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How the Icelandic are embracing the island's native ingredients

The people of Iceland are embracing their natural larder like never before, creating everything from traditional skyr to birch sap to vegan sausages

Published 3 Apr 2019, 10:21 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 16:46 BST
Dried cod heads, Borgarfjörður Eystri

Dried cod heads, Borgarfjörður Eystri

Photograph by Karolina Wiercigroch

Eymundur takes a big gulp of black coffee. Frowns. And then smiles. "Being a farmer is a gamble," he tells me. "Especially in Iceland." He points to the floor-to-ceiling window of his farm's cafe. Light floods through it, revealing berry bushes, towering aspen trees and, somewhere in the distance, a long ridge of snow-dusted mountains.

Consider the most idyllic conditions for crop growing — then slide to the other end of the scale. And even further still. This is gluggaveður ('window weather' — nice to look at, not so great to be out in), when cobalt-blue sky combines with blow-you-over wind, frost and snow — probably the worst conditions for a farmer.

But Eymundur isn't just any farmer. Far from it. Today, Vallanes, his 988-acre farm in East Iceland, is the most successful organic farm in the country; the barley producer of choice for everyone from hip indie chocolate brand Omnom to the cosy, traditional restaurants that dot the countryside. "I wanted to be a farmer since I was six," the sixty-something tells me. "Cultivating gives me a good feeling. A freshly ploughed field is the most beautiful thing in the world."

Today, I'm sampling produce at his farm's cafe, built using wood from trees Eymundur planted here in the late-1980s. He heaps two spoonfuls of Gabriel's Breakfast into my bowl — a cinnamon and barley concoction that Eymundur made for his son when he was three years old — then sprinkles it with edible purple pansies. Twenty years on, the dish remains popular, just one of the many ways in which Eymundur's low-sugar, low-GI grains help to fuel locals and travellers passing through the region. "It's delicious," I enthuse.

Not an adjective commonly associated with Icelandic food, it has to be said. The country's diet has long been — unfairly — caricatured by outsiders as something of a comic novelty, thanks in part to the disproportionate fame of dishes like fermented shark, sheep's head and rams' testicles. But while such traditional foods are still consumed, the island's culinary range is far broader. It has long relied heavily on imports, though, so when the financial crisis hit in 2008, Icelanders were forced to look to their own shores and see what they could produce themselves.

"It was like a volcanic eruption," Eyglo, Eymundur's partner tells me. "Energy was released through all sectors; people moved from finance to food. It created new producers — it made us realise we could make something for ourselves." Eyglo, who previously worked for a company importing Italian goods, was one of the many who shifted focus. Today, she runs the greenhouse at Vallanes, a vast space filled with rocket, tarragon and angelica, which she tinkers with as she shows me around. In the adjacent cafe she serves punters hearty breakfasts, including barley pancakes, which I heap with her homemade rhubarb jam, plus punchy chutneys and fermented cabbage. I'm surprised just how tasty this last item is, especially considering it's 8am. But it feels like a good time, and the right place, to try new things.

Mum knows best
A few miles down the road in the small lakeside town of Egilsstaðir (the gateway to the region, thanks to its small airport), I meet Vigdis and her son, Baldur, at their family-run farm. The duo are the region's go-to producers of one of Iceland's most traditional dishes: skyr. While Brits may be familiar with skyr for its recent trendiness — the protein-packed, low-fat, low-sugar yogurt-cheese hybrid has been labelled as the next superfood — it's a food that's been eaten in Iceland for over 1,000 years.

"I learnt to make skyr from my mother-in-law," Vigdis tells me. She adds that her grandmother went to school in the early 1900s to learn to make it, and shows me a black-and-white portrait from that era.

The family has operated a dairy farm for the past 30 years, and as the country's tourist industry boomed, so did visitor interest in their Icelandic cattle — traditionally, they're the only breed used to make the protein.

"I said to my husband that visitors kept coming to look at the farm. I told him we should do something to market ourselves. He ignored my ideas," she says. "Then the financial crisis hit," she laughs, "and he finally paid attention."

The result is Fjoshornid, the family's small, comfy cafe next to the farm. I settle into a vintage velvet armchair and try their skyr in various forms, from the straight-up barely sweetened version, which is generously dolloped into a bowl and doused even more generously with cream, to an even sweeter version layered with a chunky blackcurrant jam. Traditionally, it's a product that would have been topped with blueberries and eaten as a meal — although nowadays commercial giants around the globe stock it in the yogurt aisle and market it as a snack.

In the small kitchen at the back of the cafe I get a sneak peak of the skyr-making process, and sample the latest batch. It's tangy, almost cheesy, although not at all off-putting. "It's a forgotten art to enjoy sour foods," Baldur explains. "The 21st-century diet has become so accustomed to sugar." Despite this, their lightly sweetened version is a hit: the family deliver paper parcels (no plastic packaging here, thanks) to hotels, restaurants and families all over the east of the island.

Happy coincidence
For many Icelanders, the financial crash meant they were forced into a new career, but for others the straitened economic climate proved fortuitous, opening the door to new opportunities. I drive out of Egilsstaðir towards Hallormsstaður — the biggest forest in the country. Unlike the car-clogged southern coast, which is much more popular with visitors, the roads here in the east are blissfully empty, aside from the few thousand geese that happily saunter across the lanes, or plant themselves on the hard shoulder, enjoying a breezy snooze. After a series of turns, I arrive deep in the forest where Gudny and Begga are working in their 'office' — 90 or so spindly birch trees that stretch into the sky, where the only sound is the whoosh of air through their leaves.

