When you think of Iceland, you often think volcanoes and hot springs. Or vast, untouched landscape populated by sheep and the iconic sweaters knitted from the wool of those sheep.
But Iceland as a foodie destination? Certainly was not on my radar or among the reasons my friend Julie and I picked it as a destination.
Imagine our delight when learning the land of fire and ice has more than, well, fire and ice.
They also have cows. These so-called “Viking cows” trace their lineage back to the country’s first settlements in the 9th century (the same is true for Icelandic sheep and goats) and no new livestock have been introduced for centuries
This means the milk from those cows has a slightly different composition and sweeter flavor resulting in some of the best cheese I’ve ever had. When it comes to cheese, I’m an admitted “curd nerd,” but the folks in Iceland can give me a run for my money, consuming more cheese per capita than the U.S.
Milk from the Viking cows also goes into Skyr, a sort of yogurt that is technically a soft cheese mixed with milk and served with sugar or berries. Not only is far tastier and creamier than the yogurt we get here in the states, Skyr has an amazing nutritional resume with 12 percent protein, 3 percent carbohydrates and less than 1 percent fat.
Julie and I spent most of our time in Iceland’s largest city Reykjavik which is home to a number of really great restaurants ranging from very affordable to fairly pricey. And, make no mistake about it, it can be expensive to eat out in Reykjavik.
Our biggest splurge was dinner one night at Primo Ristorante [http://primo.is/en/the-restaurant/] where I had an amazing seafood pasta featuring langostino lobster in garlic. Pasta dishes ran between 25 and 35 Euros with seafood or meat entrees going as high as 70 Euros.
After that, we set our culinary sites a bit lower and, happily, discovered Iceland is also famous for its hotdogs. At the hotdog stand just below our AirBnB, the woman working there was more than happy to guide us in our inaugural Icelandic hotdog sampling adventure. The ‘dogs there are made with lamb which gives them a unique flavor unlike anything I’ve experienced with a traditional hotdog in the USA. But the real story is in the sauce and, according to our hotdog hostess, no true Icelandic hotdog aficionado would consider anything but a loaded ‘dog. While I went a more conservative route and had mine with just ketchup, Julie went all in with ketchup, sweet mustard and the special mayonnaise-relish combo. Neither of us were disappointed in our choices which set us each back about around 5 Euros each.
But if it’s the truly traditional dish you are after, might I recommend the puffin? That’s right – that cute, funny little iconic Maine sea-bird is a regular on Reykjavik menus. At The Public House [http://www.publichouse.is/] they serve it cured in licorice and topped with cherries and blue cheese. At The Public House, a Japanese twist is put on traditional Icelandic ingredients, like the aforementioned puffin, in addition to reindeer, beef and seafood. They also have an impressive beer menu that helped dull my initial guilty reaction to eating something as cute as a puffin. Feeling which evaporated with my first mouthful.
Just around the corner from our AirBnB apartment was The Laundromat Cafe [http://www.thelaundromatcafe.com/en/home] where, it seemed, the world meets and eats when in Reykjavik. With a menu featuring everything from burgers to brunch, tourists and locals pack the place eating upstairs and, yes, doing laundry in the basement. It quickly became our favorite Reykjavik hangout.
Admittedly, there are some traditional Icelandic “delicacies” we did read about once there, and then did our best to avoid. Among them pickled rams’ testicles, fermented shark and singed sheep’s head. And, while I certainly plan to one day return to the land of fire and ice, I think I’ll stick to puffins and hot dogs, thank you very much.
Next up: Snorkeling between continents.