From Iceland — The Local Specialities of Mývatn

The Local Specialities of Mývatn

Published October 2, 2005

Last spring, the Grapevine attempted to pass through Mývatn. We ended up staying for a weekend, visiting Dimmuborgir, Krafla, the beautiful Mývatn Lake, and the Mývatn Nature Baths—a tasteful Northern approach to the Blue Lagoon. The parting words of our host and guide, Pétur Gíslason of the Hotel Reykjahlíð, were “You haven’t seen anything. You have to see Mývatn in the fall.”
We returned this October, expecting… honestly, expecting nothing. We brought a guitar, some wine, some cheese, and hiking clothes. There are miles and miles of hiking paths throughout the Mývatn area—without any organized activities or sites, the area offers the kind of relaxation that would be an attraction in and of itself in most parts of the world. Beyond the out-of-this-world moonscape, (no joke: the astronauts of the Apollo missions actually trained in Mývatn to familiarize themselves with the geography of the moon), Mývatn offers extremely relaxed sites like the Cowshed Café, a café built into a working, family-owned dairy.
As it happened, though the tourists had left Mývatn, and though we had no intention of going to the familiar sites, there was still a good deal more to see than our three days allowed for. We still believe that Mývatn, with its massive lake containing the most diversity of waterfowl in the world, would make for a perfect do-nothing-but-observe holiday—we just can’t say that we’ve tried it.
Lofthellur Cave, Ptarmigan Murder
Arriving at noon after a five-hour drive from Reykjavík, we set off immediately on a tour organized by Hotel Reykjahlíð to the newly discovered Lofthellur Cave. The cave is exactly 23 km from Reykjahlíð, a somewhat raucous one-hour journey by superjeep—our tour guide Illugi, whose family actually discovered the cave we’re going to, points out the spot where Mick Jagger decided, during his 1999 visit to Mývatn, that the road was too rough for him.
Preparations for descending into the cave involve some serious warnings: ice formations inside are extremely fragile, and unlike the more famous sites in the area, the cave is extremely limited in the number of tourists it can handle per year.
We descend, are given a set of specially outfitted rubber boots with small winter tire-style spikes, helmets and headlamps. After an initial tight squeeze, we find ourselves in a blood red chamber, the first of five large chambers in the 370-metre cave.
The ice formations inside the cave prove remarkable. The ice is constantly growing and moving, as an attempt to lift an ill-placed rope demonstrates—left on the ice a week ago, it is now under a clean centimetre of ice.
When the ice combines with the iron ore tempered by volcanic eruption, the colours are overwhelming. Overall, the impression is like wandering around the gem collection of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago—assuming the gems were set out, with glass cases removed, and a constant reminder from the local guards that if you bump the gems, you’ll break them.
We spend longer than might be recommended staring at ice, and when we eventually come out of the cave it is past sunset. Our drive back, in borderline darkness, is a little more harrowing than the journey that turned Mick Jagger’s stomach. Just as we are getting fully used to the roller coaster-off-the-track that is super jeeping, I point out an odd creature flopping beside the truck. It is, it turns out, a mortally wounded ptarmigan, the celebrated Christmas bird of Iceland. Mývatn is full of ptarmigan, and our guide has explained his trepidation at the return of ptarmigan hunting—as he explains it, there is a history of over-hunting the vulnerable species. As Illugi discusses the local hunting controversy, the ptarmigan is bleeding in front of the headlights and attempting to walk on its broken wing. We decide to capture the bird and put it out of its misery—a deed both humane and inherently masculine, and one that we totally and completely muck up, first by diving to catch the bird in a lava field, then by… twisting incorrectly.
Selja Hallageir and Rotten Eggs
Though we spent a good portion of the night watching Illugi take a mocking from the locals for his inability to wring bird neck, we set out early the next day for another little-known local attraction, the basalt columns of Selja Hallageir.
A more difficult drive than the cave, the basalt columns demand an extremely experienced super jeep driver—even for passengers the journey can be gut-wrenching.
