Recap: Edible Oddities Consumed in Iceland, plus What’s On the Menu Next Time

Soon after I returned to the States, I joined some friends at my church’s family camp.  Everyone was excited to see me and hear stories from my trip, and apparently people had been reading my blog, because more than one person asked me about/applauded me for all the interesting (and often disgusting) foods I tried.  I think I have written about everything I tried, but they’re spread out over several blog entries, so I thought it might be interesting to compile the list now.  So, without further ado, I present to you the list of…

Edible Oddities I Consumed in Iceland

(Plus several non-oddities…)

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Kjöt, Fiskur, og Egg (Meat, Fish, and Eggs)

  • puffin – Yes, the cute little black-and-white bird.  Can’t say I enjoyed it much; it’s very strong, almost gamey, and I wasn’t feeling well the day I ate it anyway, but if/when I marry Helgi, I suppose I’ll have to get used to it.

  • sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam) – This is what happens when you scrape out all the ooey gooey bits and pieces from inside a sheep’s head and smoosh it together into a gelatinous cube.  Just about as terrible as it sounds/looks.

  • harðfiskur – Unsalted fish, dried to a straw-like crisp in the sun and wind.

  • hákarl – The infamous putrefied Greenland shark.  (Disclaimer: I didn’t actually swallow it, but considering that Gordon Ramsay threw it up and Anthony Bourdain described it as the single worst food he’s ever eaten, I think that even keeping it in my mouth for 5 seconds counts as a success.)

  • horse meat sausage – I don’t think it was entirely horse meat; it actually tasted like lamb to me.  Anyway, I didn’t know it contained horse meat until after I had eaten it.  It was really quite good, although I’m still not much of a red meat person.

  • pylsa – Icelandic hot dog made with lamb, topped with crunchy fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, mustard, and remoulade.

  • lamb – I know this isn’t exactly an exotic food, but I don’t normally eat red meat and actually I don’t think I had ever eaten lamb before.
  • hangikjöt – Smoked lamb, thinly sliced and served with flatbrauð and smjör.  Not bad, but a little too smokey for my taste.
  • lax – I tried smoked and cured varieties, but they were both too raw for me.  I’ll stick to cooked smoked salmon.
  • this weird egg – I don’t remember what kind of bird this is from, but my host parents insisted they are SO much better than hen eggs.  That might be true, but I was too disturbed by the translucent white and the too-orange yolk to really register the taste.

  • súrsaðir hrútspungar – Soured ram’s testicles.  Actually one of the least heinous of the disgusting-sounding traditional foods.  Just a little sour.

  • fiskibollur – Like meatballs made of fish.  Not bad, not good.  I don’t think fish should be quite that chewy.
  • fiskbúðingur (fish pudding) – I could have translated the ingredients on the can (yes, it comes in a can), but I figured it was safer not to know.  It comes out of the can in one big cylinder, then is sliced and pan-fried.  Like the fiskibollur, it was a little too chewy for comfort…
  • steinbítur, ýsa, karfi, og meira fiskar – I ate a LOT of fish, and I didn’t always know what kind it was.  I do know that I loved the steinbítur and karfi, but found the monkfish rather questionable.

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Brauð (Bread)

  • rúgbrauð – A dense, dark, sweet rye bread made with molasses.  One of my favorites.  I need to find a recipe.
  • pönnukökur – Icelandic pancakes.  Basically a crepe.  Served with rhubarb jam and whipped cream or simply with sugar. I need to attempt these at home.

  • hveitikökurFlat white bread, similar to pita bread.  I ate it for breakfast with smjör and cheese.  Mmm.
  • flatbrauð – Not sure how to describe this.  As the name suggests, it’s very flat, it has a mildly sweet taste, and it’s often paired with smjör and hangikjöt.

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Sykur (Sugary Treats)

  • rababarasulta – Rhubarb jam.  I don’t usually like rhubarb jam in the States, but I think it’s the official jam of Iceland, and it’s very good.  Seems to be served with just about anything, from pönnukökur to meatballs.
  • hjónabandssæla (‘happy marriage cake’) – Oatmeal cake with jam filling.  I tried some from a bakarí in Reykjavík, enjoyed the one Ásta made in Hvolsvöllur, and ordered some on my flight home (the flight attendant was extremely impressed that I could pronounce it correctly).
  • hrísgrjónagrautur (rice pudding) – I tried three versions of this.  One was already prepared and just had to be heated on the stove; one was homemade by Hrafnhildur, and one came in a little individual-serving container with a side of caramel sauce (hrísmjólk með karamellusósu).  They were all magical.

  • Prince Polo bars – Okay, so they’re actually Polish, but they are well-loved in Iceland, and I can see why; they’re pretty tasty.  Too bad they’re made by Kraft.

  • skyr – A thick dairy product, similar to Greek yogurt.  Love love love it!

