Reykjavík is the place I find myself in at this very moment. Five days of adventures await me, and I can't wait. I’m not wasting a single minute in the capital of the country of hipsterness and vikings. I’m going to roll around in the excellence of the capital’s culinary world and dig into the nature. I want the best of the best, the creme de la creme, nothing less. What did I do to meet my wild expectations? Clever me picked all the juciest day tours I could find, and now this trip is packed with a fascinating mixture of wildness and sophistication. Off I go!
Horse eating and rye bread ice cream
It’s raining. Actually pouring. But who cares? A hot lamb stew and a glass of micro-brewed white ale in the cozy restaurant Íslenski Barinn fixes that quickly. All warmed up inside and out we continue our food walk that leads me and my tourist group buddies through the squirmy and colorful streets of Reykjavík’s centre.
All of us are seeking to satisfy our curious taste buds and understand what makes Iceland unique when it comes to food. The cheese store Ostabúðin sure give us good cheese; the blue cheese and the cow-milk’s gouda, thank you. And then! I eat horse. Pretty wild. A soft delicious piece cured in the ground. I’m somewhat reluctant but they tell me all treatment is respectful of the animal and that makes me feel better. A lovely piece of lamb cured in the ground with thyme and fennel follows, and then the wild goose that the private hunter of the store caught for us and smoked, and is now being served with a succulent raspberry-champagne vinaigrette. Taste of smoke and sweetness together – surprisingly pleasant.
And that seems to be the thing. At Café Loki we taste the Icelandic dark rye bread which is sweeter than in most other countries. We are served tiny slices with Icelandic butter and fish stew and another one with smoked trout, which is really eye-opening to different combinations of flavors. Then they top it off with delightful rye bread ice cream! At the end of the day the leftover sugary rye bread is caramelized and made into an ice cream. How brilliant is that?
As we stand in front of the Parliament House our tour guide thinks it’s time to have skyr. She warns us; skyr is not yogurt, and don't ever say that to an Icelander! It is a dairy product made in a similar way as yogurt, but it’s not the same. Skyr is more like Greek yogurt, strained from skim milk and full of protein. And why eat it here? Because this nation uses it to protest. If they are unhappy with the government they simply throw skyr at the Parliament Building. Pretty clear message.
Then it´s time to stand in line. A long line, leading up to Reykjavík’s leading hot dog stand, waiting to order „one with everything“: hot dog with sweet mustard, ketchup, raw onion, deep-fried onion and remoulade. I find out the line is long for a reason. Not just because Bill Clinton had an Icelandic hot dog and liked it, but because everyone does.
Then the tour ends at the fancy restaurant Apótek, where we get served a chocolate mousse flower with raspberry sorbet. It’s so beautiful that I feel bad ruining it by digging my spoon into it. But I have to say that after all these wild unions of smokey, sweet, fishy and even horsey flavors I’m thankful to get to digest all that exoticness with the perfectly suave dessert and a good cup of coffee.
Nonchalant nakedness and blessed micro-brew
Yes, people in Iceland do go very regularly to the pool, outside in the winter. Nonchalantly they take their clothes off in front of everybody, thoroughly soap and scrub every inch of their body and frolick out into the cold air in their swimsuit, like there is nothing to it. Now it's my turn and want to go all the way, be wicked and wild. Actually the naked group shower is surprisingly easy - as no one could care less about my nudity - but as soon as I get out things get tough. Sleet stings my naked flesh and my feetsickles carry me quickly over to the next hot pot, where the warm water is merciful to me. But that's not good enough. I feel the need to follow the natives and go into the cold pot. I dip my toe into it and my nerves instantaneously tell me to retreat it as quickly as a can, but a big furry viking says with a heavy accent: ”You have to go all the way in, it’s verrrrry good for your health”, and then he dives in without hesitating, and I go in after him. All in! What a rush! Suddenly I feel like I have never been more alive - for two whole seconds! Then I’m out again and back into the hot pot. This is living!
