Top 10 foods to try in Iceland

Forget fermented shark and fiery schnapps. Discover some of the best seafood and lamb in the Nordic region with our guide to eating and drinking in Iceland.

Fishing boats anchored in an Icelandic port

Iceland is on fire right now – and we’re talking food rather than erupting volcanoes. This Nordic island used to be something of a culinary joke with every guidebook urging you to eat fermented shark (a delicacy that nobody, except tourists, gets excited about), and to drink Brennivín, an unsweetened schnapps (also known as ‘the Black Death’, which tells you everything you need to know).

But the financial crash in 2008 changed everything. Icelanders could no longer afford to eat the expensive imported goods they’d come to love, so they started looking at the food on their doorstep. Locals began making cheeses, jams, syrups from birch, and meadowsweet cured meats; and embracing Icelandic cuisine, influenced in part by the New Nordic movement.


Top 10 things to eat and drink

Smoked salt

Local salt is produced by evaporating seawater using geothermal power. As well as the plain stuff, you can buy salt mixed with black lava (much more delicious than it sounds), or with Arctic thyme and smoked over birch, which is fantastic with eggs.


Lobster soup

Lobster soup at Hotel Búðir

It’s become a cliché, but it’s still worth having the lobster soup served at Sægreifinn down by the harbour in Reykjavík. It’s not fancy – the place isn’t much more than a shack – but the Icelandic lobster is good, and the soup is heavenly. The other place to try it is at the Hotel Búðir on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland – but it will cost you a lot more there.


Boiled cod head

Boiled cod head at Mattur og Drykkur
This, says chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, who came up with the dish when he worked at Matur og Drykkur, is a perfect example of how old Icelandic dishes have been reimagined. The cod head is poached in chicken stock, glazed with a blow torch (it looks like a bronze sea monster) and served with potato salad and lovage, a plant which is hugely popular here. The best bits are the cod cheeks.


Icelandic lamb

With seaweed and angelica as grazing crops, Icelandic lamb is the best I’ve tasted. Old-fashioned dishes include lamb stew (a kind of Icelandic-Irish stew) and smoked lamb (eaten cold with rye flatbread or warm with potatoes and white sauce). Visit sheep farms, such as Bjarteyjarsandur, an hour from the capital, to talk to the farmers and taste their cured lamb, stew and sausages.


Rye bread

One of my favourite things to eat here is the soft, cake-like rye bread, which is slowly cooked underground using geothermal heat. You see loaves of it for sale everywhere and it’s lovely eaten with Icelandic cheeses or rhubarb jam.


Icelandic beer

Icelandic beer
Until 1989, beer was outlawed in Iceland, but, making up for lost time, now there are microbreweries all over the place. Most cafés and restaurants have beer on the menu and some offer seasonal ‘tasters’ (five or six served together, particularly great in the summer). Some can be briny, others as floral as meadows.


Salt liquorice

Icelanders are crazy for liquorice; you’ll find it in cakes, meringues, and even ice cream. Buy the ice cream at Valdis in Reykjavík, or seek out packets of salt liquorice and bars of liquorice-flavoured dark chocolate in any supermarket.


Fruit schnapps

Rhubarb liquor at 64 Reykjavík Distillery

Vodka production is really on the up (and there are some very good ones), but the schnapps and liqueurs, made from botanicals, fruit and birch leaves, are even more distinctive. Try 64° Reykjavík Distillery – the rhubarb liqueur is particularly delicious.


Cinnamon buns and kleina

Cinnamon bun
Cinnamon buns are not specifically Icelandic, but the ones at Brauð & Co in Reykjavík are so good that people queue from 6am for them. For a specifically Icelandic pastry, get kleina, deep-fried doughnuts dusted with cardamom sugar. Go to Sandholt bakery to try them.


Skyr

You can buy skyr in UK supermarkets, but it isn’t the real deal. Proper skyr (a soft-cheese/yogurt-like product specific to Iceland) is made from a starter from a previous batch and rennet. Sample the difference at cheese workshops run at the Reykjavík deli Búrið.


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What's your favourite Icelandic food? Let us know in the comments below...

Good Food contributing editor Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer. Every month she creates exclusive recipes using seasonal ingredients for Good Food magazine.

Comments, questions and tips

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topmandy
31st Jul, 2017
The Icelandic lamb is very different to lamb in other countries because the diet is so different - it tastes much more herby, but is very expensive. We all loved Skyr though - tried every flavour imaginable.
runner51
30th Jul, 2017
Was just in Iceland and tried the bread and buns at Braud & Co. It was just around the corner from my cousin's home where I was staying. No they were no the best buns and it was full of tourists. A loaf of bread was about $10. My cousin had picked up a loaf for a family get together and it was burnt and dry. The salted and unsalted liquorice ice cream was super yummy at Valdis.I bought the Reykjavik Distillery blueberry about 4 years ago and can't seem to give it away. Was never brave enough to invest in the Rhubarb.The fish and chips Vagninn down at the harbour was excellent 3 servings cost $64.35.for the cod. https://www.schoolsoutletsgo.com/blog/category/Iceland
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