  • Nói Síríus chocolate – Yum yum, although I much prefer the dark varieties (which you have to find in the baking section; apparently your average Icelander thinks chocolate over 45% cacao content is not suitable for direct consumption).
  • black licorice – Eh.  I tried the sweet kind and the salty kind and the in-between kind and while it no longer makes me want to gag, it’s far from my favorite.

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Drykkir (Drinks)

  • Icelandic moss tea –  Mild flavor; nothing too exciting.
  • kaffi kaffi kaffi – Mmm.  Icelanders don’t know what weak coffee is, and that’s exactly how it should be.
  • Egils appelsín (orange soda) – Not much of a soda drinker, but this was pretty good.  It was also good in combination with maltextrakt (the mix is known as jólaöl).

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Although that is quite the list and I am certainly proud of it, I did miss out on a few important items of Icelandic cuisine.  Oh darn. Guess I’ll have to go back.

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On the Menu for Next Time:

  • whale meat – I actually had the chance to try this but I didn’t take a piece in time and then it was all gone.  One of my few regrets.
  • svið (sheep’s head) – I could have tried this at our Taste of Iceland dinner, but I refrained, which was good, because as it turns out, our particular sheep’s heads had not been cooked…

  • ástarpungar – A round doughnut-like pastry with raisins.
  • brennivín – Icelandic schnapps.  The name literally means ‘burning wine.’
  • Icelandic moss soup – I don’t think this is exactly common dinner faire any more, but I’m assuming you can find it in some tourist-serving restaurants…

That’s all I can come up with.  Can you think of anything else I missed that I should add to my list?

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adventure tour, day 2: vestmannaeyjar

Ferðaáætlun, dagur 2: Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands)

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On Day 2, we packed up, thanked Ásta for her gracious hospitality, said goodbye to Brúnaland, and drove to Landeyjahöfn to catch the ferry Herjólfur to the Westman Islands (our van was in the ‘XL-Bílar’ lane).  Apparently this harbor was only constructed in 2010; before that, the primary gateway to the islands was through Þorlákshöfn, about 100 km west.  The old route took nearly 3 hours; the current route, only 30 minutes.

The Westman Islands are an archipelago off the southwest coast of Iceland.  Heimaey (‘home island’), with a population near 5,000, is the only inhabited island.

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The ferry, Herjólfur, docked at Landeyjahöfn

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Sumarhús?

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On a clear day you have a beautiful view of Eyjafjallajökull throughout the ferry ride.  Before you reach Heimaey, you pass a number of much smaller islands.  One or two of them had single homes on them, which I’m assuming are private summer homes.  Doesn’t look like the easiest place to get to, though.

When you near Heimaey, the boat is suddenly overshadowed by cliffs on one side, and just when you’re thinking the island looks completely empty, you round a corner and see a sprawling town (well, okay, sprawling by Icelandic standards).  I was surprised by the size and also by the smell – a rather unpleasant combination of fish and bird droppings, I believe.

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Heimaey harbour

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We checked into Hreiðrið Guesthouse and then Kent took us on a little van tour.  We drove past Herjólfsdalur, the valley where the Þjóðhátíð festival takes place every August.  Þjóðhátíð is a long weekend of music, merriment, and sometimes more, since Ásta Sól says there’s generally a noticeable upswing in Iceland’s birth rate every May.

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Party central every August

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We continued south to Stórhöfði, a weather station and viewpoint on the south end of the island.  Eyjafjallajökull looms from the north, and the water to the south is dotted with other islands, including Surtsey, the newest island on earth.  It was created by a submarine volcanic eruption in the 1960s and is the second-largest island in the archipelago, although due to erosion it is only half the size it once was.

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meira eyjar

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Surtsey is the one in the background on the right, with the low, long spit on one side.

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The next stop was Eldfell.  Anyone with an interest in Iceland probably knows that the eruption of Eldfell in 1973 forced the evacuation of Heimaey and ultimately increased the island’s land mass by about 2 square kilometers.  The lava flow threatened to cut off the harbor, which would have made Heimaey completely uninhabitable, but with some strategy and some luck, they were able to divert the lava flow and the harbor is actually better protected now than it was before the eruption.

There is a sort of path up the mountain, but the rocks are large and loose so it’s rather slow going, similar to the resistance you feel when walking up a sand dune.  Still, it was completely worth it for the view.

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Red

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Sadly, my camera malfunctioned and I seem to have lost about 25 photos I took at the top.  I do have a few, though, and everyone else in the group was snapping away so hopefully I’ll be able to steal some more shots.