On arrival, we are not that impressed. We look over a small ledge of horizontal basalt formations and listen to Illugi explain the geology behind the oddity we were witnessing.
“My real hope though, is to be able to drive around directly to the cliffs, but that is a much rougher ride,” he tells us.
We then realize that we have a moderate hike ahead of us. The scenery, Illugi tells us, is remarkable in the canyon, but because snow has already fallen, he decides to make up for the lack of scenery by explaining local gastronomical habits.
The celebrated Mývatn rotten duck egg is mentioned. Yes, Illugi partakes in the local speciality, buried and rotted duck eggs. But, unlike his father and grandfather, Illugi is not a fan of duck eggs that have embryos inside them. He prefers to simply throw those eggs away.
From rotten duck eggs, we move on to discuss Icelandic moss, another speciality in Mývatn best prepared, we are told, with milk salt and sugar. As we are discussing the best way to dry sheep dung for a good smoked lamb, we come upon the basalt cliffs.
Ranging from forty to fifty metres, the cliffs, in tight, twisting hexagonal columns are stunning.
I ask him how many people come out to see it.
“Not too many. Some photographers and filmmakers. There’s a real limit because it’s hard to get to,” he tells me, shrugs, and tells me about the peacefulness of the valley in midsummer, when it heats up a great deal more than the rest of the area—up to the high 20s Celsius.
“You are so warm, and there’s sun everywhere, and you have such beautiful scenery all to yourself that it’s quite relaxing,” he says.
You’re Standing On It
Our last day, we head out to visit a celebrated maker of hangikjöt, (smoked lamb), local farmer Heiðinn Sverrison. Snow is falling again, and we see the sheep huddled together in their pens—Pétur, the owner of the hotel that has fed and sheltered us and a couple of honeymooners, has decided to drive us out. He points to the most photogenic of the sheep: “That’s going to be your hangikjöt,” he says, laughing, as we pull in to the smokehouse.
Héðinn laughs at the idea that I could purchase hangikjöt in October. He nods out to the sheep that we’ve just been joking about: “We have to slaughter them first. Then it’s at least a month for decent hangikjöt.”
He briefly mentions his clientele, members of Alþingi and Björk among them, then guides me through his smoke house. “Half a month in the smoke house is just smoked meat,” he says. “For real hangikjöt, it needs to hang afterwards.”
He mentions a few Althingi members then tells me that the new fad is to eat hangikjöt double-smoked. Some, he says, are asking for it three times smoked.
“What distinguishes Mývatn is the strong flavour of the smoke,” he says.
“What accounts for that strong taste?” I ask, then look down. “What am I standing on?”
“20 centimetres of sheep dung,” he says with the broadest smile I’ve ever seen.
The key to the Mývatn hangikjöt is the care taken with sheep dung, the traditional fuel of Iceland. Sheep dung must be dried for two years, which means bringing it indoors at times, stacking it 20 centimetres thick. After two years, the ammonia and toxins are stripped from the dung, and all that remains are the herbs and grass that the sheep fed on.
He seems convinced and amused, and by the smell of the smoke—he has a number of Arctic Char smoking as we speak—I have to admit that excrement is the last odour I would identify.
We go in for coffee, and I fill out the order form to receive my hangikjöt in time for Christmas, just as the Alþingi members do.
His farm, which also serves as a guesthouse, has a magnificent view of the lake.
“You can look for hours at the sex life of birds,” he says in English. “To see which guy gets which girl and how much they fight.”
I nod and ask him about rotten duck eggs.
“There is no tradition of eating ducks,” he points out. “They were so valuable for the eggs.” Then he smiles. Yes, he eats rotten duck eggs. He likes them. With ducklings in them, I ask.
“Oh no, that’s for old people. My mother likes that a lot,” he says.
There are three ducks left on the lake as a heavy snow begins to fall, and we decide to begin our drive back to Reykjavík.
Car provided by Hertz Car Rental. Flugvallarvegi, 101 Reykjavík. Tel.: 505-0600.
Mentioned in this article:
–Hotel Reykjahlið, 660 Mývatn. Tel.: 464-4142.
–Mountain View Tours, booking done at Hotel Reykjahlið.
–Smoke-house and guesthouse – Reykhúsið Geir Eyjarströnd, Tel.: 464-4210.
–Mývatn Nature Baths

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