Travel

An Introduction to Iceland and Icelandic Cuisine

29th May 2018

The day before I flew to Reykjavík last September, while chatting to someone at a party, I was asked about my upcoming travels. When I said I was about to fly to Iceland for a 5-day culinary tour, the man asked: “a food trip to Iceland? Are you going to eat shark?”. He was referring to hakarl (fermented shark), which Icelanders indeed eat, but only once a year during the winter festival.

Icelandic food culture is much more than that: it’s high-end fine dining, organic and sustainable ingredients, old preserving techniques, rich flavours, free range meats and fresh fish.

Icelandic Lamb Soup at Bjarteyjarsandur Farm in Iceland

Iceland is a popular tourism destination with breathtaking volcanic scenery, glaciers, black beaches, geysers and natural hot water pools and no fewer than 10,000 waterfalls. It’s country of just about 350,00 inhabitants which receives a whopping over 2 million tourists each year.

Hraunfossar waterfalls in West Iceland are formed by rivulets streaming over a distance of about 900 metres out of the Hallmundarhraun, a lava field which flowed from an eruption of one of the volcanoes lying under the glacier Langjökull.

While Iceland doesn’t need any introductions, Icelandic cuisine does. The vast majority of foreign visitors travelling to Iceland leave without getting an understanding of this culture and a taste of the best local food.

Iceland has a lot to offer: superb organic produce, healthy and sustainable ingredients, high-end fine dining restaurants.

Understanding Icelandic Cuisine

Icelandic cuisine is relatively unknown to the outside world and, in fairness, it hasn’t always been great in the past. For centuries, Icelanders have relied solely on what they could source from the land, using creative methods to produce and store food (especially to make up for the lack of natural salt).

Fishing, farming, foraging and hunting wild game have been essential parts of both Icelandic history, and still are today.

At the end of last century, there was a shift towards imported ingredients and cheap fast food. Icelandic culinary identity was almost lost. Then, around ten years ago, when the financial crisis hit the country hard, the focus came back on local produce.

Icelanders began rediscovering their culinary roots.

The food scene has evolved greatly from 2009 until today, thanks to the work of talented chefs and small independent food producers who put Iceland on the International culinary map for the first time.

Skál! restaurant inside Hlemmur Food Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland

Over five days in Reykjavík and in the countryside around West Iceland, I ate wholesome dishes of freshly caught fish, free-grazing lamb and rich cheese, organically grown vegetables and foraged plants. I met award-winning chefs, farmers, fishermen, bakers, cheese mongers and chocolate makers. And no, I didn’t eat shark.

Hvalfjordur valley, Iceland

There are many ways to enjoy Icelandic food: dining in Reykjavík or in find dining restaurants dotted around the island; visiting an Icelandic farm to taste and learn about the produce; enjoy Icelandic food imported in your own country.

A Food Tour of Reykjavík

The starting point of a trip to Iceland is usually Reykjavík (direct flights to Akureyri in the north of the islands are less frequent). I first visited  Reykjavik in 2014 on holiday with my husband and I was delighted to be back. In just three years, the city looked different: more restaurants, shops, hotels and… more tourists.

I stayed at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina, a comfortable and environmentally friendly hotel by the harbour. I love that they give you a free coffee or tea voucher at the in-house café every morning if you ask not to have your bathroom towels changed.

Read my guide on How To Spend Three Days in Reykjavík, Iceland.

My food tour of Reykjavík, Iceland

Höfnin

My introduction to Icelandic cuisine started with dinner at Höfnin, a family-run restaurant housed in a warehouse by the old harbour. Here is where I tasted Plokkfiskur for the first time: a traditional, mashed fish stew with smoked haddock served with buttered potatoes and rye bread. It’s comfort food at its best.

Fish is essential to Iceland’s diet and life, so it was very interesting to visit one of the top fisheries in Reykjavik. Fiskkaup is a family business specialised in salted fish. They produce 5,000 tonnes of cod per year, most of which is exported to Italy and Spain as frozen or salted cod.

Icelanders understand fish and depend on it, which is why rigorous standards are in place to ensure healthy, sustainable fisheries for future generations.

I had never been inside a fishery and I found our tour of the state-of-the-art fish processing plant very interesting.

Búrid

The next stop of my food tour of Reykjavik was Búrid, a deli and cheese shop in the up and coming Grandi district. Owner Eirny Sigurdardottir gave us an introduction on the history of Icelandic dairy production and also led a tasting of five different Skyr, a kind of fresh strained cheese. Skyr was for centuries the only ‘cheese’ produced in Iceland, until the early 1950’s when dairy farmers started to produce a havarti style cheese.