In theory, anyone could come to this government-owned forest, tap the birch trees and pick leaves for their tea. But turning that into a lucrative business is a different matter. In many ways, the two friends were helped along by the crash: they were reluctant to take out a bank loan to turn their hobby into a business, so decided to pick pine cones in the forest and sell them over Christmas. That coincided with a period when cones —  traditionally imported from Holland — suddenly became very pricy, forcing people to buy local. "We made 400,000 kroner [£3,000] selling cones at Christmas, which allowed us to fund our kitchen," Gudny says. Today, although still part hobby, part business, the ladies supply the country's supermarkets with birch syrup, birch tea leaves, rhubarb and stoneberry jams — a selection of which I happily stash in my suitcase.

New ideas, new life
But the island's economic woes weren't solely responsible for the exciting shift in Iceland's culinary landscape. East Iceland is crammed with motivated entrepreneurs and creative individuals who are shaping the country's cuisine, and injecting new life into the coast's tiny fishing towns while they're at it.

Take Seyðisfjörður, for example, a little town accessible only by a road that drops over the top of a mountain and down into a bay via a series of 10%-incline switchbacks that pass plunging waterfalls. It's hell for the cyclists that arrive here on the ferry from Denmark, but heaven for my nerdy inner geographer. It's also achingly pretty, with its little houses, sunsets on the sea and bobbing fishing boats making me long to pick up a paintbrush and coat some canvas.

I could stand here by the water, taking it in for hours, but I've a reservation to keep. On the second floor of a repurposed convenience store I find Norð Austur – Sushi & Bar, a beautiful restaurant with moss-green walls and navy net curtains (the hip kind, not the type you'd find at your grandma's house). It's the work of David, one of the restaurant's co-owners, who's spent the past few years converting the village's abandoned bank, school and shops into restaurants and boutique hotels.

Traditionally prepared cod was never going to cut it here. Instead, David wanted to put a whole new spin on the Icelandic catch, serving it — much to the horror of the ageing locals — as sushi. "It gives the fisherman a whole new appreciation for fish, culturally," explains Jonny, the half-Japanese, half-Italian chef who relocated from Washington DC to work here. "To see an old, experienced fisherman open up new doors, and be excited about what we can do with the fish here is so fun." He adjusts his baseball cap and starts slicing the freshest fish I'll ever taste.

It starts with a punchy, tongue-tingling coriander, mint and yuzu (a citrus fruit)-dressed ceviche, followed by a smoked arctic char served on a dollop of skyr. Next is a delicate crab roll ("Alli, the fisherman, showed up at my door today asking what I could do with it," Jonny says), before thick slices of salmon belly are seared on a piping-hot stone nabbed from a beach on the south coast. Instead of trying to recreate Japanese cookery using authentic Asian ingredients and techniques, Jonny has simply adapted to what's available here on the east coast. For instance, instead of using rice bran and salt in the pickling process, as before, he now uses barley sourced from Vallanes. The farm is also his main herb provider — Eyglo finds out what he needs, then commits to growing it in her greenhouse.

Microbrews & vegan bangers
A little way along the coast in the tiny fishing village of Breiðdalsvík, Elis has a big responsibility on his hands. Huge. In a two-storey warehouse that once functioned as a slaughterhouse and fish factory, he uses the region's abundant water supply to brew beer, serving his fruity 6% pale ales to the village's loyal locals, as well as travellers like me.

The east's first microbrewery, Beljandi Brewery, opened last year following an ambitious, whisky-fuelled agreement between Elis and his now business partner. "Iceland is a country that's full of opportunities," he tells me, pouring me another ale. "We adapt fast." I see what he means. Beer, to my amazement, was only made legal here in 1989, but today it's guzzled as fondly as black coffee. And when the ales inevitably take their toll, the bar-brewery also serves fish and chips on its sun deck. With a pint in my hand and the hypnotic sound of the waves in my ears, I have to be practically dragged away.

We then take the coastal road — an empty winding slice of tarmac that virtually touches the Norwegian Sea on one side and mountains on the other — soon arriving at Karlsstaðir farm. From the outside it looks like a series of sheep sheds surrounded by fields, but inside is a super-cool cafe, complete with dangly light bulbs and a stage for live bands — Svavar, one of the owners, is the lead singer in an Icelandic group called Prins Polar.

He's on tour, but his wife, Berglind, is keen for me to try their Bulsur, the vegan sausage that catapulted them to culinary fame in 2013. "We were vegetarian at the time and there wasn't anything on the market like it," she tells me. "We made them in our kitchen and they sold out in supermarkets in three hours." Nowadays, the couple source barley from Vallanes and sell more than 20,000 packs of sausages a year; many of them are served up at their farm's cafe, Havarí, alongside homemade kale chips — kale being one of the vegetables that will happily grow in Iceland's somewhat inhospitable climate.

I go for a currywurst — a delicious vegan sausage packed with chilli, garlic, barley and seeds, served on a duvet of mashed homegrown organic potatoes, and topped with a slightly spicy tomato sauce. It's deliciously filling, but I have one eye on dessert — a traditional Icelandic happy marriage cake. Packed with rhubarb (which grows as readily as weeds in Iceland) and oats, it's a crumble-esque dish that's supposed to guarantee a successful marriage — providing you remember to serve your other half a generous slice.

Full and content, I take a wander outside. There's a dizzying amount of space, with endless fields of kale, swaying heather and waterfalls negotiating their way down the surrounding mountains. I think back to Eymundur's comment, that life as a farmer is a gamble. That may well be the case, but if East Iceland's culinary entrepreneurs are anything to go by, the risk is paying off.

Featured in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food, published with the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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