Sheep roaming free to eat wild mosses, grasses, herbs and berries; yogurt thick and creamy; fish drying in the wind; spirits infused with local wild herbs and fruits; dark rye bread steamed and solid; lovage, sorrel, dill and burnet ruling on the herb front. Four days in Reykjavik isn’t nearly long enough to get the lay of the food land, but I did get to try a wide range of interesting flavors. Summarizing randomly:
Skyr — Love at first sight, skyr is Icelandic for Greek yogurt-meet-mascarpone. It’s been around for a thousand years, and traditionally made with raw milk. I spotted it on different dessert menus, and even though we had it for breakfast every day of our stay in Reykjavik, I could never resist it for dessert, especially not one laced with white chocolate and served with sweet strawberries and sorrel granita (at Matur og Drykkur).
Rugbrauð — This Icelandic rye bread is almost black, moist and chewy. I was told that in the very old days, people steamed it on a stick in a small geyser. It is flavorful and perfect for the more hearty flavors, like dried fish and lamb head cheese but equally tasty with butter and a good dollop of rhubarb or local berry jam!
Hakarl — My Icelandic friend opened the jar without warming, in her enthusiasm to have me taste it: fermented shark. Instantly, the smell emanating from the jar lodged in my nostrils, the way a cat litter box that needs cleaning does. An Icelandic traditional food, I noticed the verdict on hakarl is hung: I’ve met just as many locals who claim they love the stuff, as ones saying they won’t touch it. A guy working at the supermarket volunteered that he can only choke it down (his words) if he has a shot of brennevin (‘burning wine’, brennevin is Icelandic schnapps) right after. Of the three Icelandic ladies who eagerly looked on when I finally braved a bit of fermented shark, only one actually likes it. The other two thought I was crazy for even trying. The initial bite was not too bad; like a strong-tasting cured herring. But then, ammoniac and something gone bad kicked in and I couldn’t bring myself to try another bite. We had it at my friend’s house, along with Svidasulta and the dung-smoked trout, both below)
Sviðasulta — Different from Svid (which is a sheep’s head boiled and served whole), Svidasulta is sheep’s head cheese (boiled, pickled and pressed head meats). Somewhat stronger in taste than pig’s head cheese, if you like head cheese, you will love Svidasulta.
Sheep-dung smoked trout — The lush red-orange, succulent-looking sheep-dung smoked trout shocked with a pungency way more pronounced than its appearance suggested. It revealed a bold smokiness that, indeed, had a barnyard quality. But on dark, solid rye bread with a lick of good butter, it was quite tasty.
Kjötsúpa — Sheep in Iceland have right of way and live freely in Iceland’s wilderness, roaming on volcanic soil and noshing on wild grasses, mosses, flowers and berries. It makes Icelandic lamb incredibly flavorful, meaty and lean. In this traditional soup, lamb lends a natural sweetness to the hearty flavors. It is a rustic soup, loaded with root vegetables and pieces of meat (we had it in the cafeteria restaurant next to the Gulfoss waterfalls on our Golden Circle tour; a week later, in Greenland, we had a similar lamb soup on the ferry).
Pylsur (or Pylsur) — Apparently this Icelandic version of a hot dog is also the subject of a little language war: you say pulsur I say pylsur. And it is spelled different ways, too. Pylsa, pulsa. You can queue up for this delicious lamb-based sausage at the (world famous) hot dog stand around the corner from Kolaportid (Reykjavik’s covered flea market). Or find it in a restaurant! We had a Pylsa on brioche with “everything and lovage potato salad at Matur og Drykkur.
Plokkfiskur — It literally means “plucked fish”, plokkfiskur is Iceland’s fish stew that is basically potatoes mashed with cod or haddock. Comfort-food like nothing else, a plate of plokkfiskur made from scratch hits a craving lunch or dinner! Had a perfect version for lunch at Matur og Drykkur.
Spotted Wolf Fish — Like monkfish, this one doesn’t win you over for its looks… but the taste sure does. It is a scale-less fish and the skin fries up nice and crisp. Its white flesh is flaky and firm with a mild taste and a hint of sweetness. We had spotted wolffish in a “fish pan” dish at Slippbarinn.
Lamb & Rhubarb — A traditional Sunday meal in Iceland is lamb roast with rhubarb jam. The flavor combination of the tart rhubarb and meaty sweetness of Icelandic lamb found its way to modern interpretations and one to order if you spot it on the menu: lamb and rhubarb. We had tender sous-vide lamb loin with thin slices of macerated raw rhubarb, and I am forever convinced that lamb and rhubarb are happy together. (Matur og Drykkur/dinner)
This brief tasting of Icelandic foods has only whet my appetite for more. This trip Reykjavik was just a “stopover” on our way to Greenland. I will be back to learn (and taste) more!
NEXT: ‘MEATING’ IN GREENLAND