The real Skyr is dry with crumbly consistency and a sharp acidic flavour. The kind of Skyr you find in supermarkets (in Iceland and abroad) looks (and tastes) more like a thick yoghurt, sweetened and thinned out with milk. I often eat Skyr for breakfast or use in baking recipes, so it was very interesting to taste the original version at Sigurdardottir’s shop. See my recipes to bake with Skyr: Skyr cake with Manuka honey and roasted figs or Turmeric and pistachio cake with Skyr frosting.

Burid The Pantry, a dairy shop by Eirny Sigurdardottir in Reykjavik

Matur og Drykkur

Iceland has seen a rise of award-winning chefs who use innovative ways of cooking to prepare memorable dishes, intertwining quality ingredients with old food traditions. That’s the case of Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, Elma Backman, Ágústa Backman, Inga María Backman, and Albert Munoz – the chefs behind Matur og Drykkur.

The restaurant’s menu is a take on traditional Icelandic food, based on a popular cookbook called Matur og drykkur (food and drink), a staple in every Icelandic household back in the days. I ordered Plokkfiskur fish stew again (it’s become my favourite Nordic dish) and I also tasted another traditional dish: dried fish with a modern twist, served with whey butter and pickeled dulse.

Matur og drykkur restaurant in Reykjavík, Iceland

Hlemmur Food Hall

Hlemmur Food Hall, opened last summer on the site of a former bus station, is a great addition to Reykjavik’s food scene. Open daily from 8am to 11pm, the food hall showcases the offer of ten vendors: from fine dining to street food, freshly baked bread, speciality coffee and even nitrogen ice cream.

Hlemmur Food Hall in Reykjavik, IcelandHlemmur Food Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland

I sampled dishes from two restaurants: Krost, specialised in fine French wines and cured meats (the bacon-wrapped Arctic char with parsley dill aioli was delicious!) and Skál!, an experimental bar and restaurant with a focus on foraged Icelandic ingredients and local traditions.

bacon-wrapped Arctic char with parsley dill aioli at Kröst restaurant - Hlemmur Food Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland

Skál! was opened by excellent duo Bjorn Steinar Jonsson, a salt maker at Saltverk, and Gisli Matthias Audunsson, a chef and pioneer of the New Nordic Food movement. 

 Hlemmur Food Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland

Audunsson also co-owns Slippurinn restaurant in the Westman Islands (open May to September) and was part of the team who opened Matur og Matur og drykkur. Needless to say, all the cocktails and dishes we tasted at Skál! were fantastic.

Skál! restaurant inside Hlemmur Food Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland

Braud og co.

Braud og co. is an artisan bakery renowned for its organic sourdough bread and buttery danishes. The bakery opened on Frakkastígur in downtown Reykjavik less than two years ago and it’s already so popular to have queues outside the door. Last summer, a new shop was opened inside Hlemmur Food Hall.

Braud og co. bakery in Reykjavik, IcelandCinnamon buns at Braud og co. bakery in Reykjavik, Iceland

Braud og co. is known for making the best cinnamon buns in Reykjavík. The buns are indeed really good, especially when eaten straight out of the oven. I also loved the flaky croissants, apple pastries and sourdough bread (which was worth packing up in my suitcase to bring back home to London ). Go to Braud og co. early, grab a bag of freshly baked cinnamon buns (ask in advance at what time they will be ready, as they sell out quickly) and head across the street to Reykjavík Roasters for the best flat white in town.

Cinnamon bun from Braud og co. bakery in Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavík Roasters

Reykjavík Roasters, formerly known as Kaffismiðja Íslands, is the most popular coffee shop in Iceland and for a good reason. The original café and roastery near Hallgrímskirkja is cosy, but small so finding a seat will be challenging… you stand better chances at their new shop in Brautarholt.

Flat White at Reykjavik Roasters specialty coffee shop in Reykjavik, Iceland

Omnom Chocolate

Have you ever dreamed of visiting a real chocolate factory? In Reykjavík you can: Omnom Chocolate offers daily factory tours to see how their chocolate is made and taste samples of the many flavours they sell in store (liquorice is a must try).

Omnom Chocolate Factory in Reykjavik, Iceland

Omnom is the only chocolate in Iceland created from scratch, from bean to bar. They make 2,000 bars a day using organic fairtrade cocoa beans imported from Madagascar, Nicaragua and Tanzania.

Omnom Chocolate Factory in Reykjavik, Iceland

The Best of Icelandic Produce in West Iceland

On day three of our trip, we drove out of Reykjavik to spend two days in the countryside. Our first stop was at Langá Lodge, a modern fishing cabin beautifully situated on the Langa river, a short drive from the town of Borgarnes.

