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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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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.