In Search of Iceland's Nordic Cuisine
Published: March 2011
By Shane Mitchell
T+L heads to Iceland in search of the best Nordic cuisine.
On a chilly August morning in eastern Iceland, a herd of reindeer paused to graze along a granite ridge. Eymundur (“Eymi”) Magnússon, a dead ringer for the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb, slammed on the brakes, and his truck skidded to a halt on the stony track. The two of us sat silently watching as these skittish herbivores, their enormous antlers swaying like velvet chandeliers in a windstorm, trotted toward a glacial lake outside the town of Eglisstaðir.
“Do they know you don’t eat meat?” I asked.
Magnússon chuckled. “Maybe. Hunting season is coming up soon, and they’ve been on my land for most of the summer.”
Surveying the matted crowberry shrubs and lichen-crusted rocks, I didn’t see much terrain that could be construed as sanctuary for creatures that stuck out like a frost giant’s sore thumb. But once we bounced around several turns in the rutted trail, the truck dipped into a hidden vale of barley fields. The wind died away as we drove between tall rows of mature aspen.
Magnússon remarked at the curious hue of the sheltering foliage, possibly tinted by nitrogen from blue lupines blooming underneath. “No one thought these trees would grow,” he said, “but I have planted one million of them.” In a forestless realm where all virgin timber was cut down more than a thousand years ago, it’s an achievement worthy of a vegetarian visionary. For Magnússon, who supplies tiny white potatoes and fruit preserves to gourmet shops in Reykjavík, it was simply another day on the farm he calls Vallanes.
Just kissing latitude 67 degrees north, this isolated island of volcanoes and glaciers is what the Icelandic people have called home—literally between hot rocks and a cold place—since A.D. 874, when their intrepid Viking ancestors first rowed longships across the Norwegian Sea. Unlike its nearest neighbor, Greenland, Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream, so the climate is relatively temperate. Although summer is fleeting on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, plenty still grows here, and Icelanders are champion foragers of mushrooms, berries, moss, seaweed—anything deemed remotely edible. Word about these rare ingredients, not to mention the weird beauty of an untamed landscape, has spread far beyond the island’s lava-rock shores. Danish chef René Redzepi, the leader of the New Nordic culinary movement and an avid forager, sources Icelandic seafood, herbal teas, and the yogurt-like skyr for Noma, his Copenhagen bistro, which in 2010 was named the world’s top restaurant (edging out Spain’s El Bulli) by a prestigious international food academy.
These modern-day Vikings can cite an ancient literary source for their foraging instincts: the Icelanders’ sagas, which are filled with heroic deeds by poet-farmers and warrior-shepherds. (With his fair hair and beard, Eymi would fit right into one of those medieval prose epics.) I’ve never managed to choke through an entire narrative, but undoubtedly the Old Norse words for locavore and sustainability are in there somewhere.
I share a love of scrounging with these far northerners. My mother, an early convert to the health-food craze during the 1960’s, favored Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus as her guide to walking on the wild side. She taught me to be an edible opportunist, hunting the sides of streams for cress and picking windfall apples from abandoned farm fields near my childhood home. My own inspiration, however, is an obscure gem titled Icelandic Picnic, by Áslaug Snorradóttir and Sigrún Sigvaldadóttir. Full of tart homilies, this merry collection of arty snapshots celebrates the outdoor pleasures of a brief yet bountiful season, when modern Vikings pack their camping gear and plunder the countryside with berry buckets. At the height of an Arctic summer, I also discover how short a distance it is in Iceland to journey from field to table.
In a tie-dyed bunkhouse on Magnússon’s farm, a group of Wwoof-ers were wolfing down wild-blueberry pancakes and rhubarb compote. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is a grassroots cultural exchange for back-to-the-land volunteers and growers eager to embrace the crunchy gospel. This crew ranged from a Bowdoin graduate student researching soil content to an elderly Englishwoman with a passion for tundra fungi—all extra hands in the farm’s prized potato patch. “Don’t let anyone in Reykjavík know they’re ready to harvest yet,” Magnússon entreated me. Icelandic Picnic: “Pjód veit, ef prír vita.” “If three have been told, the whole nation knows.” On an island with just over 300,000 residents, word gets around fast.
