Puffin: It's What's for Dinner

Iceland in February

To say that Icelanders have an unusual diet is an understatement. Being vegetarians (I rarely eat fish, and my wife Mary doesn't eat it at all), one of the first things we were warned about when we told people we were going to Iceland was the food. As there is almost no vegetation, Icelanders have to rely on whatever living things they can muster, including but not limited to the following: puffin (a non-flightless seabird that resembles a penguin wearing a parrot beak), fish, reindeer, horse meat, fish, sheep, and finally, fish.

As if the normal day-to-day menu of Iceland wasn't bad enough, we would be in the country during the Icelandic month of Thorri (which runs from late January to late February), during which Icelanders honor their ancient gods with feasts called Thorrablót. It's kind of the Icelandic equivalent to Thanksgiving, and during ancient times Thorrablót was a way to appease the pagan gods during the long and brutal winter. Along with the array of foods they already eat, Icelanders enjoy such delicacies as svadasulta (sheep's head jelly), pungar (ram's testicles), blódmör (blood pudding, cooked in a sheep's stomach), hangikjöt (lamb smoked in sheep manure), svid (sheep's head), and perhaps the king of Icelandic delicacies, hákari (literally, "rotten shark")...

S@TP Clip and Save Recipe:
Icelandic Hákari

Here's the correct way to prepare good old-fashioned Icelandic hákari (I swear that I did not make this up):

  1. Catch and kill a medium-sized Greenlandic shark.
  2. Take that shark and bury it in the ground to rot for several months, to the point where not even sea gulls want to touch it.
  3. Dig it up, cut into cubes, serve cold as hors d'oeurves.

The shark will smell and taste like ammonia, so be sure to hold your nose when you eat it and wash it down with brennivín--a schnapps made from potato and caraway that tastes like kerosene.

Since the trip Mary's dad had given us for Christmas and our Birthdays was only for three days and two nights, we figured we'd be able to survive even if we only ate bread. The trip is a special that Iceland Air runs in the winter and spring called Midweek Madness. It includes hotel, airfare and transfers to the hotel for about $300. Mary read a lot of information about Iceland before we arrived, so when we landed at Keflavik airport (an hour outside of Reykjavík, the capital), we were surprised to see lots of snow. The guide books all insisted that because of the gulf stream, it is about the same temperature during the winter in Reykjavík as it is in New York, and some years it doesn't snow at all, yet here was a foot of snow that had barely been removed from the roads.

As the bus took us to our hotel in Reykjavík, we watched the sun rise at around 10:30 AM over vast fields of snow-covered lava. With tall white mountains and volcanoes in the distance, it was easy to see why people say that Iceland resembles the surface of the moon. Looking in the other direction, we were greeted with more lava, snow and the crashing, icy surf of the north Atlantic. It was breathtaking.

After arriving in the hotel and taking a short nap to compensate for jet lag (it's only a 5-hour flight from New York City, so it's not as bad as most of Europe), we ventured out to explore Reykjavík. The road into town was not suited for pedestrian traffic because of all the snow, so we decided to take public transportation. Waiting outside for the bus, we noticed that the temperature was indeed about the same as in New York City, but because there are hardly any trees, this frigid wind whips across the snow fields and makes it feel much colder. At least it wasn't raining, which, according to the books, is the typical weather during the winter.

After figuring out what bus to take, we rode it into the middle of town. Reykjavík boasts that it has no slums or mansions. The quaint houses, office buildings and apartment blocks are all painted in primary colors and resemble something from a model train set. When the bus let us off at the end of the line (in the center of town), we set out on foot to explore Reykjavík.

We were quite surprised that the snow on the sidewalks and streets was fairly deep, and many of the cars had trouble negotiating around other cars. The shops, cafes and restaurants resemble shops, cafes and restaurants everywhere in the world, with the notable exception that the prices were quite high for everything, as almost everything has to be imported.

After a few hours of walking, we decided to eat dinner at a nice looking restaurant, once we checked to make sure it wasn't Thrir Frakkar. Thrir Frakkar has the dubious distinction of being the only restaurant in Iceland that still serves whale meat. This Icelandic favorite has been banned since 1989, and many Icelanders are still mad at Greenpeace about it. Thrir Frakkar had the foresight to save a whale or two in the freezer (enough for a few more years) so they can still offer a $25 whale steak.

