As impressed as I was with so many other things in Iceland, the food was surprisingly unspectacular. But as a rule you could probably say “The bigger the city, the better the food”. (If you can even use the word “big” speaking of a country with a total of only 320,000 inhabitants, two thirds of which live in Reykjavik and its surroundings.) Based on the trip I made, I mainly differentiate between food that was served to us on a farm / that we cooked for ourselves and food that I ate in restaurants not related to the place we stayed at.
The farm food was pretty similar in all the places we went to: potatoes. Always potatoes. And with that usually some kind of meat (often goulash) and salad. And for dessert: cake. Usually chocolate cake. God, I won’t be able to eat any more chocolate cake for the next couple of months. Or potatoes, for that matter. The exception proves the rule of course, so once we were served cured whale meat as a starter. Yes, I did try it, but for me as a long-time vegetarian, it wasn’t so great. It tasted very much like very tender smoked ham.
The breakfast, by the way, was pretty similar in all places we stayed at, too. I always had what I was told to be “typical Icelandic breakfast”: a mix of some kind of cereal, usually containing oatmeal and lots of nuts, sometimes fruits or fruit salad and soured milk, all topped with a spoonful of brown sugar. I actually really liked that breakfast and was totally disappointed when I found out that it is close to impossible to buy soured milk back in Germany. I skipped the cod liver oil though, which is said to be the second elementary part of a proper Icelandic breakfast.
But now, let’s come to the fun part. Actually great food I had in Iceland. And first, I’d like to write something on a very unexpected but wonderful dining experience I had with some pirates in the “city” (is 700 inhabitants even a city?) of Patreksfjördur at the Westfjords. Our tour guide told us that we would be eating dinner in a restaurant, as our guesthouse didn’t serve any dinner. So off we went to the city’s harbor. But when we arrived, we were all shocked.
“Is this actually it?”
“Are we really supposed to eat in there??”
We were afraid the roof would fall on our heads while eating. From the outside, the building really didn’t look like it was safe to enter, let alone have dinner inside. But at some point we did enter through the creaking door… – only to find a perfectly inviting entrance hall. When we walked into the next room, we were all speechless. Yes, the walls and windows still looked as shabby from in here as they had from the outside, but there was a huge table set for us with cute napkins with hearts on them and a fire was burning in what appeared to be a former forging furnace. Later we found out that this place actually was a smithy a long time ago, but was abandoned. About a year ago, they started to build this pirate-themed restaurant, and for the future they are planning to open a “pirate school” for kids, where children can learn to tie proper knots, how to navigate at sea and, of course, proper fighting!
The food itself was, at least on the first day, the usual Icelandic food: potatoes, fish, salad and chocolate cake for dessert. But at least the cake was by far the best I had on that trip. The second time we went there, they prepared something similar to a Spanish paella for us – in a huge pan right next to our table. As we were 18 people, you can imagine how huge that pan actually was. Unlike a paella, it was not made with rice, but with spaghetti. It also contained chicken and lots of curry. (We were told the dish originally came from Finland.) For dessert, we had warm rhubarb compote with cinnamon cookies and whipped cream. It was sooo good! In the end, I was a little sad that we could only eat twice in that restaurant.
My other culinary highlight in Iceland was definitely Reykjavik. On my first day in Iceland I had lunch in a café called Loki right at Reykjavik’s big church Hallgrímskirkja. Here’s what I had: rye bread with egg and fish (like mostly everywhere in Scandinavia, with lots of cinnamon) and rye bread with a warm (!) salad of mashed potatoes and fish. I also tried the famous kæstur hákarl (fermented shark). This dish is usually served in tiny cubes about the size of a sugar cube as it is so expensive. It’s shark’s meat which is normally not edible for humans as it contains lots of urea, but is prepared in a complicated process during which the urea is converted to ammoniac. During the process, the shark is first buried in a hole in the ground and left there for several weeks to months so it ferments. After that, it is hung up to dry in open huts for several months. Despite of this rather nasty-sounding production process, I thought the shark meat tasted quite good. The taste is similar to a strong cheese, maybe a bit like Tilsit cheese, but a little bit more “fishy”. I also tried dried fish, which I already know from Japan. In Japan though, the fish tastes quite salty, whereas in Iceland it’s not salty at all by itself, but eaten with salted butter. Not bad either, but (like the Japanese version) a bit too chewy for my taste. The grand finale of this extraordinary lunch was: rye bread ice cream! Yes, you read correctly. Something like vanilla ice cream mixed with lots of rye bread crumbs. Instant top three of my favorite ice creams in the world I think! This whole lunch was actually so good, that I ordered the same again as a dinner on our last day in Iceland.
I also had a great vegan toast in a restaurant called Laundromat in Reykjavik: bread with humus, tomatoes, grilled eggplant, garlic pesto and a “chutney” of fennel and beet-root, topped with pine nuts; and a salad with a great mustard-vinaigrette. To top my vegan dinner, I also ordered a carrot juice, which was flavored with orange juice, apple juice and ginger. Delicious!!
Last but not least, another personal highlight of Icelandic cuisine was licorice covered ice cream, which I had during a short stop at a gas station. Surprisingly good, once you get used to it!