How do you get to know a place; get to know a city? You can read about it in a book or peruse the pages of Wikipedia. You can arm yourself with context. Hit the sights: stroll around the key monuments and spend time in the museums. If you go to Paris you just must go to the Louvre. But is Paris only hewn from the art of foreign and long-dead artists? No; it’s also a big confusing and sprawling mass of coffee shops, absinthe bars, high-end restaurants, chummy Brasseries and fragrant pastry shops. I learned to tolerate and even like Paris through its food. I fell in love with Spain through my belly. Portugal clung close to my heart for its multicoloured buildings as well as its good cheap wine and wonderful fish and custard tarts. Innocuous little Belgium warmed itself to me for its fine beer and Hamburg too became a personal fan favourite thanks to its pickled herrings and curried sausages. So, despite not knowing what to expect - for Iceland is no top draw on the list of foodie countries - I would try to know Reykjavik via my gut.
‘I’m going to do a food tour in Reykjavik?’
This was a line met with arched eyebrows and questions ranging from the confused and inquisitive: ‘what the hell do they eat in Iceland?’ to the stereotype filled: ‘so puffins and whales then?’
I had arrived into Iceland the night before under the midnight sun: the plane landing on a scruffy peninsula dotted with sunset-grazed volcanoes and the sea a surreal silver-blue that happens at the end of the day. I had slept badly, sweating and hot in the shared dorm room of the Hlemmur Square hostel. I arose fetid and tired and, after showering, crept out into the world surprised at both how warm it was and how blue.
No one goes to Iceland expecting the weather to be warm. It was not hot, but pleasant enough to wear just a shirt and jeans. I had come from Madrid where the sun had been threatening everybody with temperatures over thirty-five degrees, the bastard, so this frostier take on summer was very welcome. On that volcanic rock up near the Arctic the big ball of celestial fire had lost its edge and could only summon up enough vitriol to make you roll your sleeves up.
The Harpa Concert Hall - the blue and turquoise shimmering glass block down by the seafront - was the meeting point. It was an impossible to miss building that seemed to suck in all roads. I always ended up there.
Gabriela, a six-foot tall attractive Viking girl, was to take me (us) round the capital for a few hours. I had only met Icelanders once before: a sprightly and cool-looking trio of them drinking in a very local bar called Casa Toni, just off Madrid’s central square. Statistically, given the slight population of the little northern rock, this was an impressive occurrence. And merely a month before my trip. They were young and smart and wore clothes that I could never get away with. Students on a language program in Spain. Friendly, intelligent and cultured. Much like Gabriela. Much like every Icelander I met.
The sun was beating down as we passed the statue of Ingólfr Arnarson, Iceland’s first settler, and settled down at the first stop: Íslenski barinn. A bar that was an ode to Iceland’s cuisine. The insides were pastel greens, wooden tables, an English pub style bar and vintage wall decorations.
‘First, a classic dish. One that my mother makes. The type of dish that warms you up on those long winter nights.’ Gabriela smiled. ‘And they’re long.’
We were each presented with an individual bowl of a brown stew. It looked and tasted remarkably like British beef stew or Lancashire hotpot minus the dumplings and black pudding.
‘Kjötsúpa. Meat soup.’ It was delicate and lightly spiced with pleasing little blocks of carrot, celery and potato swimming around soft chunks of meat. ‘Everyone has their own touch. My mother, who obviously cooks the best one, adds barley to hers.’
Accompanying the soup was freshly baked bread and a marvellous glob of local butter.
‘We love butter in Iceland.’ Purred Gabriela. ‘But I mean love. I even put it in my coffee.’
Next was the dinky and gleaming Ostabúðin deli on the mouth-muddling Skólavörðustígur street, lined with colourful houses, arty shops and an outdoor photography exhibition. The shop was a London affair. Lots of shining wood, shelves generously stocked with myriad goodies that were mostly too expensive to buy, but which sounded delicious, and an air of ‘artisan’ that culminated in a glass counter where a friendly local girl took us through some nibbles. I usually found these stops a little underwhelming as I have high standards regarding cured animals and cheeses; but this little tucked away store had some surprises in store for my tastebuds.
First the cheeses. I’m a big lover of cheeses. From spicy and potent blues like stilton and cabrales that render the mouth numb and fuzzy, to salty parmesans and aged cheddars, I like a strong cheese.