With packets of freshly baked angelica-seed crackers from Magnússon’s wife, Eygló, in my bag, I left the gentle vale of Vallanes for a rough gravel road across a high pass to the nearby eastern seaport of Seyðisfjörður. As I gained elevation, the weather closed in. I found myself in the curious position of navigating a suspension bridge with a dense cloud bank underneath and zero visibility in a region where free-ranging sheep mobbed grassy shoulders. (Both excellent reasons why the speed limit in Iceland is 55 m.p.h.) Halfway through my route, the Gufufoss waterfall tumbled over a series of rock terraces next to the road. I parked and walked to the edge, where the spray, drifting upward, misted my face and hair. One of the most wonderful things about Iceland is the purity of plain old tap water, which tastes of minerals from the sunless halls of mountain kings. Icelanders laugh when you ask for imported bottles.
Seyðisfjörður was preparing for a midsummer party. A heap of broken furniture and packing crates piled next to the town hall was to be torched at sunset—which, at this time of year, was just shy of midnight. At the reception area in the Hótel Aldan, the old checkout counter displayed temptingly iced fruitcakes and chewy nut cookies; oak tables and Windsor chairs looked out onto the waterfront. Setting my place with a crocheted doily and candlestick, a waitress recited the evening menu. (Magnússon’s microgreens made an appearance, paired with a smoked duck breast.)
As I watched bonfire-bound townspeople stream past the front window, succulent langoustine tails arrived garnished with Gotland truffle foam. Closer in size to crawfish than lobster, Icelandic humar are rich enough on their own. The sauce made from mushrooms sourced on a Baltic island was a delightfully indulgent embellishment, particularly given the frugal culinary history of a people who once survived winters on putrefied shark and pickled seal flippers. Icelandic Picnic: “Margt et sætt í dag, sem súrt er á morgun.” “Sweet today, sour tomorrow.”
An eight-hour drive away, on the opposite side of the island, the capital of Reykjavík has all the hallmarks of a small college town—street murals; vintage stores; Internet cafés on every corner. I was there to meet Siggi Hall, an ardent fan of the potatoes from Magnússon’s farm. Tall and jolly, Hall is the Icelandic equivalent of the Galloping Gourmet; he introduced his viewing public to imported comestibles such as olive oil and maple syrup, but now promotes a cooking philosophy closer to home.
We met for langoustine chowder at Nauthóll, a modern bistro overlooking the city beach. I asked him what a summer picnic means to an Icelandic chef. “I like to go out to the country with blankets and sandwiches, smoked lamb, and cheeses,” he said. “Especially in August, when the berries get ripe. Everyone has their secret picking grounds.” He leaned in closer to stage-whisper: “You don’t tell where you pick your berries!”
Set in grassy parkland on the outskirts of town, Nordic House was designed by Finnish master architect Alvar Aalto. The minimalist structure holds a library and exhibition space. It is also home turf for two culinary madmen. By day, Dill restaurant serves as the museum cafeteria; after hours, all that changes radically. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason and his sommelier, Ólafur Örn (“Óli”) Ólaffson, produce poetry from an experimental kitchen slightly smaller than a bread box. Gíslason may just be the next René Redzepi. (He hosted his first Salone del Gusto workshop at the Slow Food festival in Turin, Italy, last fall.) Because Dill has only 10 tables, each plate gets his conceptual scrutiny, and what winds up on that rustic china is extraordinary. Often Gíslason will hear from a lone hunter who has bagged a reindeer, or a former Buddhist monk who combs the shoreline for kelp and moss. Arctic char might arrive from friends who have spawning streams flowing past their sheep paddocks. A ceramic artist will trade dinner for a pot with protruding lamb bones. And a waiter’s uncle supplies fresh-mown hay for one of Gíslason’s quirkier pairings.
