This is my contribution to the "Food" edition of the Language/Place Blog Carnival.
We already had an idea, before going to Iceland this fall, that the cuisine might present some challenges. "Rain, darkness, more or less constant wind, difficult food": that's how our friend had described his homeland. We knew, from living next door to these Icelandic neighbors for six years, that the staples of their diet were fish and potatoes, with chocolate and other sweets close behind, and vegetables and fruits bringing up the rear.
Shallow soil, sheep, and sulphurous hot springs behind the hill.
As we became closer, they introduced us to some of their traditional foods, such as "hung lamb:" aged lamb that had been free-ranging on Icelandic mountainsides, and then herded in the fall round-up. Once roasted, it was a dark color, and very delicious, but gamier than the spring lamb we were used to. (The traditional Christmas dish is wild ptarmigan, which we still haven't tasted, but by all accounts it's also delicious.) Icelanders eat all parts of the sheep, including two delicacies we've so far been spared: sheep's face, and pickled sheep testicles.
The Icelandic rite of culinary passage is, of course, Hákarl or fermented shark. It's made from Greenland or Basking shark, which are poisonous when eaten fresh because they contain a great deal of urea and trimethlylamine oxide. In order to render the meat edible, the Icelanders behead and gut the shark, and then bury it in a shallow grave in sand and gravel; stones are placed on top to weight the carcass and gradually remove its water content. In some cases, men urinate on the carcass before burying it. Then it's left to ferment for 6-12 weeks, after which it is dug up, the brown skin removed, and the whitish flesh cut into small cubes.
Our friends served us Hákarl one evening in Vermont, a number of years ago. Elsa was pregnant; she had just been back home to visit her mother and had brought back several jars of the delicacy. We ate it the traditional way: in small cubes on toothpicks, washed down with generous shots of Icelandic aquavit. Someone has decribed the taste as "a strong chewy cheese smothered in ammonia." Most people gag on their first taste; we managed two pieces each, and were immensely grateful for the gulps of liquor; our friends polished off at least half of the jar and I've always wondered if this ritual was part of making their unborn daughter a true Icelander! As for us, we woke in the middle of that night, and were horrified to smell the same strong ammonia on each other's breath, and even coming from our pores. Even now I can't look at the picture of bagged Hákarl without a shudder.
During this trip, we saw Hákarl in the stores, but didn't consume any. Instead we were treated to more kinds of fish than we knew existed, all excellent and fresh from the cold sea.
A surprise, and new favorite, was salt cod mashed with boiled potatoes, the traditional Monday night dinner for many Icelandic children. At one of Reykjavik's finest fish restaurants, this beloved dish was presented in a fancier preparation. That evening we also ate grilled seabird (guillemot - a type of auk):
smoked herring with lemon and a wasabi sauce:
and smoked puffin:
Half of the world's puffins gather and breed in Iceland - a total of 8-10 million birds. I learned later that the Icelandic children on the volcanic island of Heimay have a tradition of saving the baby puffins which are born on the steep cliffs and then leave their burrows at night, to navigate by the moon - but are sometimes confused by the town's streetlights. Wayward young puffins are taken home and then released. The same area, however, also has a tradition of harvesting adult puffins; the flesh is usually smoked before they're consumed. It's a bizarre circle, since adorable plush puffin dolls are a kind of Icelandic mascot, available in all the tourist and airport shops.
Except for potatoes, which are available in many colors and varieties, vegetables are few and far between. Very little can be cultivated on the island, with its extremely short growing season and shallow soils -- in the few places where there is arable soil, rather than just lava. There are geothermally-heated greenhouses which supply tomatoes and strawberries, and one that even produces bananas, but most of the fruits and vegetables are flown in at high cost. While there we ate carrots, peas, apples, local wild berries (which were wonderful), local strawberries and tomatoes; mangoes, and orange juice; salad greens are hard to come by except at the height of summer.
Icelanders consume huge quantities of sugar and coffee. Dessert at the fancy restaurant was an Icelandic twist on creme brulee: this is skyr brulee, made from a type of yogurt cheese called skyr, similar to middle eastern Labneh or Greek yogurt, and often served with fresh arctic berries. It was fabulous.
There is excellent traditional dark flat bread, served for breakfast with skyr or slathered with thick fresh butter, and some bakeries still make a leavened dark bread that was one of my favorite foods while on the island. There are delicious tall muffins, baked in paper, filled with berries or apples, and innumerable cookies and cakes, but perhaps the best treats are extremely thin Scandinavian pancakes cooked in butter, served rolled either with a filling of granulated sugar, or of whipped cream and berries. When we lived next door, and he knew we were working very hard, our neighbor would sometimes arrive unannounced in the middle of the morning and silently, smilingly, hand us a plate piled with these wonderful pancakes, still warm from the pan, and just as quickly depart.
I'm currently reading a book called "Fight the Wild Island" by Ted Edwards, an account of a solo journey on foot across the interior -- glaciers, lava fields, and black sand deserts -- in 1984, the first such recorded journey in modern times. Edwards is extremely deprecating about the Icelandic food and its cost, though he praises the lamb. Haldor Laxness's books about the grim lives of peasants certainly don't encourage a visit for gastronomic reasons, but for fish lovers like me, there is endless variety. When we go back, we'll explore the markets more closely; I'm sure there are frozen vegetables and root crops besides potatoes. Meanwhile, the islanders know the value of cod liver oil, and take it regularly!