Escaping The Grey At One Of Iceland’s Most Storied Greenhouses

Escaping The Grey At One Of Iceland’s Most Storied Greenhouses

Photo by
Art Bicnick

On a mission to get lost in a lush wilderness under glass

It’s one of the gloomiest days this December — just past noon, yet outside is as dark as if it were eight in the evening. It won’t get any brighter today. Rain pours down on the highway, making the road nearly invisible, while gusts of wind make the car sway as we hurtle away from the capital. There will be many more days like this, but in Iceland, you learn to adapt to the weather.

Despite the darkness of the Icelandic afternoon, I’m craving a splash of colour. While many Icelanders I know are hibernating in the warmth of Tenerife during this period, I use my press pass to find the closest version of that near Reykjavík. Today, I’m at the greenhouses of the Horticultural School in Reykir. The school is part of the Agricultural University of Iceland and has recently made headlines for cultivating and harvesting Iceland’s first cacao fruit — singular. But if you look outside the window, you won’t underestimate such an achievement. 

“Despite the darkness of the Icelandic afternoon, I’m craving a splash of colour.”

Greenhouse manager Elías Óskarsson meets me at the door, slightly surprised by my interest. He welcomes me and Art Bicnick, who can’t hide his dissatisfaction with the limited daylight, into the greenhouse. Rows of cherry tomatoes in yellow, red and various shades of green greet us, making me feel like a kid in a candy store — an admittedly healthy one. Baby aubergines are nestled next to rows of robust bell peppers and vibrant green cucumbers. Planted apart from the other crops, the Icelandic ghost peppers wait for their time to be harvested. The contrast with the dreary weather outside is stark. And don’t even get me started on the smell.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Experiment in bloom

While I can’t take my eyes off the colourful veggies — they’re much nicer looking than what you’ll find at your local Krónan or Bónus — Elías explains that we are at an experimental greenhouse. This is where students of the Horticultural School do practical work. For instance, they can try growing an unusual vegetable or run other experiments, like a recent attempt at different levels of CO2 input in tomatoes. The produce grown inside greenhouses is then used by the students in the kitchen. Nothing goes to waste and, contrary to popular belief, nothing here is for sale.

The students and the staff have also been experimenting with the amount of light in the greenhouse. “We use a lot more light here than they do in Holland,” Elías explains. “Because of the latitude, they have a lot more light outside, so they do not need so much light [inside the greenhouse]. Also, our electricity costs a lot less. In Europe, for example, in Denmark, they stopped growing in the light because of the electricity costs.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

During his time managing the greenhouse, Elías saw that practically anything can be grown here — from cantaloupe melons to spaghetti squashes, which he personally finds the most unusual of the students’ experiments. 

Unlike me, Elías isn’t surprised that the greenhouse’s cacao tree bore a single fruit this year. “It’s because it is only seven years old,” he explains. “It takes them that long to mature from seed to giving fruit.” He hopes for more cacao fruits next summer as the tree had lots of flowers and there’s a chance they got pollinated.

I ask Elías if it’s true that the harvested fruit has been turned into chocolate by the Omnom factory. “Yes. It was okay,” he answers unamused.

The ever-changing banana tale

If you’ve spent some time in Iceland, you might have heard that Iceland has the largest banana plantation in Europe or is even Europe’s biggest exporter of bananas. Of course, no one has ever tried those mythical Icelandic bananas; the whole story is shrouded in mystery. Does Iceland export them all? Why Iceland, out of all places? Is it even true? Luckily, I have Elías ready to dispel these myths.

“You know how the stories always change,” Elías sighs as I bring up the topic. “We do not export bananas. We do not grow bananas for commercial use. We do not sell bananas.” He explains that the reason Iceland even has bananas is because of a five-year-long trial in the 1950s. “The trial wasn’t successful in the sense that we found out that we cannot do this commercially because it costs too much. It takes 18 months for that cluster there to form,” Elías says, pointing to a banana tree with tiny unappealing fruit. “You’re lucky to see a cluster of bananas because usually we do not get any at this time of the year.” 

It’s as dark inside the banana greenhouse as it is outside — instead of relying on light, the greenhouse uses heat, maintaining a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius all year round. “Today there is probably not enough light for plants to photosynthesise,” says Elías as we speak about the challenges of growing bananas in this northern climate.

“We can say that this is the biggest banana plantation under glass,” Elías clarifies. “And it is the biggest plantation of bananas in Europe, because the Canary Islands are not in Europe. They are in Africa.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Could an Icelandic banana one day be an everyday find in a local grocery store available on par with African bananas? Elías shakes his head in dismay. “When bananas are so cheap in the shop, this would never work.” He bends his fingers counting how expensive it would be to grow bananas in Iceland commercially — starting with labour expenses, electricity, heating, water, fertilisers, etc. It would take 18 months to grow a cluster of bananas that would cost around 5000 krónur to sell.  

“We’d make more money by selling admission to look at bananas than by actually growing them,” Elías laughs. “Have you considered that?” chimes in the ever-silent Art Bicnick. “We get so many guests, but we don’t charge,” Elías is quick to answer. When the greenhouse hosts an open day in April, just in time for the summer, about 5,000 visitors stop by.

Seeds of gratitude

“People who come here are always fascinated by bananas but we have a lot nicer oranges,” Elías laughs as he continues our excursion through the greenhouse and we pass by ripened oranges and pomegranates that gracefully weigh down the branches of their trees.

“People who come here are always fascinated by bananas but we have a lot nicer oranges.”

Asked if there’s anything that’s absolutely impossible to grow in Iceland, Elías doesn’t hesitate for a moment. “No, we can grow anything that we can grow under glass,” he says. “We have clean water, geothermal energy and affordable electricity. We can grow whatever, but there needs to be a market for it.” Unlike the students, who are always ready with new experimental ideas, Elías is confident that mastering what Iceland is already good at — like growing tomatoes and cucumbers — is the way to go.

Photo by Art Bicnick

I agree — I might not have tried the mysterious Icelandic banana today, but I certainly snacked on tomatoes right from the vine — and oh, how flavourful they were. Elías’ colleague Börkur told me I can take home anything I harvested, so the colourful tomato mix soon ended up in a panzanella salad, baby eggplants turned into Ottolenghi’s pasta alla norma and the ghost peppers will wait in the wings to spice up some of my winter meals.

I couldn’t leave without doing anything in return — so at the greenhouse managers’ request I planted some carrot seeds. When you attend the next open day, savour my contribution of crunchy carrots, nurtured by geothermal energy. They’re a humble reminder that some things do grow in Iceland.

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