We hosted our first culinary tour of Iceland last month with an incredible group of people from every corner of America. It was a week long adventure inspired by the 25 trips I’ve made to Iceland over the past several years, galvanized by the book I’m writing with the Icelandic chef Gunnar Karl Gislason of Dill in Reykjavik for Ten Speed Press profiling the traditional food producers of Iceland.
Our goal was to introduce a small group of people to the incredible people, places and cuisine that has kept me coming back to this island nation at the top of the world time and time again. It was so gratifying to see the same delight and wonder in the faces of our guests that I have experienced countless times along the way as they marveled at Iceland’s extraordinary beauty, shared a joke or teared up from a heartfelt story with one of the people they met on our journey, or tasted something grown in Iceland’s pristine environment that perked up their taste buds and left them wanting more.
We are planning several trips for 2014 to virtually every corner of Iceland and would love to have you join us for what we hope will be as one guest said of our last trip, “an epic adventure!”
Our trip kicked off in Reykjavik with a champagne toast at the city’s new opera house, Harpa that glistens on the waterfront like a glass jewel box. After getting to know each other a bit better, we walked along Reykjavik’s harbor to Kex, one of my favorite lunch spots in the city where we enjoyed artisanal microbrews and a gastropub menu comprised of fresh offerings like buttermilk shrimp and scallops with celariac and open faced shredded pork sandwiches.
After lunch we headed over to the Nordic House where the restaurant Dill is located for a private cooking demonstration with Iceland’s most celebrated chef, Gunnar Karl Gislason. Of course, I am unabashedly partial to Gunnar after having spent the past few years traveling through Iceland with him writing our book, but I know our group was just as impressed with his cuisine as I am. I always tell him that while his food is beautifully plated, I could blindfold myself and taste it and would enjoy it just as much. His flavors are just that good.
We spent the afternoon either resting up for the evening to come at the hip waterfront hotel Marina where our group stayed for the first night, or shopping for Icelandic delicacies along Reykjavik’s main pedestrian street. Dinner that night was fittingly at Dill where Gunnar and his amazing team prepared us a tasting menu. I loved seeing that our guests were as enchanted with Gunnar’s food as I am.
We said goodbye to Reykjavik on the second day of the tour to head south were we enjoyed a jam-packed day that still left time for soaking our feet in a geothermal pool. Our first stop was the village of Hveragerdi where the geothermal activity is so robust, plumes of steam rise up everywhere, shrouding the town in a misty haze.
We had to work to earn our breakfast by boiling our eggs in the geothermal water with the help of a mesh basket and a stick. As the group toured the geothermal park, I arranged a spread of traditional Icelandic specialties including sweet rye bread baked using geothermal heat, creamy Icelandic butter, pickled herring (we had a few Midwesterners in our group and they appreciated the connection to home) and shots of icy cold Brennivin, a caraway spiked schnapps that is also called black death (for a reason). It pairs well with the sweetness of the bread and once our eggs were boiled to perfection, we enjoyed a little mid-morning feast.
A trip to this region of Iceland does not feel complete without stops at two of the nation’s most spectacular wonders; Gullfoss, a waterfall that catches virtually everyone’s breath the first time they see it and Geysir, the geyser after which all others are named.
Following lunch at one of my favorite restaurants on the Golden Circle we stopped by one of my favorite greenhouses in all of Iceland. Many of the country’s greenhouses are heated by geothermal electricity (95% of Icelandic households are fueled by it) and its produce watered using pristine geothermal water. The Fridheimar tomato greenhouse is one of the best examples of Icelandic sustainability in action. Tucked into the woods, this family owned and operated greenhouse is a place to linger, savoring bloody marys, soup and juice made from some of the most delectable tomatoes I’ve ever tasted.
I’ve visited Fridheimar several times over the past few years and the chef there prepared a special feast of traditional Icelandic specialties like puffin and double-smoked lamb especially for our group. Before saying goodbye, we enjoyed an Icelandic horse show to learn more about one of the country’s most beloved animals.
We spent the night at idyllic Hotel Ranga, southern Iceland’s only four star resort. Our group loved our dinner there complete with a skyr mousse cake for dessert and most of us enjoyed a soak in one of the hotel’s hot tubs on the edge of the river, the black Icelandic sky dotted with stars above. A fun feature at Ranga is the “Northern Lights Wake Up Call” that you can sign up for should you want to be called if there’s a northern lights sighting. Unfortunately, we didn’t see one during our stay but that’s all the more reason for a return visit.
We hopped on a short ferry ride to the tiny island of Vestmannaeyjar on the third day of our tour to experience some of Iceland’s most breathtaking landscapes (and in a country this beautiful, that’s really saying something)!
Our guide for the day was a man named Siggi who some of us thought looked like the Icelandic version of John Wayne. Once he gave us a rope swinging demo to show us how the islanders traditionally collect seabird eggs from the high clifftops, we all agreed he was more like the Icelandic version of Tarzan.
Our morning also included a visit to a fish processing plant where we sampled langoustine bisque soup accompanied by white wine and some of the best bacalao cakes in the country. We had to don white lab jackets and turquoise blue hair nets and booties before entering the owner’s pristine facility and if collectively wearing such an unflattering getup doesn’t bring a group together, I don’t know what will.
We set sail for lunch to tour the island and indulge in a feast of traditional Icelandic specialities like monkfish, langoustines and regional microbrews. As we enjoyed our lunch, thousands of puffins flew overhead. The meal concluded in an enormous cavern that the salty captain of our boat told us had perfect acoustics. To prove his point, he promptly took out a saxaphone and played us a tune to which one member of our group responded, “This is true good to be true.” It really was.
After a tour of the island and an optional hike to the top of a volcano for a few of us, we settled in for cocktails and dinner at a beautiful converted warehouse restaurant.
