“Most people think food in Iceland is all fermented shark meat. I’m telling you now we will not be having that on the tour.”
Today I’m exploring food with the Reykjavik Food Walk. I meet my guide, Gabriela, at Reykjavík’s waterfront Harpa Concert Hall, a chance to take in some views before the culinary excursion.
There’s no denying Iceland is known for having some pretty atypical dishes, at least to many visitors. The truth is, locals eat foods like fermented shark meat (Kæstur hákarl), sour ram’s testicles (Súrir hrútspungar) and boiled (sometimes cured) sheep’s head (Svið) typically only during a mid-winter Þorrablót feast. The festival commemorates a time when early Icelandic settlers had to eat cured, pickled leftover bits to survive the long, harsh winters when nothing would grow. It’s actually a beautiful celebration allowing locals to remember where they came from, and appreciate the abundance of choice they have today.
I’d actually gotten to try the traditional Þorrablót feast dishes the previous night at a Meet The Natives class with the Tin Can Factory, so I was excited today to try some of the food in Reykjavik with a local.
Starting with lamb, a popular meat choice for locals. As mentioned above, food was often scarce during the times of Iceland’s earliest settlers. Kjötsúpa — Icelandic meat soup — was the perfect meal as it lasted long, allowed for all sorts of herbs and vegetables, and was comforting during the cold.
It’s no surprise then that our first stop is for a hearty bowl of lamb soup with rye bread at Islenski Barinn, meaning “The Icelandic Bar.”
“Don’t be scared by the name and think it’s a tourist trap,” assures Gabriela. “I actually come here all the time myself, usually for the great Icelandic beer selection.Lamb is one of many meats that tell the story of #Iceland heritage. Here's why. #food Click To Tweet
I’ve been eating lamb soup a lot during my time in Iceland, and I never get sick of warming up with the tender meat-filled bowl that also showcases vegetables like potatoes, yellow turnips and carrots that actually grow in Iceland.
From there it’s on to more lamb, with other meats and cheeses to accompany. The stop is called Ostabúðin, serving hungry locals for 17+ years. The group passes shelves of artisanal jams and condiments as we head to the back counter to savor our way through a tasting of three cheeses and three meats. Here it becomes clear just how much food can tell you about a culture.
“We’re not like the French who eat cheese for dessert. In Iceland it’s a starter,” explains Gabriela. “All of our cheeses are cow cheese, as the sheep roam free in the countryside so it’s hard to get their milk. We have a peculiar thing here where people fence themselves in and the sheep roam around.”
We start with a simple soft gouda to “show off Iceland’s delicious dairy,” before moving on to a brie that’s unlike any I’ve ever had. In fact there’s no smell to it, and the flavor is very mild until the finish, where it lingers pleasantly. An extremely pungent blue cheese further proves the deliciousness of local dairy, despite the fact Iceland has only been making cheese since 1955. Gabriela explains that blue cheese is a rather new development in itself, traditionally consisting of brie infused with blue.
Next it’s on to the meats. Here is where things get adventurous. Along with lamb cured in fennel, anise, Arctic thyme and rosemary — a snack that was traditionally buried after being marinated — we try a hot smoked goose breast paired with a sweet raspberry Champagne vinaigrette. Additionally, the group is offered horse meat.
“Traditionally if you didn’t eat lamb you ate your horse, which was just transportation verses your cow which gave you milk.”
It’s very tender, done in a spice combination similar to the above, but with curry and cumin. Surprisingly, nobody in our all-American group declines to try. While I know many of my friends back home would be appalled, I grew up in a hunting family where food was not dictated by cuteness. Moreover, Gabriela explains horse meat in Iceland is killed as humanely as possible, which to me is more ethical than eating, say, factory farmed beef, chicken or pork in the USA.
A Local Shopping Tip
One thing Gabriela does recommend we avoid is any shop in downtown Reykjavik with a polar bear outside.
“Because…just why?! she exclaims. “We don’t even have polar bears in Iceland. In fact, the only polar bears that come here arrive starved on broken ice burg pieces from Greenland. Once they get here they can’t make the journey back and won’t survive here because it’s too warm, so we have to put them down.”
Along the way Gabriela points out some alternatives to the tourist shops that she loves, also regaling us with stories of Icelandic culture. By the way, you know the famous Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church — the largest church in Iceland? It’s made to look like a waterfall, not a penis, as I’d originally thought.
Hey, just being honest.
Ice Cream Gets Quirky
Nearby we head to Cafe Loki, a restaurant serving traditional Icelandic cuisine. It also has a Hallgrímskirkja theme, decked out in photos of the church shot at different times of day and offering beautiful views of the landmark from their windows. Instead of trying one traditional dish, we savor two combined in the form of rye bread ice cream.
If Gabriela seemed excited before, it’s now where she reaches her peak of excitement. She shouts how crazy Icelanders are over ice cream — even in the winter. The reason why is actually scientific, as she explains that eating something cold when it’s cold out cools the body’s core temperature, helping you withstand the winter better.
So that’s the local secret to being so resilient during Iceland’s crazy winters!
