I believe you can learn a lot about a country, its people and its geography by the food that’s eaten there; the combination of flavours, the presentation and cooking methods used. Getting to know a country’s cuisine and the excitement of discovering new flavours is all part of the journey. Icelandic food was no exception. Here’s how I got on eating my way round Iceland…
I’d heard some pretty gruesome tales of what to expect and my taste buds arrived in Reykjavik with more than a little trepidation about the food I’d find on my plate. I’m happy to say I didn’t need the stash of chocolate Hobnobs I’d secreted in my case because Iceland served up some fabulous food.
What to eat in Iceland
So, what to eat in Iceland? Staple dishes include lamb, skyr, potatoes and fish – lots of fish. Iceland sits surrounded by chilly North Atlantic waters filled with cod, haddock, herring, halibut, skate, lobster, and salmon. The fish you’ll find on your plate in the evening was probably caught that morning. Huge geothermal heated greenhouses produce fresh vegetables and the country’s environmental awareness means that the meat, fish and seafood is some of Europe’s healthiest.
Some of the traditional fare (vegetarians look away now) is not for the faint-hearted but don’t panic because restaurants in Reykjavik also serve a lot of what you’d find at home. Here’s what Icelandic cuisine brings to the table both traditional and modern…
The lamb I ate in Iceland was beautiful, in fact the best I’ve ever tasted! Fillet of lamb served with root vegetables, parsnip, and red wine sauce was delicious, melt-in-the-mouth tender and full of flavour. I’m salivating just thinking about it again. Because Icelandic sheep roam freely in the highlands grazing on grass, plants and wild herbs the result of this idyllic life is a lean and tender meat full of flavour and devoid of hormones or pesticides. And its good to know they had a bit of lamby happiness before, well, you know…
Sheep’s Head In Iceland
Photo Credit Wikipedia
Here’s the heads up on Svið. A sheep’s head is singed to remove the wool, cut in half, de-brained, boiled and served with mashed root veg and then the lot devoured; including ears, eyes and tongue. I’d have tried a bite or two had the opportunity had arisen. Fortunately it didn’t – ditto the ram’s testicles pressed into cakes and pickled. But these aren’t just quirky snacks; the way the whole of the lamb is used and preserved was born from necessity and the need to get through lean, freezing Icelandic winters.
Icelandic hot dog
I wasn’t going to leave Reykjavík without sampling their infamous hot dog. Bæjarins beztu pylsur (the best hot dog in town) has servedhot dogs since 1937 from a hut opposite the harbour in downtown Reykjavík. They differ from your average dog in that they are made with lamb as well as pork and beef which gives them a slightly meatier flavour and a firmer texture.
The best way to eat them is ‘eina með öllu’ with everything. Which means your dog is loaded with two types of onion, crispy deep-fried and raw; ‘pylsusinnep’ a sweet brown mustard; ketchup and all finished off with remoulade, a mayonnaise mixed with finely chopped gherkin and caper. This combination adds up to a whole lot of flavour. I’m not a big fan of hot-dogs but had to try one to see if these really are the best hot dogs in the world. Verdict. Probably because every time I passed that hut there was a queue. Personally I thought they were okay. One hot dog costs 300 ISK so a good cheap lunch option on the go.
Bæjarins beztu pylsur Hot Dogs in Iceland
Fish dishes in Iceland
Icelandic fish is plentiful, fresh and delicious due to the abundant waters surrounding it. One of my favourite Icelandic fish dishes are deep-fried crispy cod balls. After biting through the light crisp batter the white, succulent cod is a wonderful contrast. Other favourites were the more healthy foods like shrimps on open sandwiches of rye bread with a twist of lemon, delicately smoked trout or salmon and meaty monkfish. All locally sourced and beautifully cooked.
Iceland has its fishy dark side in the form of cured shark. The abundant Greenland shark is poisonous because of high levels of urea present in the flesh which, by the way, smells like ammonia. Icelanders have come up with an ingenious way of making it eatable, although not necessarily palatable, and only slightly poisonous. So that’s nice. The meat is cured by burying it in sand for 6-12 weeks before hanging it to dry and ferment for four to five months. After this is done it’s called Hákarl, and is safe to eat. Yay! A small cube is swallowed and quickly washed down with a shot of Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps. Also known as Black Death Brennivin is made from fermented potatoes and caraway seeds. Did I try it? Yes, but I skipped the shark course…
Brennivin, Icelandic Scnapps
Alcohol in Iceland
Talking of alcohol, one of the top four lagers in Iceland is Gull which is made with Icelandic barley and water. Gull is sold in most bars and every state alcohol shop in Iceland. Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1st March 1989 so beer day, Bjórdagurinn, is celebrated on that day every year now. Gull is best served ice cold! Alcohol is expensive so it’s worth picking up a duty-free bottle from your departure airport.
Last up let me introduce you to skyr. Technically it’s a soft cheese, made from gelatinous milk curds which tastes like a mix of yoghurt and crème fraîche. It’s gorgeous was my food of choice for breakfast – fab with blueberries, muesli and dehydrated strawberries. The best bit though is that this super food is high in protein, rich in calcium and low carbs and fat so it’s actually good for you! Many UK supermarkets now sell Skyr.
Icelandic breakfast with skyr
That’s a little taster of some of the food I sampled. Icelandic food is fresh, interesting and absolutely delicious. Yes, there are some foods that may not appeal but you don’t know until you try them. Given the chance I’d have had a small taste of everything I’ve told you about here – even the fermented shark! What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever tried and where did you eat it?
