Icelandic Foods: A Primer – Part 2

Icelandic Foods - Arctic CharThe first post on Icelandic food provided an overview of the cuisine’s ingredients with a focus on indoor farming. This second post on Icelandic foods gives an overview of what this traveller ate (or not) in the Land of Fire and Ice.

Icelandic Foods - Breakfast Buffet

Icelandic Foods: What’s for breakfast?

Iceland may be a little challenging for vegans. For example, the above photo shows a typical  hotel breakfast buffet; liver and lamb pate, cheeses and sausages. Eggs, pastries, muesli and rúgbrauð, a dense dark and sweet rye bread were also typically part of the spread. And then there is skyr, always skyr —as in all the time and everywhere!

Icelandic Foods - Skyr

Skyr is Iceland’s ubiquitous cultured dairy product. For over a thousand years, Icelanders have been making skyr from pasteurized skimmed milk and a bacteria culture. While it seems similar to yogurt, technically it is a soft cheese, not a yogurt.

Compared to typical domestic yogurts, skyr is non-fat, lower in sugar, higher in protein and stick-to-your-spoon thick! Ironically, this non-fat product has incredible full-fat creaminess.

While many commercial yogurts are thickened with fats and stabilizers, the skyr texture develops through a unique filtration technique which removes most of the excess water. Evidently, it takes a whole three liters of milk to produce just one liter of skyr. In contrast, the ratio is 1:1 when producing traditional yogurt. This explains why it is such a concentrated source of protein.

Skyr can be found at every Icelandic breakfast buffet and convenience store. But, it is also becoming readily available in U.S. supermarkets under the Siggi’s and B’more Organic brands. However, these brands are not considered authentic skyr. The actual Skyr brand, manufactured in Iceland, is currently only available at select Whole Foods Markets.

Snack Time!

There were a handful of snacks which seemed to follow us everywhere.

Fish Jerky

One was HarðfIskur. Here, our guide is offering us the value pack. HarðfIskur is basically a fish jerky, available from grocery stores to gas stations.

I thought it was pretty good. But, I evidently didn’t experience it the favorite way of the locals —with salted butter, like Americans might enjoy potato chips or popcorn.

Another in the movie snack category -Icelanders love their black licorice, a softer and often saltier version than we have in the U.S. And in that same color scheme is the famous Brennivin, which literally translated means ‘burned wine’.

Nicknamed ‘black death’. This caraway-flavored, unsweetened schnapps is the appropriately assertive companion beverage when consuming fermented shark.

Yes, fermented shark or kæstur hákarl is a national dish of Iceland consisting of a Greenland shark or other sleeper shark.

Apparently the Greenland shark is poisonous when fresh and can only be consumed after a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months. Allowing the shark to ferment and cure removes the toxins from the flesh, making it edible. The result is an ammonia-filled fish which smells like something you might keep under your kitchen sink.

Is your mouth watering yet?

As you might imagine, kæstur hákarl is known as an ‘acquired taste’. It was offered to us at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, served in the traditional way; in cubes on toothpicks with the schnapps. One cube was more than enough. No regrets. But, I would have to agree with Anthony Bourdain who described it as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten.

Icelandic Foods - Fermented Shark

THE BEFORE HÁKARL FACIAL EXPRESSION. (NOT ANTHONY BOURDAIN)

Dinner

Our travel itinerary meant staying in a lot of remote hotels with pre fix dinners. These prefix dinners typically offered a choice between fish and lamb. Because locals and travellers alike rave about the lamb, I was tempted to try it. But, I never wanted to give up fish for dinner!

Iceland is heavenly for fish lovers. A unique combination of cool and warm ocean currents meet off the island’s shores. This creates ideal conditions for fish stocks to thrive, mainly Cod, Haddock, Pollock, Golden redfish, Herring, Greenland halibut, Wolffish and Ling.

Today, fish remains not only a key part of the Icelandic diet and culture, but is also the country’s primary export product. As such, Iceland maintains rigorous standards for healthy, sustainable fisheries and strict laws protect the coastal waters from pollution.

These rigorous standards and strict laws also benefit aquaculture. About 50 fish farms have started operating since the 1980s. The main aquaculture species, Atlantic salmon, Arctic char and Atlantic cod seem to make their way onto every restaurant menu, or at least the ones I scanned. While I didn’t realize it at the time, evidently I ate quite a bit of farmed fish. But, the taste and texture was exceptional and nothing like my experience with farmed fish in the US.

Salmon and ling cod with carrot puree and blue mussel foam
Cured salmon with celery root mayonnaise
red fish (ocean perch) and langostine with langostine hollandaise
arctic char with celery root puree

And Dessert

Like baked goods? You’re in luck because you won’t have to go out of your way to find some phenomenal ones. Icelandic bakers know their craft, carrying on the tradition, originating from Danish influence. The image below captures a small sample of what was commonly available at Iceland’s equivalent of roadside stands. On this occasion, our vehicle had to stop to wait out extreme weather and road closures. So, when in Rome…

Icelandic Foods - Baked Goods

Icelandic Foods I did NOT Eat

As you will see, traditional Icelandic is rather resourceful. Nothing gets wasted!

  • Horse – I’m not casting judgment
  • Hotdogs – Famous dogs, made with lamb, pork and beef
  • Hrútspungar – Ram’s testicles, pickled and pressed into blocks
  • Lamb – Lamb lovers rave about the Icelandic lamb quality
  • Puffin – Often smoked
  • Svið –  a half sheep’s head with the brain removed, singed to remove the fur, and boiled
  • Minke Whale – Actually not an endangered species, prepared skewered, as kabob, as steaks or seared like tuna

In summary, modern icelandic food is probably much more innovative, sustainably sourced and delicious than you may have ever imagined. If you eat fish or lamb, eat as much of either or both while you are there. Everyone should at least try a few of the novelty traditional items to gain an authentic flavor for the place. And vegan, pack some snacks.

Have you travelled to Iceland? If so, what did you think of the food? Please leave a comment below!

Iceland Food – Part 1

RESOURCES:

http://www.iceland.is/files/pdf/food-press-kit-iceland-iv-pdf.pdf
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_cuisine
http://lfh.is/documents/AquacultureinIcelanddes2009upps.pdf

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