I’m sure you know about the awe-inspiring natural wonders the tiny island nation of Iceland has to offer. And maybe you’ve heard of some of the country’s more, well, unique traditional foods, like putrid shark and singed sheep’s head (served whole, so it still definitely looks like a sheep’s head). While these are all part of Iceland’s current culinary repertoire, we’re gathered here today to talk about the deliciousness that abounds there. Trust me: there’s plenty of it.
I traveled to Iceland earlier this summer, and, to be honest, didn’t have an especially high bar set when it came to food. I knew we’d be experiencing breathtaking landscapes and a friendly culture, but didn’t think all that much about what we’d be eating. I’d read about award-winning restaurants in the capital, Reykjavik, but we were going to be traveling on the Ring Road, which stretches around the perimeter of the country, and would mainly be staying in small towns along the way. (In Iceland, by the way, a “small town” can mean a village with fewer than 100 residents. In fact, the whole nation has a population of just over 329,000, and two-thirds of those folks live in Reykjavik.)
Much to my delight, the food I experienced all around Iceland was incredible. It didn’t matter if we were in a hotel restaurant in a tiny town with more sheep than people, or in the busy, modern city of Reykjavik. The meals were always beautifully presented, made with fresh, local ingredients, and mouthwateringly tasty. Here are six foods that are top of my mind when I think back on the magical two weeks I spent there (and ones I’d most highly recommend to those who visit Iceland).
Pronounced “skeer”, this specialty yogurt is something I’d been eating a few months before traveling to Iceland, and I couldn’t wait to try in its native land. It’s Iceland’s traditional way of preparing yogurt, and both full of protein and really delicious. In Iceland, skyr is available virtually anywhere and is enjoyed any time of day: skyr for breakfast with fresh fruit, skyr as an after-lunch treat, or skyr transformed into a beautiful cheesecake-like-but-lighter dessert called skyr cake after dinner. The good news about skyr for those of us Stateside is it’s gaining popularity in the U.S., and chances are it’s already on the shelf of your local grocery store. My favorite American skyr brand is Siggi’s, which initially I could only find at Whole Foods, but now is popping up at other local grocers and even Target.
All things dairy are delicious in Iceland, not just skyr. My favorite was the butter in Iceland. As far as I could tell, livestock (mainly sheep, cows, and horses) in Iceland have a pretty great life. The use of hormones and antibiotics is banned in the country. That, coupled with the fact that cows are left to graze freely on grass (which is markedly healthy, thanks to Iceland’s climate and low levels of pollution), result in creamy, buttery perfection.
In Iceland, sheep roam fence-free during the summer months, grazing and meandering to their hearts’ content. Come September, the sheep are gathered up during one of many réttir (“round-up”) events around the island. I feel certain that this free-range grazing has a lot to do with the amazing flavor, lean meat, and tenderness of Icelandic lamb. I don’t eat lamb regularly at home, but while I was in Iceland I ate it just about every other day, and every time it was outstanding.
When you need a snack or meal on the go, look no further than an Icelandic hot dog. You won’t need to search hard for pylsur when in Iceland, either, as hot dogs are available at any convenience store or at roadside stands. I can honestly say I had the best hot dog of my life in Iceland. There, hot dogs are (you guessed it) lamb-based, and it’s best to ask for ein með öllu (“one with everything”), where the dog is topped with ketchup, mustard, both fried and raw onions, and a sweet mayonnaise dressing.
Moving on to sweet treats (a top priority when traveling, as far as I’m concerned), I was thrilled to discover that Iceland doesn’t disappoint when it comes to baked goods. Pop into any bakeri and you’re sure to find a tempting assortment of baked treats, often including cinnamon rolls larger than your face (seriously). I recommend the caramel-iced variety.
I thought rye bread wasn’t my thing, and then I tried the Icelandic interpretation and was wholeheartedly converted. First of all, Icelandic bread can be topped with Icelandic butter, which automatically gives it a leg up. But the bread itself is phenomenal (especially when it’s served warm), and is the perfect complement to a bowl of soup for lunch.
Anna Keller likes the occasional fancy, over-the-top meal served on a white tablecloth, but is just as happy with dinner from Taco Bell (she and her husband were there the day they launched their new breakfast menu). For her, food is about the experience, the story, the tradition, and the community it provides, and it takes a starring role in her blog, where she shares recipe creations and recreations—usually of the baking variety.
Main photo: Stefan Steger CC-BY-ND