Real Food On the Road: Iceland, Baby! (The Finale)

Due to a small photo snafu, I’ve had to wait to deliver this final part of my three-post series on our Icelandic adventure.  (If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2, you may want to get up to speed.  If you’re all caught up, welcome back to vacationland!)  I promised you tales of hot dogs, pastries, and minke whale, and by golly, I intend to keep my vow.

With J. and Big D. pushing the boundaries of comfort and, frankly, all that was good and holy with their fermented-shark tasting, you might be under the impression that the “stepping outside our zones” portion of this presentation was over.  But all FOUR of us ate stuff in Iceland that I guarantee we would not have sought out elsewhere — partly because, of course, most of it wouldn’t be available to us anywhere else in the world.  And it started with the hot dogs.

Anyone who’s spent any time hanging around this blog knows just how I feel about hot dogs.  If you’re new, the summary is: Don’t like ’em, don’t want ’em, can’t want to eat ’em.  On the Iceland trip, I was actually in good company that way — J. also can’t bring himself to eat a hot dog, B.W. is generally repulsed by them, and Big D., while possibly not as averse as the rest of us, seemed indifferent at best.  I wouldn’t have been thinking about hot dogs or about our collective feelings towards them, of course, had we not been confronted with them.  But we were.  In Iceland.  Hot dogs.  IN ICELAND.

Yep.  I’m a big believer that if you’re traveling, you should sample at least one or two of the country’s favorite street foods — and wouldn’t you know it that karma decided to bite me in the rear end and send me to a country where the main street food is hot dogs?  Naturally the four of us decided very quickly to gird our loins and belly up to the hot dog counter for a taste.  We were in Reykjavik, there was a big party going on for their National Day (sort of the equivalent of our Fourth of July), and the hot dogs were both cheap and plentiful.  It was time.

By the way, I’ve omitted the picture here — B.W. did take one of me and J. with our mouths full, but it was so unflattering in about a hundred different ways that I am exercising my editorial privilege as the owner of this blog and leaving you all to wonder what an Icelandic hot dog looks like.  I’ll spare you the suspense: It looks very much like every other hot dog you have ever eaten.  It does not, however, taste like any other hot dog I have ever had.  Icelanders tend to make their dogs with a mixture of beef, pork, and lamb, so they have a distinctly gamy flavor (which is better than it sounds).  They’re also far less salty than most dogs I’ve eaten.  We ordered ours simply with mustard, as was recommended by the girl who sold them to us, and even the mustard was different than what I’m used to — sweeter, thinner, less spicy, almost like a honey mustard.  I’m told many Icelanders prefer their hot dogs loaded up with remoulade and fried onions (think of the things that go on top of Auntie Rita’s green bean casserole at Thanksgiving time), but sadly, I didn’t get to experience that particular taste sensation.  Verdict: As hot dogs go, they were REALLY good.  And I’m still not really a hot dog kind of girl.

You might think we’d have stopped at hot dogs and rotten shark and let ourselves be satisfied with that, but we wanted the full-on Iceland experience — even if it was probably the tourist version.  We continued to eat at home each night so we could save up for a big celebratory dinner out together; after we finally noticed the itty-bitty, practically incognito butcher counter tucked away in a far corner of the Hagkaup, we even got up the courage to send J. and Big D. over to the store for some meat.  They came back with ground beef and, shockingly, some very nice fresh basil, and we were able to make a cheap and cheerful variation on a bolognese.

So I went to Iceland and made spaghetti. So sue me.

Budgets appropriately stretched by nights of pasta, soup, and starch upon starch, we were able to achieve our splurge dinner goal, which had tantalized us from brochures and guidebooks for days: the “Icelandic tapas” experience at the appropriately named Tapas in Reykjavik.  Touristy?  Most likely.  But a menu promising seven courses of oddness PLUS a free shot of brennivin could not be ignored.

Our final toast, with our free shots.

On our last night in Iceland, we gussied up and headed back to the city with single-minded purpose.  Tapas turned out to be a restaurant so dark that my pitiful point-and-shoot camera was no match for the lighting, but Big D. managed to snap a few shots of our feast.

Minke whale!!! Seared and served on sweet potatoes — heavenly.

And that, friends, is what smoked puffin looks like. This one had blueberry-brennivin sauce. Not my favorite.

White-chocolate Skyr mousse with passion fruit. This is the only cheesecake I have ever liked.

I’ll be honest: smoked puffin is not something I think I’d prefer to eat again, though the guys both said they liked it.  (It was FINE, but just.)  Minke whale, on the other hand?  It looks like steak; it tastes better than steak; and I’ve been trying to figure out ever since we ate it how I could possibly get my hands on it again.  It’s meaty, but delicately sweet, and has no fishiness at all — especially compared to the puffin, which has a weirdly seafood-esque aftertaste for something that your brain is convinced should be more like duck.

So there you have it — the highlights of our food experiences in Iceland.  Oh, except for the major staple of our (and apparently the whole country’s) diets.

In the same category as the hot dog thing, who’d have thought Iceland basically runs on sugar?  It’s true.  Not only do they drink more Coke than anyone else in the world (per capita), but they eat a TON of pastry and candy.  Everywhere we went, kids in particular were sucking on candies, chomping chocolate bars, or hanging out with their friends or parents at bakeries with plates full of sweets.  There are bakeries and cafes on practically every corner, even in the tiniest towns, and all of them serve two things: Unbelievable coffee, and a selection of lavish cakes.  The larger ones also have many, many other pastries and baked goods, but cake seems to be the expected crown jewel of any cafe’s menu.

I’d be lying if I said we practiced restraint.  WE TOTALLY DIDN’T.  Unless you’re measuring by Icelandic standards, of course — I couldn’t resist pointing out to the others that while we’d choose one pastry to go with our coffees, all the natives around us would have two, three, or even FOUR items as large as my head.  Even little children would have two donuts or a slice of cake AND a huge cookie.  It was mind-boggling.  Particularly so, if you consider the fact that Icelanders have one of the longest life expectancies and some of the best overall health in the Western world.  Huh.

So by Icelandic standards, we were positively modest with our one pastry-per-day (okay, OCCASIONALLY two, but spaced apart by several hours) policy.  By our own usual standards, of course, we were pigging out.  But B.W. has a legendary sweet tooth and the metabolism of a hummingbird with ADHD, so she was in absolute nirvana with the abundance of treats available to us…and I admit that Big D., J., and I didn’t fight very hard to practice moderation.  It was vacation, after all.

And a damned good vacation it was.

My favorite sweet treat in Iceland: Kaffi Latte og berlinarbollar. Or coffee and a jelly donut. You know, whatever makes you feel good.

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