In the Cold of Winter, a Maine Chef Heads to Iceland
Iceland in late January - the sun doesn't rise until 11 a.m. and its pitch black by five p.m. There's snow and lots of dark, stormy weather. And while the air temperature tends to be a bit warmer than Maine, it can be brutally cold due to winds that swirl around this island in the middle of the North Atlantic. So why would anyone leave one cold, dark place for another?
Limited daylight is only one factor to consider. In Iceland one can swim outdoors all winter long in pools that are geo-thermally heated; the island's hot tubs and mineral baths are believed to have the most healing waters in the world. Then there's the food. Icelandic lamb is naturally-raised and intensely flavorful meat; their dairy (in particular the butter and a thick yogurt-like treat called Skyr) is rich and organic. The seafood comes from nearly pristine waters-Artic char, halibut, cod, and much more. And it's pretty close: a direct flight from Boston takes just over four hours.
According to the United Nations, Iceland is "the best place to live in the world." Reykjavik (the world's northernmost capitol) is an astoundingly hip, design-conscious city. The Icelandic people are among the healthiest on the planet (not to mention most strikingly beautiful), and strange as it may seem, Iceland turns out to be a fabulous place for a winter break.
I am a swimmer. For me, any good vacation/break involves swimming. And all over Reykjavik, and in virtually every little town and village throughout the country, there are public swimming pools. Imagine a huge outdoor pool (most are at least Olympic size) at an average temperature of 84 degrees. The water, which comes from geothermally heated natural hot springs, has a slightly mineral smell, but is luxuriously soft. Surrounding these pools-which are generally free to all residents and visitors-are "hot pots" or hot tubs filled with even hotter spring water. In Reykjavik I swam nearly ever day at a public pool within walking distance of my hotel. With the cityscape in the background and fat flakes of wet snow falling on my head, I did laps outdoors. I then headed for the hot tubs, starting in a pool of water at about 100 degrees and working my way up to turn-your-skin-lobster-red-hot water. These pools offer steam rooms and saunas making this one of the most accessible spas imaginable.
Money is an issue in Iceland. The dollar is weak - extremely weak, in fact. The current exchange rate- around 65 Icelandic Kroner to the dollar-makes even basic things like a lunch in a restaurant expensive. Flights, however, are extremely reasonable, and many hotels can be booked on line for decent rates, but finding free activities like swimming and hot tubs and saunas are deeply appreciated. Iceland is no more expensive than most other European or Scandinavian capitals, but it's still painful to see an entire city filled with gorgeous clothing and fabulously designed housewares and have them all out of reach.
What is worth the price is a visit to the Blue Lagoon, a mineral rich body of seawater with a surreal sky blue color. Blue Lagoon is known for its healing waters, said to "cure" psoriasis and other skin ailments. I took an excursion bus out of the city, passing snow-filled fields and volcanic craters. There is an eerie silence that takes over outside Reykjavik.
When the bus pulled up to the entrance to the Blue Lagoon and everyone caught sight of the blue water, steam rising off it like soup simmering in a pot, there were audible oooh's and aaah's. The Icelandic people realize what a gold mine this pond-size body of water is and have built a series of ultra modern Scandinavian-inspired spa-like building surrounding the water. I spent the entire afternoon soaking in the waters, listening to the hodge podge of languages being spoken (people come from all over the world, some 300,000 a year, roughly the population of Iceland). The bottom of the lagoon has a thin, wonderfully mushy layer of mineral-rich silica mud and small buckets are provided so guests can spread the clay on their face and body while they float and drift. The white peaked mountains in the background and the steam rising up off the water gives the place a feeling of being somewhere far from reality. It's easy to float and feel you've left earth.
I had a water massage, lying on a thin mat with a beautiful man rubbing my neck and back and swirling me through the water in such a way so that I could feel every vertebrae in my spine stretch out and relax. Later, there was lunch of local grilled langoustines and a salad made from tiny micro greens grown in one of Iceland's many greenhouses (also geo-thermally heated).
Back in Reykjavik that night I had no intention of leaving the hotel. The wind had picked up, the sky was inky black and fat, wet snow was falling. Dinner at Vox, located in the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, was so sophisticated it could have been served in New York or Paris. But what distinguish this "Nordic Gourmet Cuisine" is the ingredients. That night I discovered the locally-made vodka called Reyka (the only vodka in the world filtered through lava rocks and made with spring-fed water). I'm not much of a drinker, but a small shot of icy Reyka (with its subtly floral tones) warmed up even the coldest Icelandic night. Homemade multi-grained bread was served with Icelandic butter whipped with buttermilk, lemon juice, and a touch of sugar. A foamy butternut squash soup had a mousse-like texture and a layer of finely cubed (still crunchy) root vegetables resting on the bottom of the bowl. Local langoustines (not quite as sweet as our Maine lobster, but meaty and delicious) was paired with crisp pork belly, apples, and roasted celeriac.
