Iceland: Eating, Drinking…Shivering

December 8, 2013

It’s very hard to resist making jokes about supermarkets and king prawn rings right now. I’ll admit I did consider, briefly, some kind of variation on the slogan ‘that’s why mums go to Iceland’. Didn’t work out. I will tell you why people go to Iceland, though – it’s to marvel at the geological wonder of it all. It is possible to dive between the Earth’s tectonic plates, FFS. People go there to see mountains, glaciers and volcanoes. They go to see geothermal pools and geysers. They go for the Northern lights and the whale watching.

I’m not entirely sure people go for the food. Or at least, not so much any more. I’ve been to Iceland before, you see, and in my memory the food was significantly more exciting. I ate at a couple of good restaurants, had some unusual fish and left thinking I must come back to really get the culinary measure of the place. I imagined myself gorging on piles of spiky crustaceans, buried elbow deep in barbed langoustines and blushing lobsters, almost rudely abundant. What I wanted, I realise now, was another Sweden.

Perhaps it was my fault for not craving the preparations of the fancier restaurants (I rarely do), or perhaps it was because I had such a clear idea of what I wanted Icelandic food to be, but I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. Anyway here, in no particular order, is a list of 10 observations I made about food in Iceland. They are not necessarily negative, and some of them are very trivial, but that’s the kind of random shit I get off on. It’s the future of food and travel writing, I tell ya.

1. ‘CRONIONS‘ (that’s deep fried onions to you) – a word that demands to be written in capital letters. These are used to garnish things. A lot of things. Okay so on hot dogs they make sense (Iceland has a famous hot dog stand which I’ve written about here), but on sushi? Not so much.

2. Deep frying. A journalist writing in a local magazine asked “why can’t the Icelandic just eat sushi without deep frying it?” A reasonable question. California rolls kept turning up battered, fried, squirted with a mayonnaise based sauce and scattered with – you’ve guessed it – CRONIONS, with absolutely no prior warning on the menu.

Better deep fried things came in the form of fish and chips – well, fish and roast potatoes, really – from Icelandic Fish and Chips. Cod really is the best fish for frying, isn’t it? Poor endangered bastards. Are we still allowed to eat Icelandic cod? I did anyway, I’m afraid, and it was damn fine. Steamed inside a very thin batter to perfect pearlescent flakes.

Cod, garlic roast potatoes, onion rings.

Beautifully cooked fish.

Icelandic Fish and Chips, Tryggvagata 8, Reykjavik

3. Mangoes. I found it odd that they seemed to make an appearance at least once on every menu, ever; even as a sauce option for my fish and roast potatoes.

4. Liquorice. The salty kind, which I love, is very popular, and often comes coated in chocolate. I’m not really into chocolate (I know. I don’t really like mashed potato either, so swallow that) but stick something salty in it and I’ll gnaw happily. Also, salty liquorice Haribo are the best Haribo ever made and not just because they are called SALT KRINGLER – a good name for a boat, or a salty old sea dog.


Supermarket haul.

Can I just pause here to put in a word for foreign supermarkets? So. Much. Fun. Who can find the weirdest, most difficult to identify product! Who can find the one with the funniest name?!

5. Lobster. Lots of. Understandable. The lobsters in Iceland are much smaller than the great big lunkers we’re used to; more like giant langoustines. Mostly they come grilled in garlic butter, which is how we ate them at a restaurant called The Lobster House. It’s worth eating here simply because you will feel like you’re sitting in the living room of the rich granny you never had. Or maybe you did.

Inside The Lobster House

Grilled lobster

The Lobster House, Amtmannsstigur 1, Reykjavik 101

6. Lobster soup. There is a restaurant on the old harbour front called Sea Baron which claims to serve the ‘very best lobster soup in the world!’. I preferred the rich bisque-like version at The Lobster House, but there are many served all over Reykjavik. Someone should write a lobster soup guide if they’ve got nothing better to do. I’d read it.

Lobster soup at The Lobster House

Lobster soup at The Sea Baron.

The Sea Baron, Geirsgata 8, 101, Reykjavik

7. Beer. Iceland is not a country for the wine enthusiast, because it’s all nose-bleedingly expensive. They make many excellent beers however, including some rich Christmas beers, so thick with hops and alcohol they’re almost chewy.

8. Minke whale. We ordered this out of sheer touristy curiosity and were surprised to find it rather tasty. It needs to be cooked rare, as it’s kind of fibrous and it needs to be seasoned highly, as it could potentially be bland. Am I selling it to you? No?

9. Hákarl. That’s fermented shark. What’s the point? Well the shark meat is poisonous when fresh so I can only assume it was first prepped and consumed this way for reasons of survival. It arrived in a sealed jar – a good sign when eating out – and once freed from its protective environment, emitted a strong smell of ammonia. That’s as much as I can tell you because my boyfriend hoovered up the whole lot before I had even halfway steeled myself to try it. Sicko.

Platter of traditional Icelandic foods, including fermented shark in a jar, black pudding, pickled herring, fishy mash, minke whale steak and rye bread.

10. Brennivín. A clear, caraway flavoured schnapps which Icelandic people call ‘the black death’. This may seem over dramatic. I thought so, until I had to get a flight the morning after a night spent guzzling it. A truly horrendous experience.

There you go. My top 10 observations from 3 days spent in Reykjavik. I await the abuse from those more in the know. In fact I welcome it. What did I miss?

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  • Avatar
    Reply Niamh December 8, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I have not been to Iceland yet but I love Scandinavia and cold snowy places. A shame that it didn’t do it for you this time.

    I see you have polar bread in your supermarket haul. I love that stuff! What did Donald think of the shark, then? He must have liked it?

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen December 8, 2013 at 12:39 pm

      I know, so frustrating! I’m still kind of hoping I just missed out on something. Yes, polar bread is ACEBAGS. Donald! You must tell Niamh what the shark was like…

  • Avatar
    Reply Donald December 8, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Eerm, well it would definitely be better thn starvation. I found the ammonia tang much more prevalent on the nose, a bit like maroilles where the flavour was much milder. However the texture was frankly a bit odd, a mix of slimy and a bit bouncy.
    Not as bad as it had been made out, also I’ve no idea how the different versions differ..

  • Avatar
    Reply Russell December 9, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Great work as always Helen. My sister returned from a trip to Iceland recently, and the most amusing thing she found in the supermarkets was a six pack of Iceland (UK) ice cream cones. WTactualF?

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen December 9, 2013 at 4:33 pm

      Whaaaaaa? Bloody hell.

  • Avatar
    Reply Hiltrud Hengst December 10, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    I have not been to Icelnd yet but heard and learned quite a bit about it. Beside the food – I love fish and rye bread – I want to hear concerts. Everybody sings in Iceland and then there are the horses. What a wonderful breed and so smooth to ride. To go o a trail ride is my dream. There – you missed something ! And taking a dip into one of the many hot pools in the country. Well, I will have to go!

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen December 10, 2013 at 7:42 pm

      Ha ha, yes I’ve seen the horses before but no chance this time as the weather was so bad. They are beautiful though I agree. Fish and rye bread = wonderful. Agree on that too!

  • Avatar
    Reply Katie December 12, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    I want the lobster…. And I REALLY want the CRONIONS . I also just want to go to Iceland. Maybe in summer LOL

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