If you don’t like seafood or lamb, chances are you wouldn’t even bother to visit Iceland. True, you could probably live off Americanised junk food if you wanted to, but if you care about what is on your plate the real deal of this wonderful island lies in the magnificent produce gathered from beyond its coastlines.
Naturally, food is not the only reason to go there, so if you enjoy a wild and rugged terrain and oceans teeming with wildlife, volcanic landscapes, waterfalls and fjords, a “riot of geology” (as my guide book put it), glaciers and much more besides, quite apart from the culture and retail opportunities afforded by Reykjavik, Iceland is a wonderful place to visit – but my advice is not to miss some of the culinary delights.
On my trip they started on the first night with a kebab meal – but only because it was late and I was tired from the journey and not ready to go hunting out gourmet restaurants. Having arrived finally at my guest house in Hafnarfjörður, I went for a wander around the nearby shops and restaurants to find what was open on a Monday night; basically, it was a choice between Dominos pizza and a small kebab shop run by one chap. He served me a decent dinner and Icelandic beer (typically £5-6 a pop) then asked me questions about where I come from and what I was doing there. As kebabs go, it was rather good, including both beef tenderloin (fillet) and lamb, plus rice and pickles.
This prompts another question: what do Icelanders eat when they want fast food? As you might have guessed, they have many of the same chains you find the world over – you’d have to go to the back of beyond to escape those – but they also adapt some American junk food to their own style. The local specialty is meaty hot dogs, typically adorned with both fresh raw and crispy onions, mustard and ketchup, and they also do pretty neat burgers, typically served with fresh, crisp fries rather that frozen.
That apart, I spent my week trying many wonderful dishes, but not puffin, guillemot, shag, horse or fermented shark, all of which are local specialties. I will admit to having tried a small taste of minke whale at the renowned seafood buffet at The Reykjavik restaurant, which, given the endangered nature of most whale species, would typically fail my ethical standards. For the record it tasted meaty, quite like steak.
However, I did also try plenty of other seafood cod, wolf fish (aka “sea catfish”), langoustines (“lobsters” here after “Norway lobsters” – a massive treat, dipped in hot butter), herrings and tusk among other fishy treats, and even Icelandic fish and chips. This was two steps removed from the traditional English variety: the fish, blue ling in this case, was coated in spelt batter, made without wheat flour or eggs and therefore safe for coeliacs and those allergic to eggs. It came with baked chips – hunks of potato oven-baked to a degree of crispness – and a choice of dips, accompanied by salads. Like many things Icelandic, the cultural reference points are different and the result not quite what you might expect.
The other widely farmed species of the island, horses and cattle notwithstanding, are sheep, though compared to the UK I saw relatively few on my travels. However, lamb appears on menus in various guises, all of which proved totally delicious, as witnessed in the pictures above – including smoked lamb that I doubt you’ve tried before. Perhaps the most eye-opening was a local specialty akin to a supercharged Scotch broth – a delectable lamb soup, which appeared in the form of a consommé made with a rich and flavoursome stock, thick chunks of lamb and vegetables.
Breakfast is an interesting meal. The best I ate was in a regular haunt there, the Laundromat Cafe in central Reykjavik. Yes there are washing machines, though they are hidden away in the basement. The wood-panelled cafe above is way more interesting, not least for its many pictures of laundromats from around the world. The whole floor revolves around a central bar area, into which is built literally thousands of books and magazines. The place is always buzzing. The clientele, many of whom are tapping away on computers as they eat and drink, courtesy of excellent free wifi (password “iloveyou”), treat it as a place to meet and relax from dawn to dusk and beyond. It starts with coffee and brunch, extends through lunch and dinner, then becomes a bar with music later on.
As for food, I tried quite a few examples of the kitchen handiwork. First the “basic breakfast” (two fried or scrambled eggs and bacon with toasted white bread or rye bread) plus a side of sausages (tiny lamb-flavoured sausages – a revelation!) On another occasion I had a go at home-made pancakes with blueberries, caramelised banana and maple syrup – drop dead gorgeous, even for a savoury tooth. Also sampled their lamb fillet (perfect) and home-made raspberry smoothie (as good as any I’ve ever tasted.) This is not haute cuisine but if it were my local cafe I’d be there to hang out every day – it certainly puts others in the shade.
Best of all though was my restaurant of the year, the Lava restaurant at the Blue Lagoon spa. It seems an odd location to find a first class restaurant, and was the only time I’ve ever indulged in fine dining while wearing trunks, a bath robe and slippers, but the food was magnificent.
A starter of arctic char, not unlike sea trout, came lightly singed from the grill but without losing any of its delicacy. It came with sunchoke (aka jerusalem artichoke), apple and watercress, with a dressing redolent of freshly-picked green apples. This was the flavour explosion you always hope for but rarely find – a total revelation. My main of rack of lamb – pink and perfectly cooked – could have been improved by cutting chunks of celeriac smaller. Otherwise, the accompanying onions (picked?), pear, dill, celeriac puree and two sauces, one thick and pungent, the other yellow and mellow, made for a delightful dish.
Meanwhile, my companion was tucking into a glorious langoustine soup, a superior version of the one I had eaten a few days before – perfect but for the squirty cream on top – followed by beautifully cooked cod with grilled root vegetables, creamy barley and lemon sauce. We shared a dessert of “Ástarpungar” & caramel – Icelandic doughnut balls, sticky chocolate mousse, glorious vanilla ice cream and a hint of salty caramel. Divine!
While I was there I took time to sample a fair few Icelandic beers, which were, as mentioned above, priced steeply. While you can buy identikit lagers, there seems to be a tradition of craft brewing on Iceland. With the exception of one glass of draft beer served in the Viking pub in Harfnafjördur (according to a friend, this is an “elves’ pub” but certainly decked out in the Viking fashion), all were meticulously produced and delivered the goods. In fact, I spent an afternoon resting my ankle in a sports bar, trying all the local brews they had in stock; also an Irish pub, which sold a local stout but no Guinness!
So in short, I am very impressed with the food and drink of Iceland. Luckily there are plenty more seafood restaurants to try in Reykjavik and beyond, so more than enough to sustain a second visit. Or to put it another way, there were too many great places to eat and not enough time to eat in them all. During my week there I never made it into any ethnic dining establishments, of which there are plenty.
Even if you are not a great foodie, this is a wonderful place to visit – go see!