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Saturday, April 10, 2010

ICELAND: A Bittersweet Sometimes Sulfurous Feast

Selecting the right traveling partner is the ultimate key to happy traveling. I don’t travel with high maintenance control freaky fussy filtered water types if I can avoid it. I don’t give a shit about filtered water. My friend Joanne and I have been traveling the world together for years, mostly because we both enjoy flexible relationhips with our significant others. My husband tends to get carsick, seasick, airsick and his delicate palate (read bland in my politically correct parlance here) does not enjoy the more boldly spiced foods of other regions. So, sayanara I say, and off I go with my crazy girlfriend to hike, jump from mountains, kayak around ice bergs, to dance like nobody is watching and to eat my way across a foreign land and hopefully into some unsuspecting local kitchen.

Joanne hails from New york, and we got a wild hair in our ass to travel to Iceland, because it is only a five hour flight from NYC. That seemed reasonable to me and I had the pleasure of working with an Icelandic man who extolled the virtues and natural beauty of his country. I once partied with him and some other colleagues where he uncorked a huge bottle of brenevin, a juniper liquor indigenous to Iceland, and damned hard to find here in the states. After a few toots of that stuff we were All able to sing Icelandic drinking songs in full uninhibited voice. Icelandic is the root language of all that is Scandinavian. It sounds like one is choking on a fishbone. Puking up Brenevin sounds much like speaking Icelandic too. But I digress.

Joanne and I decided to take a redeye out of New York so we could start our week in Iceland as early as possible. One arrives at the Reykjavik airport at 6 am, located in a barren lava field. Black craggy rocks and lonely cairns dot the stark landscape, and not one tree greets you because apparently the Vikings cut them all down some centuries ago to build boats so they could trade and raid other countries. For wood I suspect, right up there with love and decent food.

(Typical little farm, with a large new volcanic berm next to it)

We were fascinated and a little intimidated by the barren landscape, but we were completely dismayed to find out that Icelanders do NOT get up and do anything before 9 am in the morning. So travelers arriving at 6 am from the redeye are S.O.L. when looking for that all-important cup of coffee, or for a decent breakfast.

We drove into the ghost town of Reykjavik, and there was not an open coffee shop in sight. No doughnut, bagel, no roach coach, no drive through coffee kiosk; can you see a business opportunity forming here? If Iceland ever becomes hospitable to tourists, an early bird coffee service will score a mint. We chased down an early jogger with our Toyota corolla rental, and begged him to direct us to the brew. Alas, he was an expat, and said nothing could be had until 9 am.

Despondent, we searched out our pensione to see if we could check in early. The man at the front desk curtly told us we’d have to wait until noon. We pleaded with him to let us crash the house breakfast currently in progress and he conceded at $8 a pop.

When we showed up, a very heated argument was in progress between the man of the house and his shrew. $16 extra clams or no, she wasn’t into welcoming traveling waifs for an “extra” breakfast. The argument was conducted in a sotto voce chorus of snarling Icelandic which bubbled up behind the front desk as she glared daggers at us. The man had the final word and with a militant toss of her scarf, the shrew escorted us downstairs to a very pain dining room. Breakfast was a bowl of sour cream next to a bowl of plain yogurt, a stinky plate of pickled herring, hard cheddar cheese, hard white bread, grape jelly, hard butter and a wheezing toaster. The shrew watched as we took our portions then cleaned up after us, whisking things away lest we might want second helpings of the awful stuff. There was watery tea, and no coffee in sight. Depressed, we managed to get into our room a bit early where we crashed out for a few hours. Suddenly it was 8 pm, and the sun was blazing into our room like high noon. The sun does not set until midnight or so, and such is the Arctic circle in August. Although we were completely disoriented, we hauled ourselves up for a sulfurous shower. We had a date to keep

In the grand convoluted scheme of things, Joanne had a friend she knew in Iceland, which had about as much serendipity as my friendship with the Icelandic physical therapist who led us astray to this Godforsaken place of unfriendly reserved Scandinavian Inn owners and their goddamned miserly breakfasts. No coffee indeed.

J happened to be an eccentric luthier of fine stringed things, dating an Icelandic woman, and he happened to be a best friend of Joanne’s Brother in law. It was a shot in the dark, but we decided we needed to call him up. Being a fellow New Yorker, we figured he knew where to score a decent cup of coffee. We called him and struck gold. He agreed to meet us downtown at the one touristy coffee shop in the center of town. There we found hard french rolls, and stand up in your saddle, stout, no-nonsense black gold in the form of DARK french roast from a french press right on the table. This café quickly became our launching pad for the many little adventures we would enjoy in Iceland.

