Published October 6, 2007
As regular Grapevine readers will know, Iceland is not the best place for vegetarians. But newcomers and old Reykjavík hangabouts alike may be interested to know just what challenges their animal and environment friendly co-travellers face.
My friend Jan, a strict vegan, and I, a strict vegetarian or relaxed vegan (I sometimes eat cheese and do not check all food labels carefully while travelling – yes, I am aware of my crimes) recently undertook the challenge of touring Iceland while doing our best to stick to our principles about food and the environment.
As a strict vegan, Jan does not only bypass meat, he doesn’t eat any animal products – whether meat, milk, or by-products that no one would think of, such as gelatine in gummi bears. He also has the annoying habit of reading every food product label intensely, and not trusting anyone about food content. Even after I assure him that the food I have chosen for our trip is strictly vegan, he insists on re-reading all labels and then asking me for translations of words he does not know in German. The rest of our team, however, is happy to eat any product that may or may not have to do with animal cruelty, environmental degradation, nonsustainable agricultural practices, over-fishing… hell, I imagine they would happily eat endangered whale species or virgin nuns of Mother Teresa’s order if they were cooked with a greasy, spicy sauce, attractively packaged and available as fast food at convenient locations.
Adventures at Sea
The difficulties begin already on the ferry from Bergen, Norway, to the Faroe Islands and finally Seyðisfjörður on the East coast of Iceland. The ferry offers a splendid buffet breakfast and dinner – all you can eat, as long as it’s seafood. There is also the on-board cafeteria, which offers a dizzying array of sandwiches. I had no idea that bread could be topped in so many ways, especially when all of the toppings are fish. Not to worry, though, I do just fine with the instant noodles I smuggled with me. Basically, the ferry journey has been exposed as nothing more than a clever trick of the fishing industry board to sell off their overstocks to a captive audience.
Fellow traveller Uwe, however, seems to be doing just fine with the approximately 17 kg of German sausage he has brought on board. Bratwürst, bockwürst, salami, various types and sizes of hard and soft sausage, as well as spreadable liver paté in a glass jar. Sausage for breakfast, sausage for lunch, a light sausage snack during the day, and of course, after every meal, a nice bit of sausage.
By the time we reach port in Seyðisfjörður, Uwe voluntarily and proudly gives up the remaining kilos of sausage to the customs inspectors. He can eat no more. This is the moment we had feared from the beginning, in fact. Tourists are only allowed to bring 3 kg of their own food with them into Iceland. Jan and I had carefully chosen items we thought might be difficult to get in Iceland, and things which carry the maximum value for weight: yeast powder (a must for B vitamins), vegetable-based bouillon, organic peanut butter, various seeds, nuts, and dried fruits, dried organic soya curds (high protein!), various organic beans, partially dried tomatoes, etc. Now the authorities were checking us, and we knew too well that it easily exceeded the allowed amount.
Luckily, Uwe’s voluntary sausage surrender, quickly followed by my spontaneous capitulation of 12 raw eggs the others in our group had insisted on buying in Norway, convinces the customs officials of our honesty and we pass, nutritionally unscathed.
Our first few days are uneventful. Our food supplies are adequate, and the others even seem to accept my cooking for the group. No one has even noticed that I use no animal products in the food, apart from Uwe, who has bought meat at the first opportunity. After each meal, he goes back into one of his various rucksacks and travel bags and fetches his allotment of sausage.
Another member of our travel team, Chris from England, happily eats just about anything, insisting that as long as he gets some greens every few days, he will remain healthy, regardless of the rest of his diet. And he sticks to this philosophy as strictly as Jan and I stick to ours. He is keen to try the local specialities, and at every stop along the way he manages to come out of the petrol station/ grocer/fishing tackle shop/kiosk (I am not describing a variety of places, but here the versatility of every shop in Iceland – they have taken the “one stop shop” ethos to its logical limit) with some sort of locally packaged delicacy. In this respect he is ahead of Jan and I, who according to our own philosophy try to buy as local as possible, thus not supporting the environmental damage caused by the long distance shipping and trucking of foods, as well as avoiding multinational mega companies, which typically are very anti-environment players on the world stage.
Sadly, much of the food labelled as organic in Iceland is shipped thousands of kilometres from Germany, thus defeating the very purpose of organic foods. Chris, though, manages to outflank us at every turn, coming out of one shop in particular with something called Hákarl, which reeks of male cat urine, or perhaps something a pregnant female moose sprays on trees to mark her territory. In any case, he informs us that this very Icelandic concoction of putrefied shark meat had the advantage for the Vikings that even carrion-eating birds would not touch it, and he soon finds that it is equally safe from the rest of the team. Later he samples Svið, known as head cheese in English, to much the same success. We applaud his cultural sensitivity, and secretly envy the strength of his digestive system.
The Bread Challenge
As our imported supplies run low, we start relying more on Icelandic food. To be more accurate, we start relying on food bought in Iceland. We were disappointed to learn that so many products are imported, and as long as they are allowed to make the long ship journey from Denmark, why are tourists not generally allowed to bring in their own food? This would at least save a trip or two, and all the diesel exhaust that this inevitably causes.
We do manage to find cucumbers and Chinese cabbage grown in Iceland, and buy it despite its higher price than lettuce and other vegetables imported from Denmark. Bread is another problem. While elsewhere in the world butter in bread is seen as something special, try to find an Icelandic bread without smörlíki. In the end we settle for a nice brown bread that looks rather hearty but turns out to be a sweet bread. It goes fine with peanut butter or jam, but does not compliment soups very well.
With most of our food issues solved, we go on with the last stage of our trip. One of our final stops is Húsavík, where we plan to go whale watching. While most people would regard this as an inherently pro-environment thing to do, as the harmless act of simply watching and photographing whales has replaced hunting and killing them, Jan is, predictably, sceptical. As we read the pamphlets of two competing whale watching firms which boast of incredible sighting rates (99.1%?!?!) on their boat tours, Jan’s vegan fantasy starts working, and he insists that the whales must have been fitted with radio senders to achieve this. Worse yet, he asserts, as the pure girth of a whale’s neck would make a radio collar as used on, say, wolves, utterly preposterous, any radio sender would be some sort of device which is attached be being shot through the whale’s flipper.
When we ask the young man at the whale watching booth about this, his eyes widen in incredulous surprise at our query, and he responds with aplomb and diplomacy (by this I mainly mean that he manages not to laugh in our faces), not to mention flawless English, stating that the captain did once drop a radio into the water, but the whales have yet to give any response.
All in all, I can report that, contrary to my own scepticism, it is possible to visit Iceland and maintain your vegan or vegetarian principles. You will need to adapt, to accept a diet of reduced variety and at times unusual combinations. You will need to learn to read Icelandic ingredients and expect animal products lurking in unusual places. But you will NOT need to compromise your principles by piercing, fitting with radio collars, or harming whales in any other way.