Culinary Adventure Around Iceland
There are many reasons to explain Iceland’s popularity today. The Blue Lagoon, the Fjords, the waterfalls, the glaciers, the horses, the puffins, and the whales come to mind. Then there is Thor and the food. Oh, the food. What is produced in Iceland is some of the purest and most full of flavor and respect. There is a love for tradition in Iceland and what the land has given the people. The traditions that came during the time of the Vikings have remained over time.
On this magical island, in the middle of the Atlantic far up north, there is truly something special that happens to the food. To truly comprehend the role food plays in Iceland, you must understand how the land, sea, people, and traditions come together to influence the culture around food. The residents of Iceland have a deep respect for all of these influences and the abundance of resources it has been bestowed with.
Iceland is a country made up of rich volcanic soil. Trees do not grow high. In fact the joke is, “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, stand up”. There are multiple reasons to explain this fact. The growing seasons are short, yet fruitful. There are very rocky cliffs and mountains that are not useable for growing, but provide other resources like rich mosses and greens. They provide sustenance for the Icelandic free-range lamb to feed on once they are set out in spring.
The land is also affected by the light and often, harsh weather. There are 24 hours of light during the growing season, causing many plants to become confused if not native to the land. And while produce is not abundant, root vegetable, berries and nutrient-rich greens are. Animals, plants and people have had to adapt to respect the growing conditions they are provided. Finally, the land is alive with geothermal hot spots, providing for both green house growing and hot pots to cook in. Today, people are still cooking meals and breads in the earth.
The sea around Iceland is key to both the sustenance of the people and its commerce. The purity of the sea provides a fertile growing ground for fish, sea kelps, and aquaculture in the form of muscles, and more recently oysters. Farmers are now also using the sea to farm fish on the land, using seawater as well as the nearby geothermal heating.
Iceland has some of the best regulations on fishing and you will not find the greed present in other countries. There is a kindness and respect for what the sea provides. Fishermen understand that without carefully monitoring and regulating fishing, they could destroy both their diets and livelihoods.
The culinary wonders of Iceland would be nothing if not for the people. First, you need to understand their kind nature. The people are welcoming, inclusive and have a true respect for both their history and the land. This translates to a profound respect and proudness of their food. When an Icelandic speaks of a red currant or an arctic char their face lights up. Many farmers and fishermen today still live on the farms and fish with two and three generations of their families.
When people speak of the food of Iceland, it is in terms of what they have, not of what they do not have. They speak about the success of others with pride and have the same reverence for the home chefs as the chefs at leading restaurants. The people are not just kind to others, but to the land and the many benefits and nutrition it provides them.
Over generations in most countries, traditions are pushed aside for what is easier and what is in style. This does not hold true in Iceland. Here, tradition is deeply rooted in everything that encompasses food. The reason is simple; the land, sea and weather drive the way in which food is both produced and consumed. Although maybe there is something to the tradition of the elves… It is no gimmick that today bread is still baked in the land; it is both delicious and possible. Why heat an oven when you can use the land? Electricity is very expensive and solar is tough during the winter months, so using the earth is just smart.
Sheep with their newborns are not set out to the mountains to feed for the summer because it is convenient. It is because this is where the animals can find the food that best suits them. Then, the farmers all gather at the end of the season and work together to bring the animals home. Tradition drives the way food is raised, farmer, caught, prepared and served.
Iceland is not just driven by tradition. In order to both meet the needs of the residents and demands of the exports, there have been some wonderful innovations over the last few years. The two main innovations have been greenhouse farming and aquaculture.
Greenhouses have been around for a while, but are not seeded in deep traditions. Over the years, Icelandic farmers have been determined to provide for themselves and others as best they could. They knew that with the natural geothermal resources, they could grow produce in greenhouses. Today greens, strawberries, vegetables, herbs and more are grown for year-round use.
The second way in which the land, the water, and the geothermal resources are being used is with growing fish. Muscles and oysters are being farmed. In fact, oysters were one of the original farmed products in the world. The fish farms are producing some of the most delicious fish being shipped all over the world. Not only are they using the geothermal resources and the ocean waters, but also gravity in building the farms, so that very little non-natural resources are needed.
If we look back at traditions and natural resources, it is evident that there are key foods that drive the culinary pedestal for Iceland; cod, char, salmon, lamb, berries and rye. Other foods of import to the diet include birch, seaweed, salt, and herbs. No matter what meal you sit for, you can be assured that bread, butter, skyr, lamb and fish will play a role. Also influenced by the Nordic countries, you will find open-faced sandwiches and flat breads.
Restaurants to Experience
Iceland is full of restaurants that specialize in the native food. In fact, trying to find a restaurant that does not serve local food can be a challenge. It is hard to go wrong when picking a restaurant and equally hard trying to make a decision about which cafe to stop in for a quick bite. They are all so wonderful.
Here are a few restaurants that should be on your where to eat list!