(Fumarole field - watch your step!)

It was going on 10:30 pm and the sun was still blazing high in the sky so we decided to take a wonderful hike around an old burnt out caldera. Did I mention that Iceland is amazingly geothermally active? The hot water feels, tastes and smells like it comes straight from the earth (sulfurous) and all heat and electric power is geothermal. We wandered around the forbidding rocky lip of a crater to discover mossy greenery in its center. 11 pm and we were ravenous. J volunteered his girlfriend to cook us a midnight dinner. We demurred, but he called her up – pushy, raucous, New Yorker style – and we all received a warm invitation into her house.

Ah! The much vaunted home cooked meal was going to happen sooner than we anticipated on this trip as luck would have it. Lovisa, as her name would suggest, was a lovely person inside and out. A long necked, graceful cellist – she warmly welcomed us into her hardwood floored bungalow. We sat at her glowing wood table, woozy with jetlag and hunger.

Lovisa apologized for not having any fancy food, then she proceeded to make the most heavenly toasted homemade bread with butter, smoked salmon and green pickled pepper corns. I’ve not had anything like it before or since, and it still rests in my mind as the most satisfying thing I have ever eaten. First, warm crunchy toast with high quality butter topped with Icelandic lox, which has a completely different flavor then smoked salmon in the states. This was topped with green peppercorns, which were both piquant and heavenly.

Refreshed, we perked up and listened to J rattle on happily about his business, some medical treatments he was getting in Iceland, the Icelandic people and their idiosyncrasies. Lovisa, meanwhile was in her tiny kitchen, creating a magical alchemy I’ll forever call, “Pasta Lovisa”

Bowtie Pasta

Green peas

Hard brick of government swiss cheese

Dry white wine


Boil the pasta to al dente. In a separate pan, melt a cup of shredded cheese. Saute lightly with shredded ham, green peas and white wine. Toss with the pasta. Serve with a fresh green salad and homemade vinegarette. Splash white or red wine liberally into whatever you happen to be handling, be it salad or pasta on the stove. Have your own glass at hand for frequent sipping.

Outside of Lovisa’s magical kitchen, Icelandic food and service does not have much to recommend it. We discovered a candy shop with open bins of fantastic pastilles and licorice. I bought some big, flat licorice happy faces encrusted with glittering sugar. I adore licorice and it is a real Scandinavian treat. Joanne was driving and we were enjoying the bright green fields and the uniformity of the little red farms with white trim. It was amazing how there was not a tree in site to break the green flow of the landscape before the field ended abruptly at the base of a rocky mountain of black volcanic stuff.

I decided to enjoy some of my licorice as an après nosh to the traditional country Icelandic breakfast we'd “enjoyed”. Hard black pumpernickel-like bread, smeared with cold butter and topped with hard wizened pieces of lamb jerky, all chased down with faintly sulphurous strong black coffee. Where do they come up with these menus? I wondered. It was like swallowing hard tack on dry land. I popped a big licorice smiley face into my mouth to chase away the gamey vestige of morning lamb meat.

I think the sound that I made can only be described phonetically as, “Whahhhhhh Fuuu-oooooo-WAHHHHHH”, as in “what the Fuuuuuu-wahhhh” enunciated with a sticky slab of licorice stuck to the palate. The sparkly crystals turned out to be pure salt, or salmiak, which is ammonium chloride to be exact. The Dutch and the Scandinavian folk like their salty-pissy licorice, and I had just been initiated. I started gagging, drooling viscous strings of black drool and pawing at my mouth and rolling down the car window all at once.

“What? WHAT?” Joanne shouted, still driving. “What is wrong? Are you having an attack? What is it?”

I was in ammonia overload, speechless, trailing black sticky strings of drool out the window and trying to dislodge the disc from my palate. “fugging solly shih” I spewed.

Joanne pulled over at this point, and I managed to flip the thing out of my mouth with my index finger. Black tarry stripes trailed down the length of the car. Joanne had a laughing fit as I glared balefully at her, still spitting stringy black stuff.

“it’s hard to find good food in this country,” she said. ‘Even the candy sucks. We need to buy Lovisa a bottle of wine so she keeps cooking for us while we are here!”

I was still rinsing out my mouth with sulfur-flavored bottled water, so I merely nodded. Fucking Icelandic candy.


