Long Days, Cod Fishing, Fermented Foods, and Other Amazing Things in Iceland
Landing in Iceland is a bit like landing on Mars. The international airport is located along the southwestern tip of this remote Nordic island country, where black lava rocks and milky bluish-white rivers and pools of geothermal water dot the landscape, and puffins fly past on their way to nearby mating and feeding grounds. The country has seen an explosion of tourism in the past several years, especially in the colder months, when the Aurora Borealis puts on a dazzling light show (on elusive clear nights only, that is). I visited in winter a few years ago on the way home from Paris. It was very cold and very dark from mid-afternoon until mid-morning. It was also overcast both evenings and so, alas, I saw no auroras. But, I was taken by the beautiful landscapes made famous by "Game of Thrones," and by the friendly, laid-back locals. There is also a thriving and delicious coffee culture, the likes of which rival Seattle and Portland.
When Icelandic Provisions, makers of skyr, reached out about a summer food-focused trip, I was keen to go. Summer is definitely the best time to visit: It's light from the wee hours of the morning until nearly midnight, the weather is warm during the day and pleasantly cool at night, and the snow-covered landscape is transformed into lush countryside.
The lakes, rivers, and harbors teem with fish and seafood, and residents are busy smoking fish, meat, and cheeses and preserving the bounty of foraged and garden-grown fruits and vegetables in preparation for the long winter ahead.
Iceland is not known for its cuisine, but that may be changing. Chef Gunnar Gíslason, our local guide for this trip, opened Dill in Reykjavik in 2015. The restaurant is a homage to traditional Nordic cuisine, with modern interpretations, thoughtful plating, and bold flavors. It's also the first restaurant in Iceland to be awarded a Michelin star.
Many local ingredients including angelica (wild celery), rhubarb, bilberries and crowberries (both reminiscent of wild Maine blueberries), mushrooms, and moss are dried, smoked, or otherwise preserved to provide nourishment throughout the long winters. Icelanders have been preserving food using these techniques for generations, some say as far back as the Vikings.
Fermenting is another popular technique used for food preservation in Iceland. At Ekta Fiskur, a salted codfish company next to the port in Hauganes, Elvar Reykjalin, the fourth-generation owner, had us sample a local delicacy, fermented (rotten) shark meat. The shark is hung to dry and rot for months. The longer it ages, the funkier it gets. Anthony Bourdain famously quipped that it was the worst thing he'd ever eaten. I found it slightly ammoniated and funky, and also very rich and fatty-certainly not the worst thing I've ever eaten.
My favorite fish was not fermented; it was the cod I caught when we went fishing off Hauganes. I was thrilled to catch one fish and truly giddy after reeling in fish number five. There were a few other catches on the boat and lots of nibbles, but I was on a hot streak, reeling in fish after fish. Maybe it was beginner's luck, or maybe I was a deep sea fisherman in another life!
At Anton Birgisson's farm in Hella, we saw the peat he cuts into bricks and dries for three years, then uses as fuel for his smoker. It burns slower and at a lower temperature than wood, ensuring a steady, even temperature during the eight months from April to November that he continuously smokes fish and meat.
Anton also took us to the nearby geyser pits, where many local families (and a few restaurants) have their own designated pit heated by geothermal steam for baking bread. He explained that bread takes about 24 hours to cook in this steamy, low-heat environment. You don't have to own a geyser pit to make this bread though. Anton said it can also be cooked in a low oven with a pan of hot water on the floor of the oven to mimic the geothermal steam.
This type of traditional loaf is ubiquitous in Iceland. Every family has their own recipe with one or more secret ingredients. Anton said that the basic recipe is rye, whole wheat, and all-purpose flour, water, salt, yeast and a sweetener of some kind. My hunch is that the sweetener is the closely guarded secret. His bread tasted of molasses or maybe sorghum syrup, which lends an earthy, bitter sweetness and a heft and density to bread that you don't get from granulated sugar. We enjoyed the bread warm, sliced with a spoon, and topped with a thin slice of cold salted butter. Anton sliced the cold butter with a cheese knife. I'd never thought of that before. As Martha would say, it's a good thing!