Iceland’s hydrogen economy and reliance on geothermal energy make it a model for sustainability. Tor Benson explores some of the sites that make this North Atlantic nation so unique. OSU students can see for themselves this summer on the study abroad program Iceland: Civilization and Sustainability.
My second weekend in Europe I received an invitation to go Arnar’s family’s summer house for the weekend which is about an hour out of Reykjavik. It is very common for an Icelandic family to have a “summer” house where they go and relax from after a busy work week. On our way to the summer house we stopped by a pumping station that provides hot water to the city which is used to heat their houses and shower. A favorite area to have a summer house is near the Golden Circle which is within an hour of Reykjavik. The Golden Circle is known for its geyser called Strukker, a waterfall called Gullfoss (The largest waterfall in Europe by volume), and the Althingi which is where the first Icelandic and arguably the first democracy in the world was established. The university has a tour at a reasonable price of around 25 dollars but the personal tour with Arnar’s family was a definite plus. On Sunday Arnar, his girlfriend and I went to the Althingi which is a very picturesque location overlooking a valley and lake.
With one in ten Icelanders writing a book, it is no surprise that we met an Icelander who is writing a book on day hikes around Reykjavik and charged us about 15 dollars a trip to go on a hike with wherever he was going on Saturdays and Sundays. On one such trip an Estonian friend of mine from my Icelandic Vocabulary course invited me to go along for the first time. On this trip we along with two girls from Spain, two guys one from Austria and one from Germany along with our Icelandic guide, Gunnlaugur or Gulli, and three Icelanders. We drove about two hour north of Reykjavik and hiked/climbed a 2800 ft mountain. On my second trip I invited my friends from my dorm and met up with four other international students. We went to a 2400 ft hill overlooking Reykjavik and went to a neighboring town and went swimming. There are twelve swimming pools in Reykjavik alone and cost about a dollar fifty to use the pool, hot tub, and sauna.
When my father came to visit I decided it was time to spend the money and go to the Blue Lagoon which is about ten dollars for students going to the University of Iceland but around thirty-five for adults. It is something to see and well worth the money. It is a natural hot spot that was deepened but has a very characteristic blue color due to silica and sulfur present in the water along with algae. The boiling water is initially pumped out of the ground and used to drive turbines and then cooled to about 100 degrees and added to the lagoon. It is situated in an old lava field about a half hour out of Reykjavik making it a favorite stop off before the airport.
The first week of November four exchange students rented a car for a day trip to Snaefellsnes Peninsula to see Snaefellsjokull. Jokull in Icelandic simply means glacier, with Vatnajökull in southern Iceland being the largest glacier in Europe. I had been to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula a month before but the roads were just as clear and the weather was even better. When you have a full car of people it is relatively easy and cheap to rent a car. After the glacier we drove to a fishing village called Riv and found some Icelandic horses that were more than willing to accept a carrot. No horses have been imported to Iceland since the 1600’s making them very distinct in their low stature.
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.