As it turned out, Lovisa’s family was really old news in iceland, to the point that she actually owned within her family, a rustic cabin out in Pingvellir, both the viking treaty lands of yore and the National Shrine of Iceland. We planned a camping trip out there, and were warned that we’d be cooking over a campfire, have no heat and would have to take things as we found them. We were delighted and we got the directions out to the cabin so we could drive ourselves and meet up with Lovisa and J.

Joanne and I decided we really needed to try some trout fishing. Pingthillir was known for its clear streams and Lovisa had told us there was some fishing tackle at the cabin, slowly rotting from disuse. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous little buildings marked with a large “I” for information. Inside we found a very laconic man behind the counter. Like most other Icelanders we had met, getting any information from him was like pulling teeth by hand. He showed us a cardboard display of various flies and we bought 40 dollars worth, which was about 6 flies total. Upon repeated questioning, he said we did NOT need a fishing license for the treaty lands, especially if we had access to a historic homestead (which we did). He also said all streams had fine trout in them.

We got to the little wooden cabin, charming in its simplicity and met J there. Lovisa was off playing a symphony gig and planned to join us later with some excellent Icelandic lamb for grilling later. Joanne and I pulled out the crumbling fishing rods and rotting filament. After about 40 minutes of fussing with various parts and lines, we had two reasonable rigs. We sallied out to a beautiful stream just below a quaint historic hotel and dropped out lines in.

It took all of about 10 minutes for a female ranger to bust our chops and threaten to ticket and fine us for not having a license.

“But WAIT!", we sputtered, “ the man at the information center told us repeatedly that we didn’t need a license to fish here!”

“I don’t know what you heard, because I wasn’t there," she said, placidly. “But you need a license to fish anywhere and what’s more, this stream is where the sewage runs off from this old hotel, so you don’t want to eat fish from this stream anyway.”

We were livid, disgusted and pissed off at Iceland in general. We packed up our tackle and left it on the porch and went for a hike to cool off. We found little low growing bushes with charming berries all over them, so we picked a hatful of berries. When Lovisa arrived, cello case in one hand, grocery bag in the other, she was ecstatic.

“Oh! Those are wild juniper berries! They are only ripe this time of year and we seldom get them!” They ended up making a fine treat for snacking later in the evening, though I must say they are an acquired taste. They are sort of sour and gritty – but Lovisa and a few of her children who arrived for a free meal (did I mention she has five kids?) savored them slowly. Lovisa and her kids conversed in Icelandic and within a family dialect, the language washed over me like a clean, cold stream over mossy rocks – not the harsh choking sounds that we heard from the city folk. I began to like Iceland again a little.

(At the ancestral family dinner table with Lovisa, J and me)

Lovisa grilled fresh Grenavik Icelandic lamb, which has none of the gamey taste of traditional New Zealand lamb. This delicious creature stores all of its oily lanolin in a big fat padded tail instead of throughout its skin. The lamb was lean and flavorful, and like no other meat I have tasted and was only lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Lovisa turned out a hard almond tart, cooked in a dutch oven over her open fire. It was both smoky and savory as a dessert.

Pingvellir was lovely in a harsh untamed way. Very deep fissures seemed as though they had just spring apart recently and dark blue and mossy green water flowed in their depths. There was a slaty forbidding lake created when two tectonic plates split apart and drifted away from each other over thousands of years. The other half of the mountain could be seen across the lake. This obvious place of division is why the Vikings choose to decide laws of the land here. No one Viking clan was allowed to lay claim to this area so they shared it uneasily, between wars. We headed back towards town to find some new adventures. On the way we stopped at the information center.

“To hell with this! I am going right in there and getting our money back!” Joanne growled, pulling in next to the blinking “i” sign. I didn’t feel like arguing with any of these Scandinavian people.

“Have at it, I 've already written it off” I said, and took a nap.

In less than 10 minutes, Joanne emerged triumphant of course, waving $40 in her hand.

“I New Yorked them,” she said smugly. ‘You would have been proud of me! Whenever they challenged somehting I said, I said "I really don't know, I wasn't THERE. "Now we are taking this money and going out to a really nice restaurant!”

Icelandic Lobster and Other Tall Tales

Don’t let anyone sell you an Icelandic lobster as a big deal. It is no more than a large, flavorless prawn. The true cuisine of the land is reindeer steaks and Ptarmigan, but these are only available around Christmastime, when the Icelandic Jolasveinar, a group of 13 Anti-Santas come out to wreak havoc. Christmas in Iceland is a grim affair and there are these 13 "Yule Lads" from hell to prove it.

