When you mention the food of Iceland, a lot of people will say they’ve been told sordid tales of locals eating rotten shark, bulls’ testicles pickled in yogurt sauce, smoked horse meat, roasted puffins in butter sauce, and minke whale (close your eyes, Greenpeace). These are not tall tales – you can find them on the menu, especially during the national holidays that celebrate Icelandic traditions, some of which were forged during times of severe food shortages.
You never hear of people going to Iceland for the food (husband, to me: why do you think they invented Italy?), but I have to say, I have never had a bad meal in Iceland. The dietary mainstay is off-the-charts fresh and delicious, even the fare found in gas station cafeterias. Iceland is one of those more-sheep-than-people countries, so lamb is plentiful, and prepared in a variety of ways. I’ve seen it spit-fired whole at a Viking festival, boiled or roasted to death for a Sunday dinner, and grilled to medium rare perfection. They also use lamb for their thickly-sliced, spicy, fatty salami, which would make a vegetarian cringe. I’ve been told the main ingredient in the hot dogs (pylsa) is lamb and pork. (And we know how I feel about those.) Of course, it’s an island in the north Atlantic, so haddock and cod are bountiful and used as we might use chop meat: minced and made it into fishballs (fiskbollurs), or chopped up with cheese and onion and baked in a casserole (plokkfiskur). Then there is salmon, sea trout, Arctic char—all pretty interchangeable—and always freshly caught from the nearest sea, lake or river. It’s either grilled, baked, or smoked to a soft deep dark velvety red that melts in your greedy-gluttonous-little-mouth like butta’. Speaking of which, smjor (their butter) is sublime, as is the milk, and comes only from what we would call free-range dairy cows, though they would just say they keep their cows outside.
But the dairy products that I live on over there are the yogurts. There are three kinds: skyr, a thickish one, similar to Greek yogurt, but creamier and sweeter; abmilk or sourmilk, which is similar to kefir, being a probiotic drink (AB stands for the bacteria), which comes plain or flavored (pear and apple are the best); and then the basic yogurt, which is similar to Sigga, now being sold in the U.S.. Coffee is the national beverage and you can’t have a cup of coffee without a kleinur or three, a simple twisted donut, similar to a Vermont cider donut.
When we’re out on the trail, it gets even better. Food on the trail is like food out on a sailboat—everything tastes especially special. Sometimes we pack up our own sandwiches and put them in our pockets for the ride. I make a salami and cheese and cucumber sandwich, not with bread but with those wafer-thin crackers. They fall apart into a few pieces but it is the best crumbled lunch I’ve ever eaten. Sometimes Helga will send out her husband or son with food for us. They’ll drive out in their truck to meet us on the trail and bring out lunch or afternoon tea. This can be sliced egg sandwich with tall cans of Thule beer, or it can be smoked salmon on sweet brown bread and a thermos of hot chocolate. And Disa, when she used to travel with us, always had a flask of cognac in her coat pocket. When it got cold or the trail got particularly hairy and the horses too much to handle, she’d whisk it out and pass it around for fortification and courage.
And then there is the traditional treat when we come in from riding. Helga will bring over a platter of freshly made Icelandic pancakes, which are really light crepes that are rolled up with jam and served with whipped cream. We have these with more coffee.
So when in Iceland, I can’t stop eating. The food is fresh and simple, and even with all the hardy day-long riding, by the end of the trip I’m seven pounds heavier, exactly my weigh-in after a trip to Amalfi. And, in that sense, it is like Italy, dear husband.