Now, I realise how this may come off. Here I am, advocating ice cream consumption in Ice-land. Like we don’t get enough of “Do you just eat ice all the time?” and “Is ice your main export?” already. We do. I get it. Ha ha, Iceland. It’s funny. But I just can’t sit by and let this go on any longer. Us Icelanders all know it, and it’s time our visitors knew it, too: Icelandic soft serve is best in the world. Bezt í heimi, certified!
First, let’s clarify one thing. When Icelanders talk about ice cream, we mean soft serve. While I celebrate the recent influx of different ice cream styles to Iceland (scoop-style, gelato, etc.), you probably came here expecting that patented Unique Icelandic Experience, so let’s stick to soft serve. When in Rome, eat gelato—when in Reykjavík, go for the soft serve.
The Starbucks of Iceland
If I’m hit with an ice cream craving (every day) when staying at my parents’ house in Iceland, I can pick from at least five different ice cream shops, all within a five-minute drive (no one walks in Iceland. It’s, uh, cold).
You’ll likely have noticed that swimming pools tend to serve as Icelanders’ informal gathering spots—ice cream parlours serve much the same purpose (incidentally, grabbing an ice cream often follows a good pool trip). The ísbúð is where teens meet to giggle, where first love blossoms (going for ice cream is a classic first date activity), where friends reconnect and families regroup.
While you’d think that all of this incessant gorging on delicious, unbeatable soft serve takes place during Iceland’s scorching hot summer months, consumption actually stays fairly even throughout the year. Most of the Western world’s ice cream parlours make up for their lagging winter business during summer, when it’s hot out, and must therefore be conveniently situated near a busy shopping street or a buzzing beach. In Iceland, the opposite is true: most of them are found in residential neighbourhoods, rather than downtown.
This further drives home my point: In Iceland, grabbing an ice cream isn’t particularly “special”—it is so ingrained in us that it’s simply become part of the routine.
For me, it’s all about the way it melts.
More than just sprinkles
The variety of cheeses, yoghurts, spreads, Skyrs and creams on offer in Iceland rivals that of a much larger country. Our barren land might not provide much fresh fruit or vegetables, but dairy, we know. When it comes to ice cream, it therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s more than one way of enjoying it.
My dad used to get a mild anxiety attack when he was forced to order an ice cream without my assistance. The abundant choice of flavours, cones, toppings and dips he was presented with would overwhelm him. He’s gotten the hang of it now, mostly because he’s memorized a few winning combinations (see my recommendations below). Sadly, not every ice cream shop is as rich with options as my favourites. If you’re outside Reykjavík (or Akureyri), the choices won’t devastate you. The ice cream itself will be just as good, but you probably won’t get the full experience of dips and toppings. Therefore, I urge you to try your hand at Icelandic-style ice cream eating while in Reykjavík (I’ve included a handy list of my favourite shops, below).
Ice cream in a cone: deconstructed
I’m very biased when it comes to ice cream. When I come to Iceland for a visit, all I want is ice cream in a cone. Ten years ago, I went for the blizzard style, but now I believe soft serve in a cone to constitute the truest, most honest form of the Icelandic ice cream experience. And that’s what I suggest you try.
What follows is a deconstruction and how-to (remember how anxious my dad used to get?) of an Icelandic soft serve ice cream in a cone:
1. Serve it
The original mixture that’s turned into soft serve generally comes from one of two main competing parties on the Icelandic ice cream market: Emmess and Kjörís, The Ice Giants. Icelanders love to fight about which one’s better, with most folks stating a clear preference (I’ll go for both, but prefer Kjörís). Most ice cream parlours are thus adorned with a sign announcing their allegiance to either brand. In every shop, you’ll find the classic vanilla on offer, but many offer chocolate, strawberry and swirls of both kind on top of that. Some even have more exotic flavours (at my favourite ice cream shop, I go for a mint soft serve). For first timers, though, go with vanilla.
2. Dip it
The process of “dipping” entails the entire ice cream being plunged into a delicious warm dip that coats it and acts as a yummy glue for the next step, the toppings. As soon as I get my ice cream, I usually take a bite as fast as I can, before the dip hardens. In some shops, the flavours are a bit to adventurous for me—I never stray away from chocolate, and of course, there are usually two kinds of chocolate dips to choose from. In determining which is the right one for you, you must determine whether you are a “milk chocolate person” or a “dark chocolate person.” Most of my friends go for the milk (we call it “Lúxus” dip—“luxury dip”) but that’s a little too sweet for me, so I prefer the dark (we just call it “the regular” dip).
3. Top it
After the cone has been filled and the ice cream dipped, it’s time to top it. This is where things get interesting. Have you seen how many kinds of candy we have? In some ice cream shops, you’ll find up to twenty different toppings to choose from. While most of them are firmly based in the tradition of Icelandic candy, you’ll also see universal brands, crushed up for your topping convenience. My go-to is chocolatecovered puffed corn (Nóa Kropp), but I occasionally opt for some good ol’ Icelandic liquorice.
As you read this, chances are you are within walking distance of an ice cream shop. What are you waiting for? Go get a lick in.
Guðrún’s combo recommendations:
— Vanilla soft serve, dark chocolate dip and Nóa Kropp topping
— Vanilla soft serve, milk chocolate dip and liquorice topping
— Vanilla soft serve, dark chocolate dip and Daim topping
Guðrún’s favourite ice cream shops:
Ísbúðin Erluís, Fákafen 9, 108 Reykjavík
Ísbúðin Laugalæk, Laugalækur 8, 105 Reykjavík