When I inevitably return back to the States, the first thing my friends and family will ask me about will be what sort of “adventures” I got up to. Californians tend to think of Iceland as an uncharted wilderness, sort of like an arctic Wild West—less Reykjavík and more glaciers and volcanoes with unpronounceable names. And just like the American pioneers of legend, I’ll tell anyone who will listen about how I braved the elements (Cold winds! Snow! Heavy rain!) and learned to survive on whatever was edible.
After a month of living here I’ve finally come to empathise with the pioneers, because every trip to the grocery store is like a day spent foraging for food. The questions they must have asked themselves —are these berries edible? Will this plant reduce a fever or give me horrible rashes?—become more and more relevant every time I step into Bónus.
‘Is this milk? Is this beef? Is this cat food?’ It’s not that the food here is particularly foreign, just the packaging. I tend to perform the following test on anything I buy:
– Is the item in a clear package, such as a plastic bread bag? Then yes, it’s probably safe to say that it is what you think it is.
– If not, say the name out loud. Kaffi sounds like coffee. You’re more than likely buying coffee.
– Still confused? Establish you location. Examine the product. Give it a good shake if you need to. The cardboard carton in the dairy aisle filled with fluid is more than likely milk.
And when all else fails, there’s always trial and error.
After a week in Iceland I more or less became vegetarian. I’d walk up and down the meat aisles, pick up different cuts of lamb or beef and stare at the frozen sheep heads in fascination before eventually leaving empty handed. Yes, I know that most Icelanders would happily help me differentiate between beef and lamb, but I’m stubborn.
Finally, I decided to bite the bullet and bought the cheapest package of ground meat I could find (400 ISK). A bargain, to be sure. Pleased with myself, I returned to my apartment and showed my roommate what I’d purchased. Our conversation went something along the lines of:
“So, this is beef, right?”
“It’s… lamb, beef and horse.”
“I’ve never had them all together, but I’m sure it’s fine.”
She said it in the way that one of the early settlers might have said: “You drank from the stream? Well, everyone else who drank that water got cholera and died, but I’m sure it’s fine.”
Most hrosskajöt (horse meat) virgins would have stopped there. How could you eat Mr. Ed? Seabiscuit? Pioneers don’t eat their horses. They name them and feed them apples and cradle their heads as a wayward bullet saps the life out of them. Luckily, I’ve never owned a horse, ridden a horse or looked into a horse’s eyes and seen a human-like soul residing within it.
I was more freaked out by the mysteriousness of the meat and the questionable quality. In retrospect, when 625 grams of meat cost less than a cup of coffee you’re just asking for trouble. And is it really a good idea to mush together three different meats? Probably not. Even after I was reassured that I didn’t buy dog food I worried. What would it taste like? Would there be a weird consistency thing?
My first attempt with my ground horse-lamb-beef combination was a simple spaghetti Bolognese. I figured, worst case scenario, the sauce and seasoning would overpower any undesirable horse flavours, whatever those might be.
In the end it tasted like cheap, texture-less meat that turned a little grey on the skillet. Probably because it was, in fact, cheap, texture-less meat that turns a little grey. But unlike a pioneer who picked the low hanging fruit, I’ll live to grocery shop another day, a wiser, less embarrassingly cheap person.
Arit John is an intern at The Grapevine! After graduating from UCLA she decided to come here for three months. She mostly thinks it was a good idea…despite the above experience at Bónus!
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!