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In Search of Iceland's Nordic Cuisine

Outdoor tables at the Hotel Aldan in Seyðisfjörður.

Photo: Christian Kerber

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.

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