Like so many Icelandic foods, harðfiskur - dried cod, arctic char, haddock or ocean catfish, usually eaten smeared with salted butter - is very simple and very much a part of the environment. In the old days, before grains were imported, it often served as a kind of bread for the hearty islanders.
But the pub - called Café Riis - was bright, warm and almost full. A harried, red-cheeked waitress informed us that they only had a buffet that night, which seemed disappointing until she began pointing out dishes. In addition to hearty mainstays - breaded lamb chops and potato salad, pink shrimp in garlic, flatbreads, various mayonnaise concoctions, fish balls - there was a whole array of Icelandic specialties. Smoked salmon, of course, but also smoked lamb. Fried cod cheeks with onion: voluptuously oily and tender. Cured puffin: chewy, meaty and deep purple. Marinated minke whale: soft, fatty and coated in strong rosemary. We drank lots of Gull beer, refilled our plates and forgot about the worsening gale.
(A note: whale meat is pushed on tourists as though it's a longstanding tradition. Really, it's not, and Icelanders don't eat much of it - the new whaling industry mostly exists to satisfy foreign curiosity about eating these animals. We tried it, but don't feel terrific about it.)
From Brittany, Spain, Portugal and England, arriving in creaking fleets loaded with salt and brave men, the ships came for cod. It's still the king of the North Atlantic fish, even if the catches are smaller, the cuts are more diminutive and people have begun worrying about mercury.
Heavy metals and overfishing aside, cod is absolutely delicious. In Iceland, we ate it crusted in curry, stewed in soups, salted, smoked, baked in hot earth and sautéed - ever so simply - in a pan. At the Hotel Djúpavík, as we sat to dinner with other wind-burned travelers, the smell of the cooking fish was intoxicating. The plates were simple, the meal was perfect.
Plokkfiskur can be made a variety of ways, with anything - cheese, butter, cream or (even) mayonnaise. It's great piping hot; a filling and fishy lunch between hikes or a fisherman's dinner after a day on the waves.
Northern pink shrimp also pop up often on menus. Spider crabs, sea cucumbers and urchins too, but more rarely.
In another port town, on the island of Heimaey, we ate lunch at sunlit and sweet Café Varmó. Here, my ham and egg sandwich sat on a spelt pancake.
We liked ours with fresh krækiber: "crowberry," when it exists in English. We saw old women and young children picking these pithy, sour berries on the wastes around the south coast. They look something like blueberries, but have only a little sweetness. With skyr, they taste perfectly of Iceland - rocky, windswept, grassy and wet.