In all honesty the dessert is one of the best I’ve ever had, with a cookie dough-like consistency. As the group eats, we admire a mural on the back wall depicting what I learn is a story from Norse mythology featuring Loki, the god of mischief. Loki is known to have turned himself into a horse. To seduce another horse. To get out of paying a builder who had a magical horse. And then he gave birth to a horse.
I love Iceland.
Hot Dogs: Iceland’s National Dish?
While I don’t want to give away all the food stops, one that needs to be mentioned is Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, meaning “best hot dogs in town.” The stand is Iceland’s oldest fast food restaurant, open since 1937. The hot dogs are long and made of lamb meat with pork casing (remember, sheep outnumber people in the country). They’re topped with a unique combination of raw and fried onion, ketchup, homemade mustard and and mayo-relish rémoulade atop a homemade bun.
“You’re not doing it right if you don’t order everything on it,” says Gabriela. “Or you can get it ‘Clinton Style’ with just mustard, the way Bill Clinton did when he visited. He’d have two of these everyday! Obviously that was before his heart attack.”
Having one myself, I can see why he loved them so much. The onion adds a delicious crunch, while the sauces blend together for a creamy sweetness. Each bite offers a sweet and savory creamy crunch, a juxtaposition of amazingness. Bonus: in expensive Iceland these hot dogs are just 450 Kroner (~$4 USD).
As you probably guessed I ate here almost every day of my trip. Hey, I love a good deal!
After a few more stops and a decadent coffee and dessert ending at Apotek, a gorgeous restaurant and bar with an apothecary theme, I head back to the ODDSSON Ho(s)tel. Here I digest in the terrace hot tub before heading out for an evening pub crawl with Wake Up Reykjavík, the sister company of Reykjavík Food Walk.Which of these would you eat first in #Reykjavik, #Iceland? Click To Tweet
Now, I’m almost 30, so I’m half expecting to be wandering to different college bars with drunk 21-year-olds who can’t handle their alcohol — basically me when I was that age. To my delight, the group meets at a classy cocktail lounge called Loftið where the guide, a fun-loving guy named Woody, greets me in a suit jacket and tie. There are about 15 of us in the group, all from the USA and Australia, and to my other delight it’s not all couples with me as the awkward solo one.
I’m actually the youngest person on the tour, and the group gets along splendidly. After bonding over Icelandic witbier and fermented shark at the next stop — hey, it isn’t all classy — we really start getting close.
My favorite bar of the tour is Lebowski Bar, a — you guessed it — Big Lebowski themed bar. The two-floor venue features flashing LED bowling pins on the outside and an inside decked out with old school Playboy magazines. At this point any tension of not knowing each other has faded away, and we hit the dance floor to work off some of the booze, promptly refreshing with a drink that could also be the breakfast of
champions drunks. Of course it’s a White Russian, though an unusual twist means there’s also a delicious serving of Cocoa Puffs. After a refuel we head back to the dance floor.
Glasses click. Stories are exchanged. Dance moves are created. While the fermented shark meat was good (not) we head out for a saucy Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog (yes my second of the day), included in the tour. It’s okay though, as we work it off dancing the night away at Auster, a hip nightclub with a long line to get in, though luckily the crawl allows us to cut. I feel so VIP despite being in leggings and a flannel shirt.
Cheers to delicious food, great drinks, new friends and a full day of exploring Icelandic culture through the palate!
Stay: The ODDSSON Ho(s)tel. I absolutely loved this hostel and hotel, which caters to both budget backpackers and the older budget traveler. On the fourth floor you’ll find a self-catering kitchen, free-to-use yoga room (with the occasional complimentary class), terrace lounge and outdoor hot tub. The first floor, on the other hand, has more of a hotel feel with a gorgeous restaurant, “yoga food” cafe, work areas with communal tables and plush couches, and free bike rentals. What’s awesome is both my dorm and my hotel room had gorgeous views of Faxaflói Bay and the Esja, Akrafjall and Skarðsheiði Mountains. Rates: ~$33-$50 USD for a 12-bedroom dorm and ~$225-$385 USD for the private hotel room. Use code “JESSIEONAJOURNEY” for 10% off your stay!
Tour Prices: The food tour is 13.900 Icelandic Kroner (~$129 USD) and the pub crawl is 14.900 Icelandic Kroner (~$138 USD).
Packing Essentials: For both of these tours you don’t need much (aside for some room in your belly!). Bring warm clothes, and feel free to dress up a bit for the pub crawl (though no need to get too crazy fancy). Jeans and a nicer shirt is appropriate. A few things I would recommend packing in general for Iceland:
- Warm waterproof boots
- BUFF Headband (great as a scarf that turns into a face mask)
- Merino wool hat
- Scarf shawl (I wear the BUFF headband underneath)
- Waterproof warm gloves
- Merino wool undershirt
- Winter coat
- Inner coat shell (optional; I get cold easily)
- Compression socks
- Waterproof backpack or waterproof bags for electronics (especially in winter)
- Swimsuit for hot springs (I love Unique Vintage!)
- Vigilant Personal Alarm (I always carry this when hiking)