It all started with a photo on a blog. We were transfixed by the beautiful landscape before our eyes. Then a few more photos. Then like a masterpiece that captures your imagination, we couldn’t let it go. It kept drawing us in. The more we delved, the more we wanted go. Then it all started to happen and next thing I know, we are here. Together with another family, we were about to discover Iceland. A land with thirty active volcanoes. Each with a personality. And yet, eleven percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers of which Vatnajökull, is the largest of them all in Europe. Volcanoes and glaciers, it is no wonder they call this the Land of fire and ice.
Exactly one month to the day we landed, Iceland declared the end to the Holuhraun eruption. It was the largest eruption in Iceland for two hundred years. Lava emitted during the eruption covered 85 square km, the same size as Iceland’s largest lake. It would have easily blanketed Manhattan. So, what about that other volcano in Iceland? The one that put the travel world into a spin with its ash. Why not this one? Well, I learnt that fortunately, there was no ash. And with no ash, there was no disruption to air travel that Eyjafjallajökull eruption (We have learnt how to pronounce this by the way) did in 2010. So, thankfully it was an uneventful flight into Iceland landing late on a Saturday afternoon.
Before we left, we had occasionally joked about how snowy would it be in late March. Being from Melbourne, we never have these problems. So, what’s spring like in Iceland? We found that out quickly when we looked out our plane window. And then when we picked up our rental car, that confirmed it. There must be only two seasons in Iceland. One is summer and you can guess what the other one is. Thankfully the car came with an ice scraper which we put to good use straightaway.
Although Reykjavik is the capital, the international airport is actually in Keflavik, another city about forty five kms from the capital. Here you can take the bus in or like us hire a car. We hired a 4WD from Hertz. 4WD because we weren’t going to take a chance with the roads and Hertz because we figured if we broke down, we might do with a car rental company that had more than one branch in Iceland. Using our GPS, driving into Reykjavik was a breeze. The challenge was more getting used to driving on the other side of the road! This was easy when they were cars on the highway making sure you were on the right side. When there were no cars, we had to be conscious not to go into auto-pilot.
Reykjavik in Icelandic means smoky bay. Named by the early settlers for columns of steam emanating from the hot springs., it is not a surprise then that the world’s biggest hot tub, the Blue Lagoon is also found on this peninsula. More than two thirds of Icelands population live in Reykjavik. This might seem a lot but when the population is only about 320,000 it is no metropolis compared to other major capital cities. So, as Europe’s most sparsely populated country, it never felt crowded or busy. We wondered if there’s ever such a thing as grid lock traffic here.
Our first two nights was at the Reykjavik Residence Hotel. A very nicely furnished boutique hotel, it is located centrally just next to the shopping street, Laugavegur. And with parking at the rear, it was ideal for us as we hardly used the car at all in Reykjavik. We just walked everywhere. And it is quite possible to do so. A lot of the sights are not far apart. By the time we checked in, it was late in the afternoon. We were also told that our Northern lights tour that night was rescheduled for the next day as it was too cloudy. So, we had time to spare. Which was great as we always love to wander around a new city just to get our bearings. So we walked to Laugavegur. Very quickly, we noticed that there are not as many global brands here. In fact, we were introduced to big local brands like 66° North, Farmers Market, Geysir and Nordic Store.There were also plenty of eateries, tourist shops and booking agencies. Right up our alley.
As we had not made any plans, dinner that night was at the recommendation from the Tourist Information Centre. (We seem to always make this our first stop). We asked the guy at the desk what his favourite hangout was for Icelandic fare. He recommended this pub which served great food. He said that the owner also owned a restaurant and so the food there was always pretty decent. Its called Islenski Barinn and is just off Laugavegur.
We’ve learned over time to always take up on recommendations from locals. When we got there, the place was already getting busy with patrons. We were lucky to get a table for seven. Upon looking at the menu, we knew we were in for a tasting treat. There were some very interesting items and quite a few questions from us. But the waiter was extremely patient, taking time to answer our questions. He even went back to the kitchen for clarification on anything he wasn’t sure. Which fortunately was only once (on a birch liqueur our friend tried earlier). Clearly, he knew his stuff!
