From Iceland — Brain Food For Thought Off The Beaten Track

Brain Food For Thought Off The Beaten Track

Published September 2, 2011

Brain Food For Thought Off The Beaten Track

First off, a little waxing lyrical:
 Last year my partner and I meandered across Iceland on a budget of 3.000 ISK/day with nothing but an old Toyota jeep, our wits and a flimsy tent. It was one of the most refreshing experiences of my life. I urge you to try it: a complete wham-bam tour of Iceland in your own fully-oiled, four-wheel-drive dump-truck—on and off road, through storm, sun and sideways hail, under rainbows; and for heaven’s sake, save yourself ample time to pick wild blueberries and gambol with Huldufólk (the hidden people).
 With or without purple fingers you’ll never quite look at anything the same way again. Honest.

If you have the time, take three or even four weeks. Gently coast along, stopping to admire waterfalls or rock formations at your own leisure. There’s nothing like dodging a tern-attack or getting a whiff of live seal—it may put you off eating seal meat forever, but then again, you’re probably going back to Italy or Germany or the USA, so in all likelihood there’s not going to be seal on the menu in the foreseeable future. Greenlanders? Well, that’s another food for thought.
 You may even, as I did, have the amazing fortune to come face-to-muzzle with an arctic fox at the early hours of the morning as you peek out of your tent to take the crisp morning air. Watch him cough and growl then scarper off into the highlands wiggling his cute-little-self behind him.
 We put close to 2.000 km of road, highway and gravel behind us, had to change our tyres twice and almost ran out of petrol while banking the long, winding roads to Ísafjörður. And, yes, travelling around Iceland is no cheap affair, even doing it as we did it, in a tent—at night temperatures on the ground drop close to zero. We slept in woollies, in scarves and caps—once or twice even in mittens—but it was worth every minor discomfort.

On the vegetable side of things, it was quite a struggle. Both of us are fully-fledged carnivores, but we enjoy our fruit and veg as much as any hard-core vegetarian, and I’ll tell you this: in two weeks—from Höfn to Ísafjörður, there wasn’t a single stalk of celery to be found in any country store or supermarket.
Now hotdogs you can find anywhere in Iceland. And I would never begrudge someone one at Bæjarins beztu with onions and remoulade—along with the Kolaportið flea market, it’s part of the cult of Reykjavík—but honestly, the amount of hotdogs, filter coffee and ice creams that they dole out at N1s throughout the country…I’ve never seen anything like it.
 On the road, I heard tell of a French cyclist who managed to do Iceland on less than 15 Euros a day (all in). Well, from what they say he basically lived on a diet of hot dogs throughout his whole round-trip and wound up with severe gastroenteritis. He managed, but just by the skin of his small intestine.
 I know you’re thinking what gives with the celery craving? Well, I’ll tell you it’s the perfect snack when you’re driving for hours and you need something healthy to keep your blood sugar at the right level.
 In lieu of celery we opted for carrots—also a handy veg—but all we could find was the mass-farmed imported stuff which is generally tasteless and occasionally stale. Not a single shop we came across had Icelandic carrots. Had Iceland’s entire contingent been shipped to Reykjavík because there are no vegans out in the country? It wasn’t until close to the end of the trip that we got to Flúðir that we actually managed to buy some fabulous lava-soil-soaked purple carrots from a little lean-to at the side of the road. The shack was un-manned and (unbelievably in this day-and-age) works on an honour-system, which basically means: We trust you. Please insert your coins into the slot!
 We tried apples. These were generally available anywhere, sometimes red, sometimes green, but never any cultivar designation (see part three in this series). You couldn’t tell if you were eating Granny Smiths or Golden Delicious. But that’s not all. Half of them looked good on the outside, but on the inside they were furry and dry and flavourless.
 According to The Guardian, typical EU or US apple-storage-time varies from 6-12 months. In the US (and Argentina, where many of Iceland’s red ones come from), apples are waxed and then hot-air dried to give them a beautiful sheen and hard exterior, but they may not reach your stomach until one year after they’ve been picked. Factor in an extra month or so to get them to Iceland, plus an added month in storage here, and there you have it: You may actually be munching 14 month-old fruit. Carrots are often cooled in chlorinated water and are stored at 0° C for an average of 6 months.
 The mind reels, the stomach churns.

In the end, we gave up on our fruit and vegetable snacks, and opted for the only thing we knew was really ‘Made in Iceland’: Harðfiskur, wind-dried fish—rather like a fish jerky. My personal preference is for haddock, but cod or wolf-fish are also available pretty much anywhere.
 Although you’ll get a lap full of dried fish-flakes, these chewy-fluffy-crumbly strips are as easy to handle while driving as a carrot. Of course, harðfiskur is ten times the price of carrots, and you miss out on that dosage of Vitamin C, but you’ll get your essential omega oils instead. Great for keeping eyes sharp on the road.
 Now, I don’t want to be entirely negative about our low-budget-on-the-road dining experiences. There were certainly some highlights. At Lake Mývatn we came upon a little farm with all-told ten cattle grazing on a paddock, and here, hidden behind an old shed, a little old lady was selling smoked wild trout pulled straight from the lake. Of all the things I’ve eaten in Iceland, this rates top ten.
 A close competitor to this delicacy, smoked arctic char from Lake Laugarvatn, also titillates the taste buds. Served on little slices of Icelandic rúgbrauð (rye bread slow-baked in geothermal vents), accompanied with a crisp pinot gris from Chile, little compares to this succulence. You can buy the filets either hot or cold smoked, both versions are delicious; and believe it or not, it will not break the bank.
 And, at a little bistro in Stykkishólmur on the magical Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we splurged on a bowl of blue Icelandic mussels done Mariniere-style, steamed with garlic, onion and white wine, with a few sprigs of seaweed thrown in for authenticity: truly word-class, but at 2.000 ISK a head (without wine) it burst our daily budget. Ah well, you only live once.
 At the time of writing I was hunting down the journalist-shy purchasing managers of Bónus and Krónan, but they still seem to be evading my imported-food-questions. The Icelandic Horticultural Society too, remains rather elusive regarding progress in Icelandic vegetable cultivation; recently, however, there has been much talk of a gigantic geothermally-fed tomato project about to happen on the Reykjanes peninsula.
I hope they’ll consider celery too (fat chance).
 Oh, and another thing I discovered on my travels here: Icelandic seagulls adore salami. One night, some silly foreigner left an unattended pizza outside his tent for a minute or two. By the time he got back, the gulls has plucked off all his Hungarian spiced-meat slivers.
 It seems we’re not the only ones who love our sausage.
Next time: I explore the detailed process of dung-smoking and seriously consider becoming a vegan.

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