Why Iceland is like Italy

Worried Puffin
Worried Puffin

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.

Creamy skyr
Creamy skyr
courtesy of flickr
Kleinur – Icelandic donuts

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.

Courtesy of Flckr by Alein
Icelandic Pancakes

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.

9 thoughts on “Why Iceland is like Italy

  1. Agreed! It’s rarely mentioned, but Icelandic food is just all around good nutritious home cooking. Sadly you can see the effects of the relatively recent importation of junk food already in the population, especially the younger people.

    1. Yes, though on the bright side, I’ve noticed the selection of vegetables has gotten better over the years. I think they are growing more and more in their greenhouses.

  2. As we a having another typical winterstorm up her ejust under the arctic circle I am cuddled up under a soft wool blanket enjoying, with our Schnauzer dog (that took me out for a walk earlier today without minding the weather at all), the inside of our home with thick concrete walls and the warm air inside it – thanks to the generous amounts of geothermal energy below our feet. I am sitting in my cozy chair and surfing the endless plains of the Internet. Today it brought me to the nearest neighbourhood, the only land that extends farther in all directions than my own motherland (yes, farther to the North, East, South and West – and up too!); Greenland, a country I still have not visited, despite having visited over 50 countries in most continents. I have seen it from above, even tried once to go there, but at the end of the runway the plane was cancelled – due to the weather (of course :-). The wonderful blog of an Aussie living there magnified my desire to visit; now it is on the list for the summer! After some nice surfing/reading at http://www.thefourthcontinent.com I saw a link I just had to click on – and that led me here – to your blog. Thanks for a very enjoyable read – you make me appreciate even more my wonderful motherland – and you proof that ancient saying once again; “Glöggt er gests augað” – even if your love for the country makes you paint it rosy – which is very nice and highly appreciated on a stormy winterday 🙂

    1. Nice to meet you Kristjan! I’m always happy and extremely interested to read how an Icelander sees me represent their country through my blog. Could you perhaps translate that ancient saying? I’d love to know what it means. ( I also am dying to go to Greenland and follow a couple of blogs from there)

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