As we enjoy trying out local dishes wherever we go, we were game for anything. And the appetiser menu was ideal. They had a variety of specialties in “jars‘ . That in itself was interesting. Imagine jars of food. So we naturally went for it and ordered four jars of appetisers. The waiter then mentioned there is a special with matching beers. We had no second thoughts and that was ordered as well. . I won’t go through what our main dishes are but here are the four jars we ordered.
Smoked lamb tartar, beetroot, onion and horseradish
I don’t mind beef tartare. And I thought this was something similar. But it is actually smoked and the smokiness is quite well done. I found the flavour quite interesting. As lamb is probably the most eaten meat around here, I guess this was as good an introduction as any. I have read that Icelanders tend to eat almost every part of the animal including its head but I am happy they did not have sheep’s head on the menu.
Puffin, blueberry onion, lemon skyr dressing and blueberries
Puffins, really? Seeing it on the menu was a surprise to me. But then I know no longer to be surprised when you travel. Especially when it comes to the menu. (For instance, we serve Kangaroo! You could even get it at the supermarket! ) But those cute little birds? So this was entirely new. It actually reminded us of duck. Not a farmed animal, you can imagine what this means for the puffin population but we did learn that there is growing discussion to limit or stop hunting puffins. Due to climate change, their ample supply of sand eels are dropping and this is affecting the size of the puffin population in Iceland. And so the locals are getting worried and raising the questions about protecting their numbers. I guess that’s where chicken comes in. Interestingly, there was no chicken on the menu here. But we have seen KFC in Iceland.
Fermented shark, dried haddock and butter
Known as Hákarl (meaning ‘shark’ in icelandic), this is basically fermented shark. It is often accompanied by brennivín, a local schnapps. So we made sure to order that as well to complete the dish. I have heard about this foul tasting delicacy. It is an acquired taste and I don’t know if many icelanders even like it. In any case, presentation doesn’t help as when we looked into the jar, we saw only cubes of white meat. Is this it? We wondered if the servings were a bit small.
Then we took a sniff and almost fell off our chairs with the searing ammonia smell that burned our nostrils. As they say, you can gag on this if you are eating it the first time. I don’t know how you can learn to like this. We totally understand the small cubes and couldn’t possibly imagine anyone having a fillet of this. Apparently how this delicacy was ‘discovered’ was that it was first given to a man as a means to poison him but instead he survived! And so it appears the dish has survived as well.
We all tried a cube and happily drowned it in brennivin as it has wasabi like effects and a long aftertaste. We learned later that this is no shark meat like what we are used to in Australia in our fish and chips. ( Flake is typically flesh from the gummy shark). Here, they use the Greenland shark. And the meat is poisonous when fresh as it is full of uric acid. To prepare this, the gutted fish is first pressed flat for close to two months to allow the fluids to run out. It is then cut into strips and hung to dry. This goes on for several months and then it is ready to be served.
So you can understand why it is simply referred to as rotting shark meat. If you have a taste for something that smells like it came from the cleaning aisle in the supermarket, then this is definitely for you.
And what about brennivin? Our waiter told us it was a palate cleanser for fermented shark and it certainly did its job! Tasting similar to vodka and bottled at 80 proof, it translates into ‘burning wine”! If that is not descriptive enough then maybe its nickname will – “black death”
Grilled minke whale and deep fried shrimps in blueberry glaze
Without getting into whether we should or should not eat whale meat, this was the fourth of our jar quartet. Two things stood out for me with this.. First, the meat is red. And secondly, it taste so much like beef that I would have thought it was beef if I had not been told. Which only served to remind me that a whale is not a fish. We shared all of this,with their selection of beers which I think all came from the same brand – Viking Beer. I guess you can’t get a better name than that!
As we slumbered our way back to the Hotel that night, breathing in the fresh cool Icelandic air, I was full of anticipation as to what was next in Iceland. Even though I was tired from the long journey and jet lagged, I felt like I could not wait to get started. There was so much to see and I was certainly looking forward to it!
Photo 1: Wikipedia Commons (David Karnå)
Photo 8: Wikipedia Commons