The remote shores and dramatic environment of Iceland make for delicious but slim pickings in the way of culinary choices and on occasion brings a moral dilemma to the table: but OH! how delicious those choices are. I journeyed to Iceland hoping to enjoy a varied offering of traditional flavors despite my budget restraints from nightly restaurant dining and lack of facilities as we rough camped our way around the remote country.
As we approached the Mytvan Lake region (northwestern area) I had on my list to search out the delicious Icelandic Rugbraud rye bread, baked in the earth near the Reykjahlid geothermal fields. While driving through Skútustadin my nose suddenly went on high alert. I yell out to stop the car , i realize someone is smoking something!
Backtracking to the nearby shop i inquired and discovered the source of aromatic smoke. As i approached the turf styled cobbled building, small billows of aromatic smoke streaming from it’s only window, i was greeted by Gylfi. Once a fisherman, now expert cold smoker of traditional icelandic trout. Reared on the lake-side parcel his grandfather purchased in the 1930’s, Gylfi grew up net fishing for trout in Mytvan Lake and then cold smoking like his forefathers had done for centuries before. Known for its distinctive and delicious flavoring, the traditional methods of smoking used by Gylfi are unique to the Myvatn region. Most surprisingly the distinctive smoke flavor is provided by the slow burning fuel – dried sheep dung. In this region lacking of any natural timber or peat, and plenty of sheep, it was an ideal solution discovered by early settlers. Because the area has little annual rain fall, drying the dung in layers of straw it dries relatively quick and the aroma is not unpleasant as one would think. Another important aspect to the
flavor is the structure in which it’s smoked. The stone/turf buildings are constructed of cobbled walls this one near 5ft thick, which allows the inside temperature to be consistent no matter the time of year, as temperatures can drop to 10-30 below in the winter. The process is an exact centuries old tradition and labor of love for Gylfi. He now receives his fish from commercial Icelandic fisherman, but up until 1986 he caught the fish himself from the Lake. Once a fish is cleaned and prepared it is hung in the ancient smoke house (which used to be a sheep shed). It then begins to smoke for three days, Gylfi adding fuel precisely every 12 hours over the course. He will handle each fish at least 8 times from the time he receives it to the time it is packaged for sale. Although demand for his special and unique traditional trout is high, company expansion is not an option. Steps in the traditional methods would have to be compromised. Experience from previously trying to modernize the smoking while maintaining those special flavors and textures, by building a new structure; nothing compares to the small batches smoked in the centuries old stone sheep shed overlooking Myvatn Lake.
Much thanks to Gylfi for so warmly welcoming this rambunctious stranger in, answering my many questions and graciously sharing his delicious trout with me. Meeting people like Gylfi and him sharing his story and passion with me is what makes my life on this wander about, so wonderful.
Sadly due to time, I never did get to see the earth bread ovens. But directed into the small town of Reykjahlid on the northeast shore of Myvatn Lake, i found the quaint local handicraft shop and one of the lovely ladies behind the counter who had just arrived with still warm loaves of this delicious bread, also know as Hverabrauð (hot springs bread). A very dark, dense rye bread, sweet in taste reminiscent to a German pumpernickel or a Danish rye bread. With a long shelf life the bread is usually baked in square tins placed in the geothermal ground ovens for almost 24 hours. Traditionally the bread would have baked in a pot or steamed in special wooden casks and then buried in the ground near a hot spring. Rye is not native to Iceland but has been exported into the country from Denmark since 1602, and to this day it appears to still be the grain of choice for Icelanders. Most commonly, slices of Rugbraud bread are served with butter topped with smoked or pickled fish or mutton pâté. Dry Rugbraud is crumbled and topped with buttermilk as a porridge or made into a sweet bread soup often with raisins and served topped with cream for a dessert.
I of course could not wait to smooth on some butter and layer with Gylfi’s delicious smoked trout…. A mouthful of heaven !
An unexpected find while exploring the harbour area of Reykjavik, was a 1960’s style burger joint called Búllan. A little piece of greasey spoon heaven for us after a week long journey of fish, lamb and camp meals. An
unconventional treasure here in the Icelandic capital, where one orders at the counter while watching the burgers flipped and milkshakes poured. Polietly elbowing your way through the masses and vying for a stool sharing a tall counter with friendly locals grabbing a quick lunch. An inspiring joint to this one-time restaurateur and possibly the best cheese burger to be found this side of Gordon’s Stoplight Drive-In in Crystal City, Missouri!
Seafood being the glory here with cod, haddock and shellfish being the industry leaders as well as salmon and trout commercially. Whale is still fished commercially and available in local stores but is a traditional food that the modern age is not embracing. With extremely short growing seasons, crops are mainly of the root variety but many greenhouse providing unlikely fruit and veg can be found in the geothermal region of the southeast. The livestock leader is sheep best suited for the rugged terrain, but cattle and pigs can be found as well, although not the usual butcher cuts one might be most familiar with. Traditionally ALL bits of an animal (heads, offal, hooves too) were consumed often preserved by pickling in fermented whey or brine, drying and smoking.
As far as the “menu of moral” visitors to Iceland should be expected to commonly see whale, horse, shark and puffin on menus and perhaps not your “cup of tea” one should always be respectful when commenting or refusing these very traditional and once life sustaining food choices.
Since i wasn’t able to visit the earth ovens found in the Myvatn region here is an interesting and well done short video about geothermal energy in the area.