After spending a few cold hours walking around the Reykjavik harbor the next morning (and watching colorful fishing boats unload huge cod and Artic char) I headed across the street to Icelandic Fish and Chip. Billed as an "Organic Bistro," all the fish is just harvested and dipped in an unusual batter made from organic spelt and barley. It's fried so expertly that there's not even a slight trace of grease. Served with potato wedges fried in olive oil and dusted with coarse sea salt and a variety of sauces (the tartar and the creamy basil and garlic were my favorites) it was the best fish and chips I've ever tasted. There was also a collection of homemade sodas made from organically-grown herbs, citrus, and fruit.
I was interested in visiting an old-fashioned grocery store to get a sense of ingredients available to the home cook. (Grocery stores always provide me a great glimpse into a culture.) I heard about a tiny neighborhood place called Melabudin. There was the usual assortment of groceries, but I spotted an old fashioned wooden tray inside the meat counter, next to the Icelandic lamb chops and pink, meaty legs of lamb. I asked about the oddly shape cylinders of meat which vaguely resembled pate. One of the workers, curious about an English-speaking American asking questions, came out to greet me. When he learned that I was a journalist he escorted me down to his office carrying the tray of mystery meat.
Fridrik introduced himself as the owner of this 100-year-old shop and educated me about the midwinter Icelandic festival called Thorrablot, better known as the "Stinky Food Festival." This ancient Viking tradition involves eating odd cuts of meat and fish that have been preserved for winter. He served me several samples of the meat and I can only report that I've never tasted anything quite as nasty as "Hakari," or fermented or rotten shark, or the lamb's testicles preserved in sour milk, and boiled sheep's head. Icelandic people still eat puffin and whale meat and smoke lamb over dried sheep dung, so I suppose I got off easy. Shots of the local Schnapps-like liqueur called Brennivin helped keep it all down.
The next morning I headed out of town to the countryside to see the Gullfoss waterfall and surrounding geysers. I had overslept (thanks to jet lag and the lack of morning light) and missed breakfast. Hildur, my guide, suggested we stop at a local truck stop about 20 minutes outside town. I had visions of stale doughnuts, bags of potato chips, and standard egg sandwiches. But we pulled up to a tiny, charming-looking building (with a single gas pump outside, unattended, and practically coated in freezing snow) with lace curtains and a cheery yellow window frame. Litla Kaffistofan was a trucker's dream come true. We walked into the smell of freshly brewed coffee, homemade Icelandic crepes, and the sweet scent of freshly baked bread. The little restaurant has been run by the same family for four generations (they were too busy finishing the lamb soup to talk to me) but we sampled delicate crepes lightly dusted with sugar, an open-faced sandwich of locally-smoked salmon and thin slices of hard boiled egg on the house-made bread, and cups of strong coffee. Not a bag of potato chips in sight.
Throughout the five day trip I ate Artic char, flounder, salmon, halibut, and cat fish-both raw, sashimi-style (a new phenomenon in Iceland) and grilled, poached and saut`ed. Excellent as all the fish was, nothing compared to the lamb. Icelandic lamb hasn't changed in 1100 years ago. The sheep that the Vikings brought to the island (in 874) are the same breed you eat in Iceland today. No other animals have ever been imported. Icelandic lamb have a good life: they are never fed antibiotics or grain, but graze in the highlands on green country grass. What beef and hamburgers are to the U.S. lamb is to Iceland; there are 300,000 people in the country and twice as many lamb. Icelandic lamb is exceptionally tender; you barely needed a knife to cut it. The flavor is subtle, with distinctive hints of sea salt and grass that fill your mouth. It is the best lamb I've ever eaten and I ordered it nearly every day. Lamb is served virtually everywhere-from the high-end restaurants to Reykjavik famed hot dog stands. (Baejarins Betzu, a tiny shack, is found in a parking lot across from the harbor. The hot dogs are made from Icelandic lamb, placed in an onion-flecked bun, and topped with mustard, ketchup, remoulade sauce, and chopped and raw onions. This is one of the few bargains found in Reykjavik. At under $2, they are exceptionally juicy and bursting with flavor. You can even see a picture of Bill Clinton wolfing one down.)
The other major culinary discovery was Skyr - a non-fat, yogurt-like, protein-filled dairy product made only in Iceland. (It's now sold at Whole Foods around the U.S., including Portland, and is well worth looking for.) It certainly doesn't taste fat-free; it's thoroughly creamy and rich with a pleasing, subtle sourness. Skyr is eaten for breakfast like yogurt, and used to make cakes, puddings, and all variety of dessert, often simply sprinkled with a touch of sugar. A Skyr parfait, layered with fresh berries, is every bit as satisfying as an ice cream sundae.
Visiting a place that is colder and darker than Maine in the dead of winter does have its advantages. When I got home I was delighted to find the sun rising in my bedroom at nearly seven a.m. and not setting until well after five p.m. I was filled with an appreciation for mid-winter Maine that I've never experienced. Maybe next year I'll try the North Pole.
Kathy Gunst is a cookbook author and regular contributor to downeast.com. She lives in S. Berwick.
For more information about travel to Iceland check out : www.icetourist.is/ or www.goiceland.org/news.php
Iceland Air offers direct flights from Boston to Iceland and Europe;
Whole Food, 2 Somerset Street Portland, Maine (207.774.7711) sells Icelandic butter(Smjor), Skyr, Icelandic Chocolate (Noi Sirius), and Icelandic lamb for several months during the summer-early fall.