Langá Lodge, a modern fishing cabin beautifully situated on the Langa river, a short drive from the town of Borgarnes

Viktor Örn Andrésson was waiting to give us a cooking demo and serve a spectacular lunch. Örn Andrésson is one of Iceland’s most prestigious culinary experts and a bronze medal winner of the 2017 Bocuse d’Or gastronomic competition. He now works at Raw Almond restaurant in Winnipeg, Canada.

Chef Viktor Orn Andresson, bronze winner at Bocuse d´Or 2017, in Iceland

I didn’t write down the names of all the dishes Viktor cooked for us, but out of everything two stood out: pan-fried lobsters and roasted salmon. It was another example of just how good local produce is and a reminder of how talented Icelandic chefs can be.

Hotel Husafell

That evening, I got another taste of Icelandic cuisine at Hotel Husafell. Located in spectacular surroundings near Hraunfossar waterfalls and with geo-thermal swimming pools, the hotel is a beautiful place to spend a few days.

Hotel Husafell in Iceland

The restaurant offers seasonal menus where Icelandic ingredients are integrated into international cuisines. The most popular dish on the menu is Surf and Turf (beef tenderloin, langoustine, pearl onion, Jerusalem artichokes purée, rösti potato and madeira sauce). My favourite dish was a dessert, the Tonka Pepper Brulée with pistachio sponge, passion fruit, marshmallows and passion fruit granite.

Hotel Husafell in Iceland

If that wasn’t enough, that evening we caught a sight of the Northern Lights, just outside Husafell restaurant!

During the rest of our trip in West Iceland we visited three different farms: a geo-thermal greenhouse, a sheep farm and a goats centre.

Háafell Goat Center in Iceland

Sólbyrgi Farm

Because of the challenging weather conditions in Iceland, much of the country’s agricultural produce is grown indoors. The greenhouses are heated with geothermal energy and supported with electric lights to supplement the low levels of sunlight in winter. You can visit one of these farms at Sólbyrgi.

Strawberries from Solbyrgi, a geothermal greenhouse in West Iceland

Sólbyrgi greenhouse grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, herbs and strawberries, which they prepared for us with fresh Skyr and cocoa nibs.

Strawberries from Solbyrgi, a geothermal greenhouse in West Iceland

Háafell Goat Center

Háafell is the biggest (and one of few) goat farms in Iceland. I highly recommend a visit (it’s open every day in June-August and on request the rest of the year) to learn more about these beautiful, people-friendly animals.

Háafell Goat Center in Iceland

The Icelandic goats are smallest and purest goat breed in Europe, but sadly they are endangered. The work of Háafell Centre towards protecting and maintaining the goat stock in Iceland is very important. You can support them by visiting the farm and buying some of the different products made from goat produce.

Háafell Goat Center in Iceland

Bjarteyjarsandur Farm

Bjarteyjarsandur is a family farm since 1887 with sheep, free range pigs and hens. It’s situated in the Hvalfjordur valley, a scenic and mountainous fjord about an hour drive from Reykjavík.

Hvalfjordur valley, a scenic and mountainous fjord about an hour drive from Reykjavík.

The farm is a great place to learn more about Icelandic produce – and taste it too. They sell fresh meat in September and October (there is only one slaughter season in Iceland) and frozen meat all year round.

Bjarteyjarsandur Farm in Hvalfjordur valley, Iceland

Sheep in Iceland roam freely around the green hills during summer, grazing on Icelandic moss, wild grass and berries that grow on the loose volcanic soil. In autumn they roam around the lowlands and during winter they stay inside the farm eating grass.

Try the farm’s restaurant if you have time and taste one of Iceland’s most traditional dishes: Lamb Soup. It’s a tasty, hearty and nourishing dish that is perfect to survive cold Icelandic winters. A more unusual dish I tasted at the farm was Smoked Lamb Meat with Cream Cheese and Flat Kaka. Unusual because the lamb had been smoked in sheep’s dung!

Smoked Lamb and Flat kaka at Bjarteyjarsandur Farm in Iceland

My culinary trip in Iceland ended with a Gala dinner at the Chef of the Year Awards. The awards, hosted at Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík, saw Chef Hafsteinn Ólafsson of Sumac Grill & Drinks win the top prize.

Over five days, I learned that Iceland’s culinary scene is creative and sophisticated, led by farmers, producers and chefs who know how to bring out all the amazing flavours of the land.

That’s why you should try Icelandic cuisine. Don’t just travel to see waterfalls and glaciers or to swim at the Blue Lagoon, but to taste the incredible food Iceland has to offer.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Promote Iceland. All opinions are my own. 

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