04 September 2012

Icelandic Food

An old woman at the Reykjavik flea market snipped us samples of harðfiskur with heavy shears.  Before her, many kilos of the dried fish were arranged on a table.  She told us the differences between the varieties in an unintelligible language that might partly have been English. Some types were dry enough to flake and powder around the edges.  Others were almost moist, and smelled of docks and brackish water.  Harðfiskur is no delicate treat - the flesh needs to be worked in the teeth before it softened.
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.
On a cool night in the northern fishing village of Hólmavík, we wandered into the local pub for dinner. It was misty outside, the sea was grey and empty, the town had been battened-down for bad weather.  The few people who were out in the elements walked briskly, heads down, their chins tucked into raincoats.
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.)
Ships from distant Europe used to sail for Iceland's waters in all weather, spending months on the sea in search of one, specific fish.  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.
Cod may be king, but Iceland has plenty of other fish in its seas. Plokkfiskur, a dish of mashed haddock and potatoes, is one of the more basic and popular seafood dishes in the country, especially as the days grow shorter and August begins to feel like autumn.
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.
At Fjöruborðið Restaurant, in Stokkseyri, Rebecca was given almost more langoustine than she could eat.  They were slid onto the table in a copper pot, cooked in butter and oil with new potatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and otherwise unadulterated.  At the end of the lunch, a translucent pile of rosy shells sat beside her plate.
Northern pink shrimp also pop up often on menus. Spider crabs, sea cucumbers and urchins too, but more rarely.
At the Sorcery & Witchcraft Museum, in Hólmavík, the exhibits were scant but the mussels were plump.  "From the bay outside," our chef (and sorcerer) said, presenting us with bright orange creatures cooked in saffron, celery and hot pepper.  Another museum goer asked about the intense coloring; "the orange ones are girls," our host said.
We came to associate open-faced sandwiches with ports.  At the Stykkishólmur ferry office, just feet from the nodding fleet, we ate shrimp sandwiches, clingwrapped and presented in an artful tableau.  These little delights are like still-lifes, arranged just-so to highlight each ingredient (mayo, salad, cluster of crustacean).  Often, you can't even see the bread.
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.
Iceland's yogurt is called skyr, a term which has only recently become known in the United States. It's a thick, strained, less-tangy melody in the worldwide theme, but not hugely different from Greek goat's yogurt.  Icelander's eat their skyr with added cream to moisten it, or drink it pre-packaged, in watered-down form.
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.


  1. Am loving this post very much. We're heading to Iceland in a few months time and I endevour to sample all in your list here. I also love all your other travel entries, esp the foodie bits. Will read thru your list before travelling to our next European destination so I know what to look out for. :)

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