‘None of these cheeses are strong.’ Said the girl behind the counter.
Fortunately I do also value flavour. We had three. First up was a cheese I would purchase throughout my time in Iceland: Isbuí, a delicate and somewhat sweet cow’s milk cheese that was reminiscent of a soft English cheddar. Mild, but not boringly so. Then a camembert.
A lot of cheeses, given that the country didn’t have a long history of cheesemaking, were traditionally modelled off French varieties. It was nice enough. Then came a deliciously creamy nameless blue cheese similar to an aromatic gorgonzola.
After that the girl, in her brown grey apron and black shirt, threw away our cocktail sticks and proceeded with the cured meats. First was a ‘humane’ goose liver terrine. Free range of course and no force feeding here - ‘We’re not like the French making foie gras.’ - served on individual plastic spoons with a blob of red currant and Port jam. Then more meat, with little curled up skewered rolls of lamb cured with rosemary, thyme and fennel. Perfumed and gamey. The final treat was a generous cured and smoked slice of goose served with a raspberry and champagne vinaigrette. This was a far cry from famously grim rotten shark and controversial and uncouth slabs of whale meat. This was elegance; high-end elegance at that.
Piercing the clean blue of the Nordic sky at the top of Skólavörðustígur street was the capital’s poster boy church, the Hallgrímskirkja. The preening shard of postcard fame. Using the country’s basaltic laval tubes as inspiration, this bone-white building rises to a clean frilled peak; like some volcanic Chrysler building. Guðjón Samúelsson’s work of ecclesiastical art took 41 years to finish, though he never saw it completed. It was another one of those stories of genius architect meets unfinishable project. Iceland’s own Gaudí. More statues in the form of Leif Erikson, North America’s real discoverer, were to be found standing proudly outside the church by Loki Bar, the third stop.
Gabriela spun round to us, ‘so this is, I think, my favourite stop. It’s a lovely family-run cafe that serves the most delicious rye bread ice cream.’ There were oohs and aahs from the group.
There were eight of us in total. There was me, keen, red-faced and eager with my notepad. There was a Canadian father and son - the son in his late forties, the father in his… - who were quite the odd couple. The father barely spoke and the son was deeply knowledgable in Nordic culture and fables and was awkward with his humour. Then there was an attractive, bright and breezy couple from California and also a Montanan mother and her two charming but quiet sons in their twenties. We had to wait outside Loki for a few minutes for our table. Gabriela recounted stories of elves, sagas and fables accompanied by bad jokes and scholarly interjections from the Canadian. The rest of us smiled and let the sun hit our surprised faces.
Upstairs was clean and simple and looked like a basic English cafe, but for the back wall that was covered in a terrifically garish but rather awesome mural painting of the tales of Loki with depictions of Fenrir and the death of Baldur. My eyes shifted between settling on Gabriela’s pleasing face and on the mural itself. I ate the delicious ‘pre-roasted’ rye bread ice cream - served in little china bowls with cream and rhubarb syrup on top - as everyone’s favourite Canadian intellect shared smarts with our guide.
There then came some residential streets; quiet lanes with wonderful names like Miðstræti, Halveigarstígur, Bókhlöðustígur. Icelandic was that type of language where the letters were ones you knew, but you had to really focus on the word much longer than you would normally in order to understand how all those letters came together. Unpopulated alleys where friendly neighbourhood cats stretching out on stone porches jostled for photographic interest with the creative murals and graffiti: a bright purple octopus on an otherwise ugly wall, a cartoon goldfish blowing bubbles on a garage door, whole building sides covered in writhing animals or scuba divers vomiting the essence of the universe. There were even trees covered in woollen scarves with smiling faces. ‘The artists were encouraged to be creative in order to reduce the scummy stuff.’
‘There’s my old school!’ Clipped Gabriela, as she set a languorous pace towards our next stop; a small garden - the Mæðragarður. ‘I used to hate having to run round the lake there.’
Reykjavik’s bizarre city hall - creeping out over the water - commanded a wonderful position overlooking the Reykjavíkurtjörn pond: a pleasant body of water lined with churches and smart homes.
‘It looks like a lovely place to run around!’ I protested.
‘Look at the weather.’ I gazed up past the trees at the blue sky. ‘Now imagine that in the middle of winter.’
