I may have been away for a while — okay, QUITE a while; longer than I’ve ever left this blog unattended before — but it was for a good reason.
That photo was taken in ICELAND. By ME. And it was awesome. J. and I finally had a real, grown-up, no-kids vacation for the first time since our honeymoon, and took the incredibly unexpected leap into a week in a rental cottage just outside of Reykjavik with two dear friends, my grad-school bestie B.W. and her fantastic partner, Big D. As you can probably tell from the picture, it was everything I could have hoped for and then some. I want to go back. Hell, by the end of the week, J. and I were talking about how great it would be to move there.
But of course, this is a food blog, and therefore you’re probably thinking I ought to say something about what we ate. And I’m not sure whether I’m about to enlighten, inspire, or disappoint you. Maybe all three? Is that possible?
Eating in Iceland, at least for our little foursome, shook out like this: Nobody on that trip really had what you might call money to burn (in fact, Iceland made the short list of places to go precisely BECAUSE it’s affordable. More affordable, in fact, than a similar trip to Cleveland, Ohio — don’t ask me how I know that). And part of the reason we rented the cottage instead of staying in a hotel, besides the up-front cost savings, was that the kitchen facilities would allow us to really cut corners on food costs and be the masters of our own grocery-budget destinies. As I myself put it to the group: “Okay, so J.’s the planner; B.W.’s kind of the tour guide; Big D. is the chauffeur; and the rest of you are traveling with a food blogger, so obviously, I’d better get my rear into the kitchen and feed us all.”
We figured on eating out no more than 2-3 times during the whole stay, a prediction I’m happy to say we were basically able to keep. The rest of the time, we thought we’d eat on the cheap from whatever we could get our hands on at an Icelandic grocery store. It worked out brilliantly, except for one tiny, practically infinitesimal snag in the plan.
Nothing grows in Iceland.
Oh, I’m being dramatic. To be accurate, potatoes grow quite nicely in Iceland. So, I’m told, does rhubarb. Beyond that, the agricultural life of the country — which, by the way, is a huge part of the culture there — is more on the animal-husbandry side of things than the growing-stuff-in-the-dirt side. As Big D. observed, “Well, they can at least grow sheep.”
When we walked into the grocery store for the first time, it was about 1 a.m. Reykjavik time, we’d just gotten off an airplane, we were starving, and we were about to be driven to our rental cottage. The “Hagkaup” was a sprawling, disorienting experience that I can only describe as the rough Icelandic equivalent of a Super Wal-Mart. We stumbled past sunscreen displays, cologne counters, discount baby clothing, and a floral department before we reached the groceries. I blinked at rows and rows of Muesli and finally chose one at random, knowing we’d have to eat something the next morning. Turning in circles, we seized upon something familiar — a jar of Nutella (I know, I know) — and a baguette. Cheese. Cheese would be easy. A block of something I recognized as havarti, some apple-mango juice drink at J.’s request, and a few containers of an Icelandic staple called skyr made up our first shopping experience. We were just too tired to think any harder than that.
A restless six hours or so of sleep brought the clarity of morning, hunger, and culinary intrigue. We’d heard of skyr before leaving the States and had known it would be on our short list of foods to try. Legend has it that skyr was invented when the Vikings were trying to figure out new ways to preserve meat; they poured milk over meat in a barrel, sealed it, and went back several weeks later. A thick white coating had developed on the sides of the barrel, which they decided to eat (I suppose a race of people who had already not only discovered, but actually settled, a country made entirely of volcanic rock and glaciers would consider possible death-by-botulism a very humdrum kind of danger). I have no idea what the outcome of the meat in that barrel was, but the white stuff turned out to be a perfectly genius food source.
Skyr is, generally speaking, a cross between yogurt and cheese. It’s cultured like yogurt, but also contains rennet. The result is something that tastes quite a bit like yogurt — except you can literally stand a spoon in it. It’s got a consistency like farmer’s cheese, is richly filling, and (in Iceland, at least) is generally eaten sweetened and/or flavored. We mixed ours with muesli in the mornings, making a concoction that was so filling it took only a small bowl to be satisfied.
With a first breakfast of skyr and muesli accomplished, we were optimistic about future meals, and we returned to the Hagkaup full of fresh energy. Unfortunately, it took less than a minute in the closet-sized produce department for us to realize that our energy was the ONLY thing that was fresh. Shrink-wrapped, wilty-looking, and just downright sad, a very limited selection of basic vegetables stared back at us from the shelves. The prices were around what I would expect to pay at Whole Foods here — not a good sign. Finally, B.W. cleared her throat and said, “Well, the leeks look really good.”
She was right. The leeks looked excellent. Thankfully, so did the potatoes (probably unsurprisingly, since I’d be willing to bet that they were the only things in that produce section that had NOT spent weeks on a plane/truck/storage unit before hitting the shelves). I straightened my shoulders. I could get two dinners out of those leeks.
After the disappointment of the produce, however, I wasn’t quite prepared for another blow to my optimism in the meat section. The Hagkaup’s meat was all cryovacked, mainly frozen, almost totally unrecognizable…and labeled in Icelandic, which, in case you’re unfamiliar, is one of the most fiendishly incomprehensible languages on the planet. We saw several advertisements for an Icelandic stage translation of “The Wizard of Oz” while we were in Reykjavik, and I actually wondered aloud at one point whether the show would end up being six hours long because of the complexity of the language, or if they’d just have to sort of bullet-point the whole thing — like the Cliffs Notes version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” By the end of the week, I actually got kind of good at figuring out some of the written language, but when all of the words are fifteen letters long and appear to have vowels in all the wrong places, it’s not super-easy to tell a giant frozen chunk of lamb from a giant frozen chunk of beef. Or horse, for that matter, which is also a common meat product in Icelandic supermarkets.
So…produce, essentially out. Meat, essentially out. And Big D., at least at the beginning of the week, didn’t want to eat fish. (Note that I said “at the beginning of the week” — in Part Two of this adventure, we’ll all be stretching our boundaries a bit.)
Bread and Grains: IN.
I refused to be daunted. Here we were, in a gorgeous and fascinating country with one of the purest environments in the world — a country where ALL of the meat and dairy, provided it’s native, is pasture-fed and free of all hormones and antibiotics, because they don’t do things any other way — a country where the people have one of the longest life expectancies in the Western world (81 years and counting). There had to be something we could do with what we were able to cobble together at the Hagkaup. Of course, our rented kitchen facilities would also present a unique challenge, with only 2 pans, a colander, a couple of questionable knives, and some assorted small gadgets in the cooking arsenal. But there had to be a way through it all.
And there was. Behold, the potato-leek soup, EXCELLENT Icelandic cheese, bread, and dried apples we ate in the 10 p.m. sunshine outside our cottage that first night (I had to puree the soup by mashing it all through a mesh sieve bit by bit, since there was no blender):
And the second evening’s meal, also the product of our leeks, along with an unexpected gift of eggs which I’ll tell you more about tomorrow — a leek and bacon “carbonara” of sorts:
So we had skyr. We had dinners, humble though they may have been. And we had the Hagkaup, a chicken named Ethel, Icelandic hot dog vendors, and an eventual foray into consuming a few exotic species, among other culinary adventures. If you’re at all interested in finding out what I’m talking about, come back for Part Two. Oh, yeah, and there’ll be some fermented shark in there somewhere, too.