Visitors to Iceland often remark on how, throughout Iceland’s frozen winter season, they’ll often see clusters of locals standing in the street outside ice cream parlours in their parkas, hats and gloves, slurping down a cone or diving into a dish. “Why,” they ask, from the heated safety of the car, “are Icelanders so obsessed with ice cream?”
Well, firstly: it’s comfort food. The need for a sweet treat doesn’t exactly decrease during these dark and windy winter months. Then when there’s some semblance of sun, that’s a perfect excuse for an ice cream. The end result? Every day is an ice cream day, all year round.
Secondly: our reliance on dairy cows and our obsession with dairy products goes back to the earliest settlers. Whether it’s skyr cakes, cream cheese on pizza, blue-cheese burgers, whey-pickled ram’s testicles, baked colostrum, or the mandatory chocolate milk with our butt-sized cinnamon buns: we Icelanders just love cow juice.
Thirdly: there’s a ceremonial aspect to getting an ice cream, for families. Going out for an ice cream is a way to herd the whole family together, and get them out of the sofa and away from their iPhones. It’s no small task in the time of ready-meals, takeaways, and everyone eating in separate rooms. It’s an affordable food journey where everyone gets to customise their pick. It’s a way to indulge our finicky inner foodie without splurging on a thimble of langoustine in buttermilk crust at the latest hip eatery.
Also: people in in the Middle East love warm mint tea, and coffee was invented in the genital-liquefying heat of Ethiopia. So despite the climate, maybe it isn’t really that weird that Icelanders love ice cream. And speaking of coffee, your average Icelander has always been quite comfortable displaying their snobbery when it comes to coffee and ice cream. Even in my childhood, in the dark ages before Icelanders realised food was not just a necessary evil on par with renewing your driver’s license, you’d get people recommending an out-of-the way ice cream store up in Akureyri or singing the praises of the gelato they tasted during their Rimini vacation.
The problem was that, despite the consumer awareness and hunger for quality ice cream, there really just weren’t many places putting their own touch on this classic dessert. Still to this day, the majority of ice cream in Iceland comes either from Emmess, the ice cream division of dairy monopoly MS (the name is the phonetic spelling of the letters M and S because they’re clearly not the most imaginative bunch), or Kjörís, a nearly century-old ice cream company from the town of Hveragerði.
But that changed over the last five years. There’s been an explosion in artisanal ice cream (a metaphorical explosion, not a literal one—although that would be cool). In Reykjavík, we now get to choose between Valdís, Hafís, and various branches of Ísbúð Vesturbæjar, amongst others.
Whichever location you end up at, you’ll have to try the beloved Bragðarefur (also known in some places as Þeytingur). It’s basically a McFlurry, but with a vastly expanded selection of candies, fruits, nuts, and sauces. You pick your soft-serve ice cream flavour and your three to five mix-ins, and they grind the whole mess together into an obscene-big cup of waistline-obliterating dairy goop. It’s awesome.
Eat it, then get out before anyone sees you.
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