Gabriela whipped her bag off, unzipped the top, and started to pull out little pots of something. One was handed to each person. ‘This is skyr; our country’s national obsession.’
It was a thing everyone in the country had a problem trying to describe. ‘It’s a sort of smooth light cream cheese…’ ‘It’s our version of Greek yoghurt.’ ‘It’s like a cheese-cream but it’s neither cheesy nor creamy…’
I agreed with the locals who veered towards the Iceland’s ‘Greek’ yoghurt variant. Same texture, same look, similar flavour. Tangy and tart with a little sweetness. Produced from skimmed milk, it is fermented with a previous curd and then separated from the whey. A real halfway house. It is, simply, skyr. In an effort to promote it as something more fun and commercial, the one company that produces it started to introduce flavours like lemon, strawberry and blueberry. They have also decided to plug the health benefits as it is essentially fat free and contains masses of protein. Giant billboards welcome you off the plane with absurdly fresh-faced an attractive people in winter coats looking into the distance and pointing at things as snow blusters lightly around them. ‘Skyr: Iceland’s secret to healthy living.’
It quickly became my addiction too. 1,100 years of women-led food history in a pot. The ideal breakfast or quick cheap snack. In a country where even a machine coffee could set me back 3.50€ I was glad of the discovery. My preferred method: the unflavoured skyr with honey and nuts.
‘Skyr is so popular and important that when we all learned of our previous President’s corruption, instead of fighting, people just threw spoonfuls of it at the parliament.’
The day after that the president resigned and elections began. I mused about how the politicians in the UK or Spain would react if Marmite or jamón were flung at the walls of the government buildings. Blind indifference I should imagine.
The colourful downtown arrived. The sun was beating down and the Vikings were bathing in the warm rays. It felt like London; some Nordic Camden Town cast adrift and sent northwards. Round a corner, where the streets opened up to an unfortunate building site, was a place I would return to many times during my stay in the capital. ‘Place’ is a rather wide and broad geographic term to describe what was in reality a little red kiosk. Obsession number two; I had read about this.
‘Pylsur. Iceland’s favourite savoury snack.’
‘Are those hot dogs?’ Piped someone young and American from the group.
‘Yes they are; lamb dogs. Sheep outnumber people in the country two to one and they’re all free range. So this is probably the healthiest hot dog you’ll ever eat.’
My thoughts drifted back to a television program I had once watched about what goes into cheap American hotdogs: mechanically separated chicken (“a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve…”), recovered pork (via a machine that “separates meat from bone by scraping, shaving, or pressing the meat from the bone”), water, corn syrup, salt, ‘flavour’, and all manner of chemicals with clinical names like maltodextrin and sodium erythorbate. I was glad to not be having a hot dog created from the anuses and meat-covered gristle of cheap farm animals.
The queue was twenty-people deep, and apparently that was nothing out of the ordinary. This was the place to get one. ‘Even Bill Clinton has lined up for one of their hotdogs.’ Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur was founded in 1939 and has been serving the little buns of steamed sausages almost 24 hours a day ever since.
‘You have to order “eina með öllu". One with everything.’
One with everything meant a kind of apple ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, raw onion and crisp fried onion. Behind the window a little old lady with a craggy and serious face was preparing the hotdogs. Onion in, spread with a spoon, then sausage, then lines of sauces.
‘Góðan dag Maria!’
The little old lady looked up as Gabriela reached the front of the queue. She still had blonde hair that curled up at the bottom. Her face lit up on seeing the familiar face and immediately lost about 20 years in age.
‘Maria has been working here 45 years. She’s a bit of a legend.’
Like a one-woman conveyer belt, she loaded a dog, popped it on the v-shaped metallic holder at the bar and went back to prepare the next one. It was up to the hungry consumer to make sure a traffic jam didn’t occur.
The flavour was sweet and the lamb dog had a pleasing crunch to it; more like a Vienna sausage than the soft frankfurter. It was arguably the least Icelandic thing on the tour, not the most healthy, and objectively the least inspiring, by my goodness if it wasn’t good. It was naughty and not too unhealthy at the same time. I would come back both drunk with future Icelandic friends and in passing during my days sightseeing for a quick cheap snack.