We tumbled and slid back down the mountain, returned to the guesthouse for lunch, and then had free time the rest of the afternoon.  Most people went swimming, but I decided to go for a solitary walk.  First I noticed a soccer game and watched for awhile, then I walked ‘downtown.’  Unfortunately hardly anything was open (it was Sunday), so I just wandered around for awhile.  I was surprised by how urban the town is.  Okay, maybe suburban would be a more appropriate term, but really, I guess I expected it to be more countrified and quaint, when in reality it almost looked like a small section of Reykjavík, minus the city’s wonderful charms, had been picked up and plunked down on Heimaey.

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Ohhh so this is what the lögreglumenn do all day!

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alltaf fiskar á íslandi

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Neighbors: the university and the liquor store

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I failed to find a kaffihús or other place to hang out, so I bought a few snacks at a grocery store and went back to the guesthouse for a nap.  In the afternoon, my host mom Hrafnhildur called me to say halló so I chatted with her a bit in what I would call Eng-landic or Ice-lish.  Whatever it was, it was enough to effectively communicate, and when I got off the phone, Jolene said something like, ‘Holy shit!  You frickin’ speak Icelandic!’  That’s definitely an exaggeration, but it really is amazing how much we can communicate with my limited Icelandic and her limited English.

For dinner we enjoyed a barbecue in the courtyard between our two guesthouses.  After dinner, a bunch of us stayed outside and chatted.  Jolene showed off her impressive magnetic forehead talent:

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Amöndu is rendered speechless (but not expressionless) by Jolene’s talent

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We talked and laughed while the sun sank below the hills and turned the evening light pink, no one wanting to be the first to leave and break that magical midnight sun spell.  But eventually we realized we should get some sleep, so we all found our ways to our little puffin-bordered rooms and slept.

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góða nótt

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íslenskur lundinn

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á morgun: Geysir, Gullfoss, Kjölur, Hofsós

Birds and Red Sand: A Day at Látrabjarg og Rauðisandur

It’s a grey, cloudy, but surprisingly warm day on the fjord.  My host parents (and most of the rest of the town) are at a funeral, so I’m on my own for the afternoon, which means I’m at my beloved Stúkuhúsið ready to catch up on my blog.  Now that I’ve finished writing about Saturday’s trip to Flatey, it’s time to catch up on last Sunday, when we embarked upon another all-day excursion, this time to Látrabjarg and Rauðisandur.

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I was tired after a week of work and the all-day trip on Saturday, so I slept in on Sunday and we got a bit of a late start.  We picked up Brynjólfur, got some sandwiches (my host dad made Brynjólfur translate all the names, even though I definitely know the difference between rækja and skinka), and headed out.  We stopped at a museum somewhere along the way.  If I understood correctly, the entirety of the museum’s holdings were collected by one man.  If someone hoards junk and food purchased with coupons, we mock them on TV, but if someone hoards historical artifacts, we name museums after them.  Double standard, eh?

The museum had all sorts of stuff from the area dating back at least a couple hundred years: tools, furniture, kitchen equipment, knit work.  Everything was labeled in Icelandic, of course, and most things also had a label with English, French, German, and Swedish translations. Unfortunately many of the English translations were incredibly awkward (kroftré: to hang meat on to be smoked) or missing entirely.

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Awkward!

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There were so many things to look at that it was a bit overwhelming, but I took in as much as I could and it was interesting nonetheless.  I only took a few pictures, mostly of knit work to show Hannah.

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Just for you, Hannah.

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They also had a display of artifacts that belonged to the man the museum is named after.  I guess he was a hermit for most of his life, made all his clothes and furniture himself, and always wore a certain hat.  So everyone was eager for me to see the hat.  I guess I forgot to take a picture, but I promise, it really wasn’t all that exciting.  Green and grey, patched, tattered.  Well-loved.

I enjoyed looking at some Icelandic sheet music.  I may have only understood some of the words, but if I could have sat down at a piano and played through them, I think I would have understood the essence of the song just as well as any Icelander.  My host dad seemed a bit perplexed as to why I was spending so much time trying to read the music and some poems and books they had on display.  I had to ask Brynjólfur to explain to him that I am drawn to the written word, no matter what language it is.  If there is something to read, I’ll try to read it.  That’s just the way I am.

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Látrabjarg: A Bird Nerd’s Paradise

After the museum, we continued on until we got to Látrabjarg, a haven for bird enthusiasts and also the westernmost-point in Europe (my host dad really wanted to make sure I understood this).  There were some wonderful signs (er, pictograms, my Canadian friends!) in the parking area explaining the dangers of walking too close to the edge of the sheer cliffs.

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A helpful little pictogram depicting the fate of overenthusiastic bird nerds.

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I think people of any nationality can get the point.

