Real Food on the Road: Iceland, Baby (Part One)

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.”

No, really, they do grow lots of 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.

Our Icelandic breakfast staples

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.)

Dairy: IN.
Bread and Grains: IN.
Prayers: 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):

Not fancy, but pretty good

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:

It was whole-wheat pasta, too!

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.

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12 Responses to Real Food on the Road: Iceland, Baby (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Real Food On the Road: Iceland, Baby! (The Finale) | Red, Round, or Green

  2. Pingback: Meal Plan for July: More Fish and Random Simplicity | Red, Round, or Green

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am glad you had a great time! I am just getting to this now as we just finished a trip through Alaska, alas, as it was a huge family thing that invovled a cruise, I can’t say that we were able to access a lot of fresh foods. 😦 I would like to say though that rhubarbs and potatoes seemed to be the thing to grow there too. And as for Cleveland, that is my hometown (sort of, I grew up about a half hour west of the city) and finishing our vacation included a visit there before and after Alaska. 🙂

    • Alaska, wow! That ALSO sounds like a great vacation and a great cruise — though I’m sure after a while on a cruise ship, you were definitely looking for something simple and fresh to eat. 🙂 And a pass through Cleveland, too? You were certainly on the road. (And btw, my very favorite Iron Chef, Michael Symon, calls Cleveland home — so I intend to get there one day and eat at his restaurant!)

      • Carrie says:

        A total of two passes through Cleveland- one before, one after. We stay with my parents though and my Aunt watched our animals (and my parents and hers, I don’t even want to tell you how many that added up to!) for us, so partly it was a money saver and a chance to spend time with family and friends.

        I am a bit meh about Micheal Symon, I have eaten at some of his restaurants, but if you get a chance to come through here check out the Greenhouse Tavern and Noodle Cat. They are owned by Jonathan Sawyer. I have been to The Greenhouse Tavern once, it was terrific and I want to go back. It is also the first certified green restaurant in Ohio. I haven’t been to Noodle Cat, but my friend loves it.

  4. Pingback: Real Food on the Road: Iceland, Baby! (Part Two) | Red, Round, or Green

  5. Alissa says:

    Sounds like quite an adventure! You’re bringing me back…in college my 2 best girlfriends and I did a spring break trip to Iceland for exactly the same budget reason…we stayed in a guest room with a tiny kitchenette, and actually the only thing I remember eating on the whole 5-day trip was milk chocolate and tea, probably because they grocery stores were too unfamiliar and at 20 yrs old we definitely did not have your improv skills!

  6. Karen Frenchy says:

    what a terrific post! Now I SO want to visit Iceland !!
    Interesting how there is really few produce but glad we can find Nutella 😉
    The meat section is intriguing. I would have thought to find a butcher type department instead of a “frozen meat” section. I know I will shock my fellow American friends but I am quite glad to read Icelanders eat horse meat (I love it !)

    As far as your cooking experience is concerned, I really think you did great with the ingredients you had.

    I cannot wait to read part II

    • Thanks, Karen! I know, it’s funny that produce just isn’t a thing there, but Nutella is basically a worldwide phenomenon at this point, no? 😉 At least it was in a glass jar.
      We DID eventually find a butcher counter, which I’ll talk about in Part Three — but that was harder that you might think! And I’m sure horse meat is like anything else – a cultural preference. I didn’t want to find myself cooking it by accident, but I understand that they are a source of animal protein just like all the other animals we Americans eat on a regular basis.

  7. Tomiko says:

    Great read! Have wanted to go to Iceland for a while now… so happy you got some vacation time.

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