Tor Benson went to Iceland for the alternative energy and fish biology and stayed for the sheep’s head. Our correspondent in Reykjavik takes the gastronomic plunge.
I arrived in Iceland’s international airport of Keflavik on the last Friday morning in August after a seven-hour flight, a difference of seven hours from the west coast of the United States. I was picked up from the airport by my Icelandic friend, Arnar, who had been a student at my high school in Washington State for a year. We had kept in touch so when I told him I was coming to Iceland he insisted I stay at his house with his parents whenever I wanted.
My first impression of Iceland was about their excellent hospitality and simple but very comfortable, clean homes, a sharp contrast to the smell when you take a shower for the first time. Stepping into my first hot Icelandic shower, I was struck by the distinct smell of rotten eggs. Around 90% of Iceland’s energy comes from renewable forms of energy, used to heat water and homes, and for cooking. The rotten egg smell is due to the sulfur that is present in the volcanic landscape of Iceland, although Iceland has some of the purest water in the world. My experience with boiling water for cooking was a similar one – I started out using hot water to speed the boiling, until I realized that cold water did not contain the sulfur. Even after a lifetime of living in Iceland, Icelanders still cook with cool water because the taste of sulfur is very distinct, even to them.
When Arnar’s parents came to the U.S. they brought a dish known as Hákarl, shark that has been buried and allowed to ferment for several months. Although it is a traditional Icelandic dish, most Icelanders do not care for it, and I agree with them. Even my Icelandic friend, Arnar, had tried it once before and was not going to try it with us. It has a similar consistency to pickled herring, although it is cut in into half- inch white cubes that resemble tofu in both appearance and texture.
My first weekend in Iceland included a number of customary dishes although all of them were much more enjoyable than the shark. I was asked if I had ever had lamb and I replied with a “ Ja,” but was informed that I had never tried barbequed Icelandic lamb. Icelandic lamb has a distinct gamey flavor due to its free range summertime lifestyle. Arnar’s family then went to a monthly get-together with friends where I was offered marinated and barbequed reindeer, the most expensive and tender meat that can be purchased in Iceland. There are reindeer in the eastern part of Iceland but the population is tightly managed. Reindeer looks very much like beef, but it is much more tender than most other wild animal meat, such as deer or elk.
I think the dish that will surprise people the most is the cutest bird of the north. Although I was unable to see the birds before they flew south, I was able to taste Puffin at a family meal. The Puffin’s diet consists of needlefish and it tastes much like the fish-eating duck of the United States, although smaller. Puffin is usually served with a sauce that was a little too sweet for me, in comparison to the rich flavor of the meat.
During my second weekend in Europe, I received an invitation to go Arnar’s family summerhouse for the weekend, about an hour out of Reykjavik. It is very common for an Icelandic family to have a “summer” house where they go to relax after a busy workweek. This is well deserved as Icelanders work an average of 46 hours a week, one of the longest in Europe. We left around 3 p.m. and hit what they considered to be traffic, which consisted of bumper-to-bumper cars for one mile, with only a delay of about ten minutes. As soon as we arrived, the preparation of dinner began, which is what Icelandic society seems to operate around- the next meal.
Icelanders eat very well, with a typical dinner consisting of chicken, baked potatoes, and a salad or homemade pizza. Breakfast is usually bagels or some form of bread with flavored cream cheese such as bell pepper cream cheese, and sometimes cereal. On weekends, Arnar’s family commonly gets together on Sunday to share a European style breakfast of bread, meat, and cheese.
I have spent between one and three days each week with Arnar’s family since I have been in Iceland. This has allowed me to get a diverse feel for both workdays and weekends, and the food that accompanies. I do, however, feel like I should try to give back to them for everything they have provided me, so I made what Icelanders are always thinking about, the next meal. I had a good recipe for sloppy joes, but it has onions in it, which Arnar’s brother and sister do not care for, and his mother does not like the idea of ground beef. Arnar’s siblings were more willing to try it. I mixed the beef, bell pepper, tomato paste, onion, and beans, and let it simmer a while, and they ended up enjoying it. Even his mother had a taste. Almost every food item is labeled entirely in Icelandic, even the Cheerios and bagels, which is amazing for a population of only 300,000 people, although this does limit their food choices.
I have also tried to experience things on my own, and was able to do just that in a sushi restaurant on Laugavegar, the main street of Reykjavik. One of the many ways that Iceland distinguishes itself is its continuation of whaling of about 150 of both Fin and Minke whales from the Icelandic coastline each year. Iceland contends that the number it is harvesting is sustainable and that it has a right to continue because of its heritage, although this all could change with Iceland’s application and possible inclusion in the European Union. Far from the controversy in a kaffi hus ( coffee house) and sushi bar, were three American who had randomly run into each other while on a walk in the most northern capital of the world. We all ordered a new dish, mine consisting of two rolls of Minke Whale sushi. Its appearance was not distinguishable from a beefsteak, although it was slightly more tender than any steak I have ever had. It did not have any fat on it like you would typically think when eating whale. It was reasonably priced, running around 700 kroner, about six American dollars.
My Icelandic family is also planning on cooking Icelandic lobster, which are smaller than Maine Lobster but has a higher fat content due to its northerly location making it “much more succulent” according to Arnar’s uncle. There is, of course, the very Icelandic dish of sheep’s head, which I have yet to taste. This includes eating the facial muscles of the sheep, which Arnar’s grandma particularly enjoys. Many of these dishes are not commonly eaten in Iceland, although they have a very strong desire to hold onto traditions, including the old ways of preparing food, but this is mostly a once a year event during Thorrablot, a feast in January. Icelandic winters are long and dark with only about four hours of daylight in the winter which continues to make socializing and food a major part of Iceland’s culture.
OSU students can study in Iceland on the Civilization and Sustainability program in summer, 2010.