We walked partway up the hill, found some rocks to sit on, and enjoyed our simple little samlokas.  Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur stayed behind while Brynjólfur and I walked up to the viewpoint.  It was a bit cloudy, but I guess on a clear day you can easily see Greenland in the distance.  What you can see – and hear – on any day are the thousands of birds that call Látrabjarg home.  The puffins are the cutest and most recognizable, of course, but there are also northern gannets, razorbills, and guillemots (at least according to Wikipedia – you didn’t actually think I would know this, did you?).  There were dozens of bird-crazy tourists with their gigantic cameras lying flat on their bellies at the edge of the cliff and taking photos, but I kept a safe distance.  Still, I got a couple good photos:

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Halló puffin! I promise I like you better like this than on my plate.

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See the tiny tiny specks atop the cliff? Those are people.

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It’s like a high-occupancy apartment building for birds.

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The sound was at least as impressive as the view.  I took a video and will post it on Facebook when I have time.  When I’d seen enough birds, I lied down in the grass (a safe distance from the edge, I promise) and watched the Icelandic clouds in the Icelandic sky.  I think I could have easily taken a nap right then and there.  But alas, we had another stop: Rauðasandur.

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Rauðasandur

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The road down to Rauðisandur is better described by the Icelandic word óvegur (un-road).  It is dry and gravelly, with windy switchbacks and no guardrail.  In other words, it’s a bit terrifying, and I wonder if it’s even open in the winter.  As you drive down into what I would best describe as a valley, you can see two spits of reddish orange sand reaching out toward each other from opposite sides of the bay.  We happened to be there at high tide, which means there was much less sand than usual, but it was still impressive.

We stopped at a little kaffihús along the waterfront, sat on the deck and ate flatbrauð with some sort of smoked fish, súkkulaðikaka (chocolate cake), and kaffi.

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‘kaffi’ might just be the best meal of the day

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The view was incredible, and photos absolutely do not do it justice.

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Icelandic pastoral

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Behind us was the sheer, rocky cliff of the mountain, and situated in the mountain’s shadow was a little village with a farm and of course a kirkja (church).  In front of us, the rocky shoreline gave way to an expanse of red sand, and beyond it the open water.  To the left, a waterfall trickled down from the mountains, and in the distance you could see Snæfellsness glacier.

Elisabet, the daughter of my boss at Albína, was working at the kaffihús, and the two other people there are siblings of another lady who works at Albína.  Even if you drive a couple towns over, you still run into the same families.

On the deck they had jars of sand from places around the world.  The sand from Rauðisandur was very coarse compared to, say, Florida sand.

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Sadly, they didn’t have any Washington sand.  Perhaps I’ll have to collect some and bring it back next time I come to Iceland.

After we ate, we drove down toward the sand.  Hrafnhildur and Sæmundur once again stayed behind, but Brynjólfur and I forged a little stream, walked through the grass, and started trekking across the sand.

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It felt looser than the sand at home and was kind of difficult to walk across, but I was determined to walk all the way to the water.  Even at high tide, though, the sand just keeps going and going.  If you blocked out the ocean and the mountains around it, it could easily pass as a desert, I think.

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Close up, the sand really does look reddish-orange (from a distance it’s more peachy), and it is very coarse compared to the sand in Washington and Oregon.

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The sand mounds a bit and then slopes down to the water, so you have to walk quite a distance before you can even see the ocean.  It finally came into view, and I pulled off my shoes and socks and went for a little arctic wade.

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It was surprisingly warm, really.  Well, not exactly warm, but no colder than the Pacific around the San Juans, I would say.

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Brynja says Rauðisandur is her favorite place in Iceland and she insists it’s much more impressive at low tide.  There’s actually a music festival there this weekend, featuring dozens of Icelandic artists (the only ones I recognized were Snorri Helgason and Lay Low), but unfortunately the tickets were sold out.  Too bad.  That might have made up for missing the free Of Monsters and Men concert in Reykjavík today.

On the way back to the car, I had to stop and write a little shout-out to my fellow Snorris in the sand.

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I didn’t grow up on the water, but we visited Lopez every year when I was a kid, and I’ve called it home for nearly two years, so I felt right at home being at the beach.  Grind the sand a little finer, exchange Snæfellsnes for Mt. Rainier, and it would pretty much be Washington.  Really, though, I think I can easily say that Rauðisandur is one of my favorite places I’ve been in Iceland.

Covered in sand, legs sore from the walk, we finally made it back to the car.  We had been gone for quite awhile, but thankfully, Sæmundur and Hrafnhildur didn’t seem to mind.  I made sure Brynjólfur told them it was one of my favorite places, so I think that helped!

Before we headed back up the mountain, we stopped by a little glacial stream and Sæmundur showed me the salmon swimming.

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Another long day, but I had enough energy left to go for a short walk.  The evening light turned the fjord beautiful colors.  Unfortunately, the air was filled with these nasty little bugs that seem to enjoy flying directly into one’s face, so I had to give up on my original idea of sitting by the water.  Still, I snapped a few lovely photos.

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Have I mentioned that this is a beautiful little corner of the world?