My table faced a pond where fat white ducks paddled in the twilight. The meal required a wicked sense of humor enhanced by a capacity for surprise: I’d never seen pickled green wild strawberries, birch oil, caramelized cheese whey, or pink beer. The cubed, salt-preserved wild salmon with capelin roe and smoked-rapeseed mayonnaise tasted like fishy Pop Rocks with a nicotine twist. A loin of Icelandic beef, cooked rare, was dusted with incinerated leeks. (At one point I spotted Gíslason setting fire to a clump of hay outside; the ash fell on a breast of wild goose.) Magnússon’s potatoes nestled next to scrambled duck egg and bacon in cream sauce. A dollop of whipped cider-vinegar butter perched precariously on a lava rock next to equally dark pumpernickel. When the kitchen finally closed and Gíslason pulled up a chair, I asked him why he scorched his food. He crossed his meaty arms and grinned like an oversize garden gnome. “For extra grill flavor,” he said, laughing.
Foraging is a pursuit eminently suited to the road, and all the better if that byway winds around fjords leading to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Every few miles I stopped to scan for fragrant thyme and stalks of seeding angelica. The trip to Hótel Budir, a country house on the Atlantic—usually a 2 1/2-hour drive northwest from Reykjavík—took me most of a day. After a brisk walk along the pebbled beach to gather mahogany kelp washed up at low tide, I rinsed the sea salt from my hands in an upstairs guest room and headed to the dining room to settle onto a tufted banquette.
Budir’s owner and chef, Peter Thordarson, sources much of his menu from farms on the peninsula, with a few significant exceptions. I was intrigued by the gamy flavor of his seared puffin with parsley purée. Accompanying the buttery lamb fillet and pulled shank: a mound of Magnússon’s barley. (Was there no escaping this agricultural activist?) I couldn’t resist begging a small portion of wild cèpes, which smelled like chocolate from a bog.
The windows faced west toward Snæfellsjökull volcano, which some Icelanders consider a vortex—one of those energy points where the earth’s magnetic core supposedly attracts supernatural phenomena. My waiter casually mentioned that in winter the aurora borealis seems to arch closer to it. Even at summer’s height, snow caps this mystic cone, the setting for the start of the fictional expedition in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
On my last morning, the Budir kitchen gave me a two-gallon plastic bucket. The lane leading back to the main road passed through a dormant lava field blanketed by soft mosses. I hiked among the jumbled rocks and climbed down into a wide crevice out of the wind blowing off the ocean. All around me were low bushes full of plump blueberries that no one had yet found.
I picked and picked. Sitting there on the dry grass, with the sound of the surf at my back and the glacier sparkling in the sun above me, I finally had a taste of that transient delight relished by a Nordic race of alfresco revelers. Icelandic Picnic: “Nú er af mér gengið, sagði geitin, ég er bæði full og feit.” “Now I’m done, said the goat, I’m both full and fat.”
Shane Mitchell is T+L’s special correspondent.
When to Go
Iceland’s warmest months are from late May to early September. The temperature is mild, but the weather can be changeable.
Iceland Air (icelandair.com) flies non-stop to Reykjavík from New
York, Boston, Orlando, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
Air Iceland (airiceland.is) connects from Reykjavík to Eglisstaðir. Most major car-rental agencies are present.
101 Hotel Modern, art-focused property with 38 rooms. 10 Hverfisgata, Reykjavík; 354/580-0101; 101hotel.is; doubles from $308.
Great Value Hótel Aldan Comfortable, traditional inn and restaurant on the waterfront. 2 Nordurgata, Seyðisfjörður; 354/472-1277; hotelaldan.com; doubles from $128; dinner for two $120.
Great Value Hótel Budir Iceland’s finest country hotel; rooms look out on a tidal inlet or glacier. Budir Snæfellsnes; 354/435-6700; budir.is; doubles from $193; dinner for two $132.
Dill 5 Sturlugötu, Reykjavík; 354/552-1522; dinner for two $119.
Kaffismiðja Íslands Coffeehouse that serves the best java in town. 1 Kárastígur; 354/517-5535; coffee for two $5.
Nauthóll Bistro 106 Nautholsvegir; 354/599-6660; lunch for two $43.
Frú Lauga Grocery and gift shop with fresh produce, artisanal cheeses, and fruit preserves from Vallanes farm. 20 Langalækur, Reykjavík; 354/693-7165.