People were starting to whinge happily about getting full. I have long been known as a pig and glutton so I wasn’t anywhere near that point. I could have eaten two more hotdogs quite contentedly. I think somewhere back in my family tree was a medieval lord or king that would attack the table, grabbing wild boar legs by the teeth and covering himself in flagons of red wine.
The old harbour was impossibly blue, deep and limpid, and sheltered some bobbing trawlers and fishing boats. Over the bay some blue-grey clouds had started to annoy the base of the Esjan mountain range and I wondered if my luck was running out. Even though I lived in the eternally sunny and often heat-blasted dry city of Madrid, I was still English. I knew how maritime clouds could rush in and spoil a seemingly perfect afternoon; and I was in the Arctic now.
In the old green-painted former fishermen’s huts around the quay, restaurants had arrived to fill the empty spaces. A fisherman named Kjartan Halldórsson came there in the 50s and decided to train as chef and become the official Coast Guard cook. Years later his timber-filled family-style Sægreifinn (Sea Baron) restaurant has been lauded as the location of the world’s best lobster soup - humarsúpa.
We shuffled in past a room of low wooden tables lined with, presumably, tourists, shuffled more through the kitchen into another dining area and shuffled further up the stairs to the second floor dining room.
We sat all around a table and waited. Glasses of water were poured out. I was still feeling Mediterranean in my tendencies and, with all this food, was really yearning for a beer or a glass of wine. In Spain to eat food without alcohol is unthinkable unless you are a driver (and even then the rules are bendy), a child or a clinically insane. It was later explained to me that because of the country’s complicated and high taxes on alcohol, and given that food tours are such a new thing, it was near to impossible to include alcohol easily on the experience. Still, the soup made up for it.
It was reminiscent of a classic lobster bisque. A rich tomato-based soup with perfectly sweet chunks of lobster (actually langoustine, but it gets confusing) that cooked through in the residual heat of the broth after being taken off the boil. Carrots, celery, onion, tomato, garlic, stock, spices and other goodies were all cooked up, blended and perked up with some curry powder. It was on the light side of creamy and went very well with more of that bread and butter that the country did so brilliantly.
The debate around the table turned, as so often it did, to politics. Presidents and future hopefuls were mentioned and the energy levels piqued into simmering, but still far from agitated. It was a little uncomfortable. I stayed out of it as I didn’t want to become ‘that guy’. The plummy Englishman who looks down at the Colonies; ‘Oh, bless you with your Republicans and your Trumps. Such fun. don’t be silly now.’
I think I cracked a joke or perhaps Gabriela just decided it was time for us to leave and got up with her bag on her back. We went back downstairs, through the kitchen again and stumbled back out into the sunshine.
It was time for our last stop. Past more of those painted walls and colourful box homes - made from corrugated iron originally imported from England and painted falu red - we arrived back at the central area and Austurstræti street.
The downtown area was starting to seethe with people. Within the hour Iceland’s national team - in the Euro 2016 football championship for the first time ever - would be playing Hungary and the locals were out in the Ingólfstorg square to watch it on the big screen. I am no football fan, but culturally to be in the country for this historic moment, to soak up the joy, the woe, the anger and passion…that was something unmissable. That would have to wait however, for more food beckoned.
‘So, here we have our last stop.’ Gabriela beamed, still exuding the enthusiasm that no doubt got her the job. ‘We’re going to sit down, have some dessert and tea or coffee if you like.’
Apotek was fancy. Well, probably not that fancy; but compared to street hotdogs and lobster soup in converted fishermen’s cabins, it seemed overtly gleaming and elegant. Housed in one of the first large concrete buildings in Iceland - a very attractive dove-grey structure with a fine square cupola on top, an almost New York hotel sensibility to the flanks and European colonnades at the base - Apotek restaurant is a playground for Argentinian chef Carlos Gimenez to essentially muck about and create things.
Everyone working there was well trained and professional. Not my usual style of place, but it was nice to be smothered in hospitality. Two waiters glided over and started handing out the plates at our table. It was a very pretty thing, all smudges of sauce and dustings of edible flavour. On each side of the plate was the dessert itself. On the left, a rectangular stack, which apparently was a coconut mousse atop crème anglaise, mango and a chocolate biscuit base, and on the right a discreet mango sorbet.
‘This is Carlos’ summer dessert.’