The restaurant we found, called Laekjarbrekka, offered a few vegetarian entrees along with a selection of traditional Icelandic dishes. I ordered a bowl of vegetable soup and the "catch of the day," which turned out to be deep-sea catfish served over a bed of rice and herbs, and Mary ordered a vegetable quiche. I had a glass of wine and Mary had a beer, and we were shocked when the bill came to the equivalent of $78. Well, it was excellent catfish.

Breakfast the following day was more than your average continental hotel fare. In addition to the usual rolls, yogurt, coffee, croissants and cereals, there was fish and lots of it--in the form of several large glass dishes full of cold fish of various colors and consistencies. We selected rolls and skyr, the Icelandic yogurt that is slightly more bitter and thinner than most yogurt. As I took a bite out of my croissant, I was expecting it to be full of chocolate or cheese, but I was shocked to find that it was filled with smoked fish! It was delicious, and I quickly warned Mary so that I could eat hers too.

After breakfast, we boarded a bus for the "Golden Circle" tour, an 8-hour tour of Iceland's natural wonders. Once we rolled out of Reykjavík, again we saw the beautiful snow-covered vista of lava fields and white mountains. The tour guide explained that due to the snow storm the day before we arrived, we would be unable to visit Thingvellir, one of the places on the tour (finally, the mystery of the snow was solved!). The first stop on the tour was in the town of Hveragertdi, known for its many greenhouses. The alleged purpose of our visit was to show us how the people of Iceland can use geothermal heat to grow things even in the middle of winter, but in reality this greenhouse was a garden shop with an extensive selection of expensive souvenirs and a snack bar. We felt silly that we had worn our waterproof "snow-pants" as we looked at the viking T-shirts and cacti and wondered what else this tour would hold for us.

After loading back onto the bus, we headed to Keridt, an extinct volcano crater. As the bus pulled off the highway and the door opened, we stepped out to see the crater and were greeted with Arctic winds blasting across barren snow-covered plains. We were on the highest spot in the area, and the 30-mph winds made it feel like we were on top of Everest. We trudged through the knee-deep snow drifts to get to the lip of the crater, which was not quite as impressive as it must be in the summer when it's filled with water instead of snow. It was still pretty interesting, though, and the brisk wind kept the group from dawdling outside the bus.

The next stop was Gullfoss ("The Golden Falls"), an incredible two-tiered waterfall that was partially frozen. This alone was worth the price of the whole tour. As we stood on a ledge overlooking the falls, we noticed people walking down a trail along the side that led to a small platform right in front of the top falls. It didn't look very difficult, but as we started down the trail, we realized that it was nothing but packed snow and ice, and what little fence there had been to keep you from falling down into the canyon was now covered with snow so only the tops of the poles were exposed. We stayed low, prepared to fall into the drifts on the non-canyon side in the event of a slip, as we watched hunks of snow roll down 100 feet into the abyss. The words of the guide echoed in our ears: "Be careful. It's very slippery down there." I could only imagine the insurance problems something like this would cause in America.

Once back in the warm bus, our guide sang us Icelandic songs and told us stories about life in Iceland. As we bounced along the road, which was often obscured by drifting snow, she pointed out that people are listed in the phone book by their first name (something I had noticed in the white pages at the hotel) and that Iceland has incredibly high taxes to pay for education and health care. As a consequence, Iceland has the most literate and longest-lived population in the world. She told us that Iceland is one of the newest pieces of land in the world, and is still quite geologically active. The whole country is run on geothermal heat, not only for heating houses, but also for generating electricity and even providing hot water for outdoor swimming pools and homes.

The next stop on the tour was the Geysir Geothermal Area, home of the original "Geysir," which all the other geysers in the world are named after. Geysir, one of the tallest geysers in the world, only erupts when there is volcanic activity or an earthquake, so it's little more than a large steaming pool these days. The Geysir Area contained many different steaming vents and sulfurous pools, but the star of the show is Strokkyr, a geyser that erupts every five minutes or so.