The first one is Stiff Legs, who likes to suck milk from sheep. Followed by sausage swipers, door slammers, ladle lickers, window peepers, and pot scrapers and froth suckers. A ready made wedding party if you ask me.

We rolled into a "famous" haute eatery sucked in by the promise of lobster. We ordered wine. Word to the wise. A $10 bottle of wine will cost you $30-$40 in Iceland because of the import taxes. We got a nice chardonnay that arrived in individual little glass carafes. I thought this was some kind of traditional wine glass so I started sipping my wine directly from the carafe, until I felt the most glacial stare from the neighboring table. J had been telling us all along how socially conscious the Icelanders were and a faux pas like chugging wine from the source would not be forgotten. I stared back double-dog glacially until they dropped their eyes back to their own damned dinner, muttering to themselves. There was that infernal choking noise again. We had already run the gauntlet of outraged stares just getting into the place because we were so under dressed. Tennis shoes, jeans and sweat shirts were no match for the fox furs and sleek wool dresses of our dining compatriots, but we bulldozed our way in anyway, unwilling to let a good meal escape.

There is not much to say about the “lobster”. It is truly tasteless, even when artfully prepared. Next time I will wait for the Ptarmigan.


One treat I heard about continually, but managed to avoid as an obvious tourist trap was Skate, pronounced “Shkot-tah”. This treat, typically served at drinking establishments was a marinated type of fish, usually enjoyed by the equally marinated drinker at the height of inebriation. Then, it became the gift that keeps on giving, by making the consumer reek urinously of ammonia and strong fish essence for up to three days. Men had been known to be banished from sleeping inside after eating skate, and there were rumors about guys left outside to freeze to death over “eating skate before a date.”

Avid drinkers will tell you the history of skate involves a group of men lost at sea, and their worthy captain preserving what fish they caught by pissing on it. This kept them alive long enough to return and serve it to their drinking buddies apparently. J was something of an afficionado, and a worthy drinker to boot. He offered the “full Icelandic experience” many times. We declined politely.

Skate is actually another Icelandic Christmas Delicacy. The skates are caught in late Autumn and allowed to putrefy until December. One can choose between very putrid and less putrid extra salty skate, accompanied by balls of melted sheep tallow with burned membrane. I don't even know what to say about that.

We did take a fantastic tiny cruise out to some tiny islands created from octagonal basalt columns, encrusted with bird shit and Kittywake nests. Kittywakes are little terns that sound like dying cats, hence the name Kitty – wake. The tour was completely in Icelandic, which we found typical in this tourist-averse environment. We observed as two stone silent old salts dressed in yellow slickers unfurled a reeking mossy net and flung it out behind the boat.

Suddenly appeared a steel table covered with delights enough to make a hard core sushi lover have an orgasm on the spot. Fresh scallops, sea urchins, cherry stone clams, shrimps – all were flung out of the mossy net and upon a steel processing table, and just as quickly snatched up by boat patrons.

Bottles of white wine were produced from hidden pockets, along with pen knives, whole lemons and tiny salt shakers. Nobody said anything about a fresh seafood feast! We each ate a raw scallop doused in lemon, and then had the shell as a plate for other delicacies.

It was here I discovered why the Japanese grow sloe-eyed over fresh sea urchin. Emphasis on the fresh. We opened the spiny purple shells by sawing through them with the sharp edge of the scallop shell and scooped out the firm, glistening orange meat and rinsed off the vestiges of the creature’s last black seaweed meal. Then, after a hit of fresh lemon into the mouth it went. There is nothing like fresh Uni from the arctic ocean – it is the happy taste of every beach trip you can ever remember. Salty, fishy, fresh, exotic. A little like first sex perhaps.

So there is Iceland, a true love-hate experience. There is more to tell, but in another life perhaps. All I can say is “Anthony Bourdain was right” once again. Watch his show “No Reservations” all about Iceland, perhaps instead of visiting.

Your personal link to research the "Yule Lads" :


  1. Don't think I'll be heading to Iceland any time soon, or rather ever, but sure makes for a great story. Love all of your pictures. You're a talented storyteller and entertaining tour guide! Marijane

  2. I have not read this post, Lori. I really am looking forward to reading about all your experiences especially after seeing the pictures of what looks like a volcano. I'll be back after I finish reading your Greenland adventure.

    Carole Ann

  3. I should proof before hitting send and stop typing before 1:25 a.m. Make that your Iceland adventure!! :)

    Carole Ann

  4. Ah Greenland, Iceland....what's the dif? (-: