Monday, August 17, 2009

Eating our way around Iceland

Hverir geothermal area near Lake Myvatn, Iceland: extremely pretty, not actually related to food.

Greetings, dear readers! We're back from a lovely trip to Iceland (with Lizz's parents), and we're ready to report on our culinary adventures. This is by no means a comprehensive overview of Icelandic cuisine, but here are a few quick thoughts.

Icelandic food reflects the reality that Iceland has a very harsh environment, with a short growing season and poor volcanic soil in much of the country. As you might expect, summer vegetables aren't really a strength. These days veggies are mostly produced in geothermally heated greenhouses. On the other hand, Iceland has a great variety of fresh fish, as well as very highly regarded lamb, produced from sheep that are basically allowed to roam freely in the countryside, only being rounded up once a year. Since the sheep are humanely and sustainably raised, and no workers are exploited in the process, we decided to eat lamb while we were in the country.

Iceland does not really have a longstanding national cuisine. Many traditional Icelandic dishes seem to have been born of necessity, and these days are only eaten on certain holidays. (Putrefied shark, anyone?) In the past Icelandic restaurants were basically "surf and turf" (salmon and lamb), but these days young chefs are creatively building on the country's culinary strengths and creating a new national cuisine.

Some fishes we enjoyed while in the country included cod (especially a mashed salt cod dish in traditional style), halibut, salmon, and ling. We also ate a lot of lobster, especially in Hofn, a southeastern town that is the center of Iceland's lobster-fishing industry. The lobsters there are small - more the size of prawns, but quite delicious. We also tried cod chins, one of those traditional dishes that is not eaten as frequently nowadays - they were very rich, but actually had a nice flavor.

As is the reality in most of the world at this point, there is a lot of fast food in Iceland. It's easy to find hamburgers and french fries in the eateries adjoining most gas stations in rural areas. Iceland is a very, very sparsely populated country, and there are not many restaurants in most of the smaller towns, so gas stations are actually a pretty reliable place to eat. There are big American chain restaurants, but they're mostly in the Reykjavik area, and we saw few out in the countryside.

For the most part, when we needed food to go we bought prepackaged sandwiches, which are widely available at gas stations and park concession stands: usually smoked lamb, tomato and egg slices, or smoked salmon. We were pleasantly surprised to find that these sandwiches vastly outshone their American counterparts - you'd be hard-pressed to find something as fresh and tasty in an American gas station. Even the sandwiches we bought in the Keflavik International Airport were surprisingly good; a real relief after the Wolfgang Puck Express at JFK tried to kill us with their alleged four-cheese pizza.

One fast food item which is an Icelandic national passion is the hot dog (or pylsa). Icelandic hot dogs include a significant amount of lamb along with the normal ingredients, which gives them more flavor. Everyone's favorite hot dog joint in Reykjavik
is the famous Baejarins Beztu:

We had our first lunch in Reykjavik here, a pylsa with the works. It was quite good.

Iceland's other genius food invention is a concoction named skyr. We're not precisely clear on what skyr is: some sources seem to call it a cheese, others call it a relative of yogurt. In any case, it's made from whey, and it's delicious. It comes in many forms, from a custardy dessert (that is, indeed, similar in texture to yogurt), to a smoothie-style beverage, to all manner of spreads and salad dressings that are usually made with other dairy products. This is its most common incarnation:

Yes, it really does come with a spoon.

In the course of our trip we had a chance to sample many skyr variations: skyr and cream with berries, cherry skyr cake (similar in texture to a cheesecake), skyr smoothie, skyrronaise (as a dipping sauce for fried fish), and of course several flavors of the skyr brand shown above. We hear it's hard to find in the US, but highly recommend it. Of course, you don't have to trust us - take it from Stephen Colbert.

There were a few things we refrained from eating on our trip, notably whale, puffin, horse, and....zebra. (Yes, we were actually served zebra. "You know, the horse," our server explained.) Horse is actually a traditional Icelandic food. Iceland along with Japan has resumed commercial whaling, although apparently there is not actually much of a market for the meat - whales are more profitable as entertainment for whale-watching expeditions. Despite also being a traditional Icelandic food, puffins are just way too cute to eat:

As we travelled around the country, we found that Icelandic breakfast (at least in the hotels where we were staying) is fairly consistent: bread, butter and jam, sliced cucumber and egg, smoked meats, pickled herring, melons...and cheerios. And coffee. Icelanders drink a lot of coffee, not only in the morning, but in Reykjavik's many cafes throughout the day, up until the point in the evening when all the cafes start serving beer and turn into low-key bars.

As for Icelandic beer, we can't say we were overly impressed, but maybe we just didn't try the right brands. We sampled Viking (amusingly pronounced "weeking" in Icelandic, which makes them sound much less imposing), Egils Gull (which actually means "gold," not the seabird - a very different connotation), and Egils Premium (we'd recommend you stick with the Gull).

In any case, Iceland is a unique country and its cuisine definitely reflects that. We can see how one could get used to a diet of lots of quality fresh wild-caught fish and free-range meats, but of course that's not the diet that we're accustomed to. Though we enjoyed Icelandic food a lot, it's nice to be back here at the peak of the northeastern summer vegetable season. (The hunt for skyr in New York City

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