The Fish Company - Located in the old part of downtown Reykjavik, the Fish Company is the local favorite. The menu is covered with local seafood, meat, produce, and more. Start with the Reindeer Carpaccio and then enjoy the “Around Iceland” tasting menu for dinner. The meal features the local cod, gravlax, lamb, honey, and so much more. The meal is also perfect for a Einstok beer pairing. While the food is the highlight at he Fish Company, the restaurant is beautiful. The cozy setting is filled with intriguing artwork, candles, and soft cozy nooks. Grounded in being both “exciting and homey”, this is the perfect Nordic infusion cuisine from the true heart of Iceland.
OX - Inside the hip and busy Sumac Grill and Bar behind a hidden door in the back, is a restaurant that has been years in the making; OX. OX is a kitchen transformed from Chef Thráinn Freyr Vigfússon’s grandfather’s home with the cabinets hanging on the wall and the true spirit of Iceland in the room. At OX, you will sit with 10 other people and enjoy true magic happen in front of you.
The ingredients are fresh from the land and sea and even from deep in the earth. The bread course is Hverabraud, which is a geothermal rye bread, baked in the earth. Course after course, the creations that chef put in front of us had textures and flavors that not just pleased the palate, but also made you think. Through the twelve courses we had reindeer, langoustine, scallop, cod, lamb, skyr ,and so much more. OX is a must each time you visit Iceland!
Lava - When you think the Blue Lagoon, you think tourist destination with a restaurant. You do not think an amazing dining experience. But that is just what you get. The Lava Restaurant is built right into an 800 year old lava cliff overlooking the Blue Lagoon, one of the Wonders of the World. The Lava Restaurant is gourmet, serving only the finest ingredients and dishes of Iceland.
I enjoyed the beer-cooked blue mussels from Reykjanes, and I drank the broth when I was finished. For the second course, I enjoyed the fish of the day, right off the boat from the neighboring town on Grindavík. And dessert, well I had to enjoy the local greenhouse grown strawberries with mint, coconut and almonds. What a perfect meal before spending an afternoon in the Blue Lagoon!
Mimir - A brand new restaurant in the Raddison Blu Saga in Reykjavik, Mimir is centered around one idea and that is preparing the best local ingredients to please their guests. The menu changes with the seasons to keep everything with local producers. The plates are meant to share and can be ordered small or large. I suggest getting small plates and getting a lot of them. Some of the dishes you should not miss include the white cabbage, the langoustine with beetroot apple and speck, and the arctic char. But do not leave without having dessert. You have to order your own order of the waffle with ice cream, salty caramel & bilberry.
Two other restaurants not to miss
Hja holla - You have two options to enjoy Hja holla and I ate at both. The original is in the town of Grindavík, very close to the Blue Lagoon. The other is in the airport when you are leaving Iceland. The food features local, delicious, healthy Icelandic dishes and some great sweets and cakes, too. We suggest doing take-out to have on your plane ride home.
Krauma – Located in a natural geothermal bath and spa, Krauma just happens to be a fabulous restaurant. And Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring, is a stunning setting. At Krauma, there are many options, but the fish plate and the goat plate should not be missed.
Top Tips When Visiting
Whether you are experiencing Iceland on a stop over, have a few days, or touring the entire country over a week or more, the best tip is that you need to eat local. Here are the top tips on getting there, where to stay, and what not to miss.
Getting to Iceland is pretty easy from most major cities and both WOW and Iceland Air are expanding their service. From most east coast cities, Iceland is a quick 5-6 hour flight with ticket prices not to be missed. If you are using Wow or Iceland Air to continue on, you should plan at least one night for your stop over.
Where to stay
If you are only staying for a stop over or for a few nights, staying in Reykjavik is the best choice. You then have the ability to fly to other parts of Iceland easily and also use the many tours that depart from Reykjavik. Staying in Reykjavik also provides you easy access to many local delicious restaurants right downtown.
The Raddison Blu Saga, located a short walk to downtown, is a great option both for price and the culinary choices right in the hotel. There’s the award-winning Grill and the newly opened Mimir listed above. Breakfast is included and you can taste many of Iceland’s finest and most popular dishes.
Do not miss
Any three of these “not to miss” spots are perfect for a stop over, but if you have time, be sure to visit all of them.
Blue Lagoon - One of Iceland’s best mistakes is one of Iceland’s best spots. The Blue Lagoon is literally a byproduct of the geothermal water plant being built. The rich nutrients and minerals in the water provide your body with both a real treat and many say healing properties.
Golden Circle - If you want to see it all in one day, take the Golden Circle and Frioheimar tour. This will allow you to see so many sites, including the spot where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates pull Iceland apart, the Geysir that shoots every 4-8 minutes, the powerful Gullfoss waterfall, and the Frioheimar greenhouse.
Reykjavik - What some consider the heart of Iceland, this major city is where you can find all of what you need to explore. The international airport is also located in Reykjavik, making it a perfect starting point for your culinary adventure.
There is no better word than respect to describe the food of Iceland. There is the utmost respect for all aspects of food and food production in this country, which explains why the culinary experience of Iceland is truly wonderful. Just be sure to buy some ingredients to take home and know you can always find some Icelandic Provisions Skyr at your local market.