And “Skál!” is the word. After throwing my body in and out of hot and cold water, I’m thirsty and ready for the next exciting undertaking; a visit to a beer brewery. It's called Ölgerð Egils Skallagrímssonar and is named after one of the Icelandic Sagas’ heroes who first got drunk when he was three years old. Very appropriate. They also have an award-winning micro-brewery called Borg Brugghús. Every time we raise our glasses and let a new type of golden or dark mead flow down our throats, we yell: Skál! We also have some Brennivín and a secret drink I can not mention, which is connected to the weird history of alcohol in Iceland and the odd fact that beer was banned until 1989. True story. What have these people been doing and drinking in the meantime? Well, they are surely making up for it now by brewing award winning beer. Skál to that! And strangely enough the brewery was founded 1913, when it had just been announced that beer would soon become illegal. But the founder Mr. Tómasson was a resourceful guy. He believed in the power of nature and all its creatures so he asked all the good spirits to bless his brewery. And it worked! His business has since been very succesful.
Total darkness and disco-skyr
Next it's time for a completely new experience, sense wise. We drive in the direction of the south coast of Iceland on our way to lava tunnel Raufarhólshellir, a tunnel created more than 5,000 years ago by a stream of lava running through. And it's still there in all its wonders, colors, formations and general amazingness, just for us to admire. And so did director Darren Aronofsky who filmed some scenes of his movie Noah there. We put on crampons and helmets and start walking down into the cave. Claustrophobia hits me. Why did I decide to do this again? Am I going to faint? Why did I come here, where am I going? I can't see anything. Can someone help me put the light on my helmet? Thank you sir. Oh my God! This is magnificent! This humongous cave is glorious! Descending into the ground, we walk on beautiful stone steps and paths. And here to greet us are these wonderous icesculptures, standing there like little ghosts. Hard and cold ghosts you can hold on to where the snow makes you slip. I want to hug them. They make me so happy that I feel just fine again. We walk on and the guide tells us all about the the formation of this place, and even though the beauty of this cave is absolutely stunning, the best moment is when we can't see it. Yes, the guide turns of all the lights illuminating the stone paths and you can feel the total darkness awaken your other senses. Suddenly you are more in your body, your hearing intensifies. You can hear and feel the cave being alive; dripping, cracking, breathing. It’s frightening and thrilling at the same time. After a minute I feel dizzy and when the light comes on again, I feel relieved and secure. This cave is not only a must see, it’s a must feel and experience.
An amazed group of tourists next has a Skyr Mojito. Exactly, not bad. Without the alcohol though. We are now in Skyrgerðin in Hveragerði town. It's the oldest skyr factory that has taken on it's old task again, along with being a café and a hostel. “No alcohol? I thought skyr was a liquor when I booked this tour,” a bewildered American says. No, my friend skyr is a dairy product, Icelanders' pride! We observe the very small facilities where they are bringing the old skyr making traditions back, that the vikings actually brought over from Scandinavia and have only survived here. We get to taste skyr the old way; dry and bitter, and nice way; with strawberries and cookie crumble, an then the disco way; with cream and mango liquor. Actually skyr used to be a by-product. They wanted to extract whey from the milk to use for food conservation and as a beverage. Today skyr it the thing and has never been more popular, but Skyrgerðin is making use from the whey by making alcohol from it, their own Hveragerði “moonshine”, and we get to taste it. My American friend is happy now, and I have to admit I am too.
Sunday dinner with a view
Who wouldn't want to feel at home for a while and have a nice couple give you a luxurious version of an Icelandic Sunday dinner? I do and Siggi and Sirrý at Salt eldhús (kitchen) not only greet me with open arms and plenty of the best available Icelandic ingredients, but all the knowledge possible about Icelandic food. So we roll up our sleeves and start cooking together – like one big family.
We take out the fresh arctic char from the morning, just smell it - there is no smell! We fry it so the fine freshwater fish skin becomes deliciously crispy and put in on top of a fennel-orange salad. Our herb-crusted rack of free-roaming lamb with the bone in, has only been fed on vegetation, no agricultural products. It's young and fresh. We fry it like a steak and serve it with hasselback potatoes. There is no Icelandic Sunday lamb dinner without red cabbage and green peas, and we are slow-cooking the cabbage with raisins and putting the peas in the mixer with cream and sprigs of mint. The dessert we make from skyr – of course! It's a skyr flan with sweet brown whey cheese cream and toasted oats. Yes, sweet cheese.
While waiting for the meal to be ready, Siggi has put out a tasting table with various traditional Icelandic goodies that he and Sirrý have gathered from small producers all over the country. They do not go to just any store, every ingredient that comes into this kitchen is carefully handpicked, just for us. We have twice smoked leg of lamb, not cooked, just raw and cut into very fine slices. One year old lamb, marinated in syrup with blueberries and then smoked. Dark sweet ryebread, flat pan-fried ryebread, dried wolffish and butter of enthralling quality. Dung-smoked arctic char from the east coast of lake Mývatn. Don't worry, it’s good quality dung with a certain amount of hey for the gourmets! Smoked hot mackerel, lauded in Scandinavia. And local white ale called Einstök, Siggi's favorite.