Last weekend I was beyond excited to be in Iceland – a place that has always been right up there in my ‘really wanna see’ list. I have a whole heap of Iceland photos, foodie finds, tales of the Golden Circle, Icelandic design, a photo tour of Reykjavik,a dip in the Blue Lagoon and lots of really cool Icelandic things that I’ll be sharing with you over the next few weeks but in the meantime here’s an Instagram teaser to whet the appetite…
The last thing I expected when I started my blog was to find myself baking biscotti with the very charming Ben Fogle but that’s exactly what happened this week. I was invited to London to the über cool Hoxton Hotel by Celebrity Cruises. Together with the other ‘Destination Bloggers’ we met Ben, their brand ambassador, and heard all about Ben Fogle’s Great Adventures before heading off to cook up a Sicilian Feast.
Ben’s designed some new adventurous shore excursions enabling guests to really dig deep into the destinations they’re visiting. They can now do so much more than just take look at the place. Tours include creating your own flavour gelato in Sorrento, Kayaking the Stockholm Archipelago and taking a Sicilian Gastronomic Tour and Cooking Class. I actually experienced Ben’s Sicilian Gastronomic tour and cooked up a Sicilian feast the following year – read about it here.
We started the day with a round table meeting with some of the Celebrity Cruise executives and their marketing company. Ben described, with great enthusiasm, the new excursions he’s created for Celebrity Cruises and after lunch we had a few nerve-wracking minutes to interview him. Even after all this excitement the day wasn’t over and in the evening some of us set off to [email protected] for a cooking class. We immersed ourselves in the ethos of the new excursions and really got stuck into some classic Sicilian food.
John Benbow, owner and chef, at [email protected] taught us how to prepare his Roast Chicken with herby mascarpone and Parma Ham recipe. It was served up with Parsley Potatoes and Leaf Salad followed by Amaretti Semi-Fredo with Cantuccini (Italian Biscotti).
I love to cook and I adored every minute of this class which took place in the [email protected] kitchen adorned with gorgeous copper pans, a dresser filled with jars of condiments, utensils and the biggest stove I’ve ever seen. We donned aprons and gathered around a farmhouse style refectory table with the ingredients and utensils we needed all laid out before us.
We started off by preparing the biscotti – I didn’t know it but biscotti means twice cooked (bi) and not biscuit as I’d always thought. I’ve shared the biscotti recipe at the end if you fancy trying it out – nice with a morning coffee.
Soft, fresh focaccia were dipped into ceramic bowls of satin-smooth virgin olive oil to tempt our appetites while John explained how to prepare the biscotti. We then followed his instructions and produced our own biscotti, although not as neat a result. These were put in the oven for their first bake while we went on to learn how to de-bone a chicken thigh. Something I’ve never done before but is really useful to know.
The thighs were stuffed with a fragrant mixture of herbs, seasoning and mascarpone all wrapped up in mouth-watering Parma Ham. The pan-roasted chicken was served with sauce made from the pan juices and a dash of piquant lemon. While this was cooking we sliced the once baked roll of biscotti dough into bite-sized pieces and popped it back into the oven for its second bake.
When I’d interviewed Ben earlier in the day I’d asked him if he ever tried to recreate dishes at home that he’d loved on his travels. He confessed that he wasn’t really very good in the kitchen. Judging by the look of his chopped herbs he wasn’t wrong. However, he whipped up a storm in the kitchen along with the double cream for the Amaretti semi freddo desert.
While everything was cooking we went back upstairs to the [email protected] chill-out room filled with fabulous cookery books, big squishy sofas and retro furnishings. Stained glass and old-fashioned standard lamps set the scene as we chatted over a glass of smooth Sicilian red. It wasn’t long before some delectable smells wafted up from the kitchen and we eagerly returned to the table to sample our efforts.
The chicken was tender and full of flavour with the lemon in the sauce complimenting it perfectly, as did the nutty new potatoes garnished with parsley and a fresh leaf salad. Because semi freddo takes six hours to chill properly, although we’d made our own, in true Blue Peter style we sampled one that John had made earlier.
The creamy dessert was jewelled with pistachios, dusted with cocoa powder and finished with a hint of sweet Amaretti. Golden brown crumbly biscotti on the side made it the perfect ending to a gorgeous Sicilian feast. The food was fabulous, the experience a lot of fun and the guests sparkled – an evening I’ll savour for a long while to come.
Recipe for John Benbow’s Biscotti
Makes 30 biscuits
500g self raising flour
300g caster sugar
200g blanched almonds (whole)
50 g ground almonds
Pinch of salt
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Add the eggs, ground almonds, diced butter and sugar (2 knives slicing together works well to blend in the butter). Form together to bring a dough.
Lightly bash the blanched almonds in a tea towel with a rolling pin and mix into the dough. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for an hour
Preheat the oven for 180C. Roll the dough into four long sausages on two separate greased baking trays, about the diameter of a 10p piece. Cook for 30 minutes.
Remove and allow to cool slightly.
Slice with a slight diagonal angle, about 1.5cm apart. Turn each slice on its side (while still on the baking tray) and return to the hot oven for a further 5 minutes.
Remove, cool and enjoy with a nice cup of coffee 🙂
Back in October I interviewed adventurer and explorer Ben Fogle on his return from his first cruise to find out what he thought about his Celebrity Cruise experience. I was surprised to learn that for him it’s always been about the journey and how you get there as well as the destination itself. Last week I was thrilled to meet Ben in person to find out about the exciting and unique new shore excursions that he’s designed for Celebrity Cruises as their ‘Destinations Expert’.