, two polar bear claws, the skull of a young whale and a very strange fish skeleton – the oddest things they’ve found in shark stomachs over the years.
Bjarnarhöfn is a beautiful place to visit, on a little triangle of green between the water and the rocky mountains, hemmed in on a third side by the Berserkjahraun (Berserkers Lavafield, in English).  Driving in, we had to stop to let a dozen horses cross the lane in front of us.
It's too bad that Iceland's most infamous specialty food is known primarily for being hard to stomach, but visiting Bjarnarhöfn it was hard not to feel a certain fondness for hákarl.  I can't say that I love it, but it is different and romantic in a certain way - Iceland is a tough landscape, with long winters and cold weather.  One can picture the older inhabitants of the farm holed up, slicing thick hunks of shark, growing to love the peculiar taste, waiting for summer and something fresher.