As we sit down at the table and eat our Sunday dinner we get an extra course we can enjoy for the whole meal: an amazing view of Snæfellsjökull Glacier out of one window and mountain Esjan reigning over Reykjavík City from the other. All my senses are satisfied: bon appetit!
On eating the friends of your friends
I watch the the capital disappear in the distance, sailing into Faxaflói, the biggest bay in Iceland. I’m taking a whale watching tour from the old harbour in Reykjavík, I want to see these renowned gentle giants and we are approaching their feeding grounds. The refreshing wind has showed up along with the notorious cold, but the whales don't seem to be home. There we stand in neon green overalls smooshed together in the bow of the ship. We stand some more. Ready to shoot pictures of any kind of animal that peeks through the surface of the sea. We wait. We allow the frost to nibble at our frozen fingers holding our cameras stubbornly. What are these whales doing if they can't come say hi to us? Echo-locating somebody else than us? Munching on all the gratifying phytoplankton of the ocean? More waiting. It’s cold, cold, cold! I need to warm up in the cafeteria with a coffee and while I'm downing it: “There!“ someone shouts and we all rush out on the decks and start shooting pics. We have white-beaked dolphins swimming all around the ship. How delightful! Everybody is happy. I didn't get a picture though. These cuties swim so fast, one second they are on the right side of the ship, the next one on the left. Such playful little creatures! Rose-cheeked smiley tourists herd back into the warm cafeteria where the guide will discuss the trip while heading back to the old harbour. The ship turns around and the green overalls are halfway off when: “There!” someone shouts again. A humpback whale has honored us with its presence and seems to be the new kid on the block, as the guide doesn't recognize its fluke! All around the boat the great creature swims while excited tourists run back and forth to catch a glimpse or a picture of its giganticness. But we have to go back and need to say goodbye to the new friends we got lucky to make. So long, farewell.
The next adventure lands on my plate. I'm in restaurant Kopar that's situated in the old harbour, basically right where you get of the boat. All this fresh air is exhausting, there is so much oxygen in my brain I can't think. I ask the waiter for suggestions and he says he's bringing me an adventure; a few courses the cook thinks I should have. I hope he doesn’t give me whale or dolphin, now that they are my friends. Sourdough bread and butter it is. Violet and liquorice butter served to me on a piece of stone. I realize that the Icelandic butter isn't only of excellent quality, it's actually an edible art form. Soup with stone crab and shrimp. Deap-fried cod cheeks with lemon glaze and sherry cream cheese. Huh, quite a surprising adventure. Duck roll with yuzu pickled red onion, date sauce and Waldorf salad. Catch of the day is European ling with creamed barley and picked radishes. Succulent adventure. I didn't eat my friends. Just the friends of my friends, their fellow sea habitants. To celebrate that I just had to add a soft cheesecake with raspberry sauce and skyr sorbet and white chocolate. I mean, I can’t leave this country without trying skyr as a sorbet after I have tried all the other forms of it. That would not be nice of me.
Narwhals do exist? I thought it was just the unicorn's brother. But oh no, it's the first thing I see when entering the museum Whales of Iceland. I scrutinize its twisted tusk and then just wander around from one toothed whale to another baleen whale. It's a huge hanger filled with blue light, ambiance music and high-pitched ultrasounds of whales. In this dreamlike space I can see what my friends I saw at sea really look like; the white-beaked dolphin and the humpback whale. They hang from the ceiling in their original size and I’m allowed to give them a hug. They are even soft and mushy like in real life. My new favorite place; so soft, calming and kind to a tired, wind-beaten, overly full woman. I can even lie down here and ponder my trip. Relaxing on top of and in between stuffed whales I come to the following conclusion:
I sought out the wildness and the sophistication of this country. I wanted to experience the two extremes. I did, but I don’t know which is which any more. These two things are somehow interwoven. Like old Iceland meets new Iceland, but there is no clash, it just melts together. Maybe it is more about harmony than extremes. And, then again, does it really matter? I drank, I swam, I sailed, I was hot, cold, afraid, mesmerized and now I’m tired and happy. Appeased. I’m good.