An expectant crowd gathers around the rocky pool, which rises and falls slowly as the pressure builds up beneath the earth. Suddenly, the rise gives way to a large turquoise bubble that explodes upward, sending a column of steam into the air and spraying boiling water all over the surrounding rocks. We hung around the geysers and steam vents for a while, then headed over to the combination snack bar and souvenir shop where we ate lunch. The pizza was about as good as snack bar frozen pizza ever gets.

After the tour group had been rounded up and we were all back on the bus, we headed to a church that was literally in the middle of nowhere. Inside, some workers were busy renovating the pipe organ, so pipes and blueprints were scattered all over the inside of the rather plain Lutheran house of worship. We wandered around outside and took photos of the countryside. As we were leaving, the bus stopped for a moment along the side of the highway so we could pet some of the famous Icelandic horses, a breed exclusive to the island that are raised for riding as well as eating.

On the way back to Reykjavík, the tour bus took us into a small Icelandic fishing village, and on the way into the town, we saw something we weren't expecting to see in Iceland--a prison. According to statistics, Iceland has almost no crime--in fact, the whole time we were walking around Reykjavík we didn't see a single police car. Coming from a city where the cops cruise by every few minutes, it was very strange. The tour guide explained that most of the people in this prison were there for drug offenses, and that many of them are allowed to go home for holidays.

After the bus dropped us off at our hotel in Reykjavík, we changed and set out for dinner. This time we headed for Austur Indía Fjelagidt, which bills itself as the northernmost Indian restaurant in the world. We were somewhat apprehensive about how Icelandic Indian food would taste, and the decor didn't put us at ease. The restaurant was decorated with an odd mixture of pan-Asian stereotypes, including two large Chinese lions on either side of the front door. Fortunately, the food was excellent, and not terribly expensive by Icelandic standards.

We had been told repeatedly about Iceland's wild nightlife, and we had been hoping to experience it, but despite eating late and wasting lots of time, it was still only 9 PM, and the real fun doesn't start until 11 PM. We went into a cozy bar and got some beer, but this was hardly the nightlife we had been told about as there were only four other people in the whole bar. Eventually we paid for our $5 beers and headed back to the bus station and our hotel. Perhaps if we were there during the middle of summer with the Arctic midnight sun, we wouldn't have been so tired, but all we wanted to do after spending the whole day on the bus was sleep.

The next day at breakfast I ate more of the fish croissants, much to Mary's dismay. We checked out of our room and went into Reykjavík to shop for souvenirs. We ended up buying only a few because everything was so expensive. Even our simple lunch of two bowls of soup and two grilled cheese sandwiches ended up costing $30. After an embarrassing incident with an expired bus transfer and a gruff bus driver, we headed back to catch the Iceland Air bus to Keflavik airport.

On the way to the gates, there was a display of tourist information for Greenland. The booklet boasts that Greenland in the winter features sub-zero temperatures, and that many towns don't have hotels or restaurants of any kind. I guess they figure if you're in Iceland, it's only a matter of time before you head to Greenland.

While we were waiting in line at the gate, I realized that I had lost my motion sickness pills. Quickly I ran to the duty free shops looking for some Dramamine. After a panicky few minutes, I found a small pharmacy counter staffed by three women. I asked for something to help motion sickness, and they conferred with each other for a moment before handing me a box that was covered with Icelandic writing. "Take one of these immediately," one of the women said, and I did as I paid for the pills. I ran back to the line, which fortunately had hardly moved, and found Mary. She pulled out the instructions from the box and tried to read them, but they too were all in Icelandic. Once on the plane, she showed them to one of the flight attendants, who at first denied but then confirmed that they were indeed for motion sickness. We were relieved and settled in for our flight home.

As the meals were handed out, Mary looked at her salad and found a big piece of salmon on top of it. Then she peeled back the foil on her "vegetarian" entree to discover fish that was covered with a thick red sauce. After complaining to the flight attendant, we were given the real vegetarian meals, which consisted of a bland vegetable cake on a bed of rice. Well, at least it wasn't rotten shark.

© 2000, Ken B. Miller & Contributors as Listed. | Reproduced from Shouting at the Postman #39, April, 2000 | 4873

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