It was nice. Light and airy fairy. I veer towards the distrust and dislike of sweet coconut flavours, but it wasn’t too prominent. So I polished it off and licked the plate clean. I had inherited my grandfather and my father’s capacity for wolfing down food, especially if it were pudding.
After two, possibly three cups of coffee, it was time to leave the tour, to finish, and to let our guide go about her life again. Gabriela was hugged and tipped outside Apotek, while the main street had become a river of people clutching beer cans and bottles of water flowing towards the now raucous square with its giant football screen.
I gave Gabriela a hug and told her I’d hopefully see her at the end of my trip. I had no friends in Iceland so I was keen to latch on to any I encountered regardless of how desperate or creepy I may ultimately appear.
‘Before you all go, I have one last little food present to give you.’ She fished around in her backpack again and brought out what looked like long, thin, individually-wrapped chocolate bars. ‘This is lakkrís.’ I shuddered at the word a little. ‘It’s Icelandic liquorice covered in chocolate.’
Liquorice, the scourge of the food world and my personal gastronomic hell-beast. There are few foods in the world that I don’t like. For the foods I’m not sold on I break them down in to different categories.
Pointless foods: celery, iceberg lettuce, mild cheddar.
Foods whose texture puts me off: jelly (be it sweet or pork pie), tripe, fried pig ear, flan.
Foods that I find overrated but that I’m supposed to like: Galician octopus, caviar, goose barnacles.
Foods which I actively dislike: sweet coconut (thank you Bounty bars), avocado (aka oily socks and sadness) and liquorice (the Devil’s treat).
Most of these things I can eat, but I would prefer not to. Celery and iceberg lettuce are just crunchy water and Galician octopus doesn’t have enough flavour to warrant its price tag when good. The texture of cartilaginous ear or squishy, untrustworthy jelly have fine flavours but I just don’t like the buccal sensation. Avocado makes me sad when I eat it, yet all the Californians berate me, and sweet coconut makes me feel ill; kid about to vomit at a birthday party ill. However liquorice…liquorice is abusive.
Now, I don’t mind a glass of gentle anís from the Spanish town of Chinchón and I can enjoy the perfume of a touch of fennel. But liquorice - and its diabolical boozes sambuca and ouzo - are the culinary equivalent of a slap in the throat. The odd salty, sour sweetness reminds me of licking a battery. I see no redeeming features to it. And now, here I was, being presented it by a stunning six-foot kind-eyed Viking.
‘Thanks, I’ll eat it later.’
I caught the football match by ducking into what seemed to be a tiny town hall room with a stage - the Nasa nightclub as I found out later. I bought a very expensive bottle of beer, sat on a fold up chair next to a bunch of locals - families, stylish young people, silver-haired adults - and watched and celebrated as the country drew 1-1 against Hungary.
I had unlimited hours of sunlight left so after a while drinking beer in a bar, I decided to go for a walk along the sea front up to the famous postcard sculpture called the Solar Voyager (a sort of skeletal Viking longship made of metal).
It was then the weather finally drew in. The clouds that I had seen previously bubbling over the bay had reacher the capital and and covered it in a chillsome haze. I zipped up my fleece and took out my liquorice stick. The Draumur company; why would create such monstrosities? I eyed it suspiciously and genuinely thought about slyly throwing it away or finding someone in more need than I and giving it to them. Then I thought of Gabriela’s beaming face telling me how much she loved the stuff so, not spying any hungry homeless people anywhere, I slowly opened it.
It looked like a Curly Wurly without the holes. A long, innocent enough looking bobbled length of chocolate. I bit a chunk off. My tastebuds readied their defences. It was salty and had that bizarre sweet, electric tang that liquorice has, but it was tempered by the milk chocolate. I didn’t hate it. I ate liquorice and I didn’t feel the desire to punch something in a food rage. It was a minor miracle. I finished the whole damn thing, mostly out of a kind of Nordic honour, and, because I literally had paid for it.
Could I say I now knew Reykjavik or Iceland through its food? Perhaps, but probably not. There was a lot of country ahead of me though. I had had lobster soup, lamb dogs, ice cream and fancy desserts, meat stew, charcuterie and skyr, but, ironically, the one thing that was an actual surprise was the lack of hatred for a freebie given to me by a blonde-haired Amazonian. I didn’t buy it again though. I wasn’t a masochist for heaven’s sake.