We enjoyed rhubarb and wood sorrel mojitos before enjoying a tasting menu comprised of dishes from one of Iceland’s best up and coming chefs. It was a fun way to conclude a lovely day on the island before heading back for one more night at Hotel Ranga.
On the fourth day of our tour we drove northwest to visit one of the spots I most anticipated on the trip. We were on our way to visit with an Icelandic goat farmer named Johanna who is profiled in our book. Like so many small family owned farmers, Johanna has had her share of struggles, but she perseveres with a drive and determination that never ceases to amaze me.
Johanna prepared a beautiful feast for us of roasted goat with baby potatoes plucked fresh from her garden that morning and a rhubarb compote. Coffee was served with goat’s milk of course and dessert was a bowl of Johanna’s goat’s milk ice cream. She even let us sample some of her creamy goat cheese and a feta that she ages with rose petals from her bountiful garden. It was an extraordinary afternoon with an extraordinary woman who introduced us to her goats, several of which had just been used as the goats for season four of Game of Thrones (the standout star being a little white goat named Casanova).
Dinner was enjoyed that night at Budir’s elegant restaurant before settling in to the lounge to enjoy a cocktail and watch the sunset over the river that runs right outside the hotel’s door.
The next day started with an optional morning where guests could either relax and enjoy their time at the hotel, go horseback riding or hike along the ocean on a meandering cliffside trail. For those who opted for the hike, we also stopped at a black rock beach at the very tip of the peninsula. Just through the cove to the beach there’s a line of “lifting stones” that determined decades ago a sailor’s position on a ship (the heavier the stone you could lift, the higher your ranking onboard). Several people bravely attempted to lift the impossibly heavy stones and I’m confident we all would have been placed in a plum position on the ship!
We all gathered together again refreshed from our morning to enjoy lunch at Hellnar Cafe, one of the coziest little places in all of Iceland. The weather was perfect to sit outside under the bright blue sky to enjoy a meal of fresh fish and shellfish stew with waffles and rhubarb jam for dessert. Sated, it was time to visit the only stop that could be called notorious on the trip.
It was time for fermented shark.
Icelandic cuisine used to solely be one of survival and provisions needed to be preserved to get through the seemingly endless winter. This led to a host of pickled and fermented products that most Icelanders tend to eschew these days for the fresh ingredients that now comprise their contemporary Nordic pantries. But a few vestiges of these traditions remain, the most legendary probably being hakarl, or putrified shark. There are very few hakarl producers left in Iceland and one of the most endearing (Is it possible to say that a rotten shark producer is adorable?) continues to produce shark in the same manner his family has for generations.
I was so proud of our group for bravely trying a cube of ominous looking hakarl but just in case someone needed to vanquish the unfamiliar (dare I say offensive?) flavor from their palette, I brought with me an artisan crowberry vodka should it be needed. It was.
After driving through the other-worldly lava fields of Snaefellsness, we visited a family owned dairy to learn about skyr production and indulge in ice cream, fresh from the free range, grass fed dairy cows.
It was time to head north for the last few days of our trip and our first stop along the way was for dinner and lodging at Guesthouse Hofsstadir, one of Iceland’s most welcoming country hotels. We arrived just in time for our meal which was lovingly prepared by an Icelandic chef who worked in Michelin starred restaurants all over Europe before realizing he left his heart in Iceland. He now owns Hofsstadir with his wife, a marvel in her own right, who runs a company on the side that produces Icelandic delicacies like birch and pine syrups.
The chef forages around the vast expanse of land that surrounds his hotel, rounding out his ingredients with meat and produce sourced from his extensive farm and fished from the river that runs through his property. He even told us tales from the Viking sagas as we enjoyed our dinner that included a dressing for the langoustine salads made from his wife’s birch syrup. Content and sleepy from our long day, it was time for sleep in one of the hotel’s contemporary cottages that overlooks nothing but the bliss-inducing Icelandic countryside.
We jumpstarted the day with a dip in one of Iceland’s geothermal pools that overlooks the ocean and snowcapped mountains. Warm and relaxed, it was time to visit one of northern Iceland’s loveliest little villages for a lunch of fresh Arctic char and Icelandic microbrews, including the “sailor’s beer” known as Black Death.
Next up was a tour and tasting at one of Iceland’s new microbreweries that have emerged since the ending of prohibition in the nation only a few decades ago. It was a nice pitstop on our way to Akureyri, northern Iceland’s largest town at a whopping 17,000 people, for a few hours of shopping before heading to an ancient house (by Icelandic standards) for a dinner none of us will ever forget.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect as we drove up the side of a mountain to a house that felt (was!) in the middle of nowhere. What we discovered inside was an enchanting slice of history and a resplendent meal comprised of dishes from both the Icelandic Christmas and Thorrablot traditions.
Every detail of the intricately orchestrated dinner was planned by two of Iceland’s most notable chefs, Kjartan Gislason and Eythor Runarsson, who is among other things, a judge on Europe’s Master Chef program.
A guitarist hired just for the occasion played traditional Icelandic tunes as the sun set gloriously on an evening I’m quite certain none of us will ever forget.
It might have been the second to last day of the trip but that did not mean that we were going to take it easy. There is so much to see and do in northern Iceland and it was time to explore. We started the day with an optional deep sea fishing trip on the North Atlantic for those who wanted to don the fabulously chic (kidding) orange rubber overalls and cast their line in the shadow of snowcapped mountains. I must admit that we didn’t take home an abundance of fish but nearly every single one of us caught something and we brought it back to shore for dinner later that night.
When we arrived back in the cozy village of Husevik, we were greeted by one of us who opted out of fishing to spend the morning shopping for a beautiful handknit sweater and also this fantastic Viking hat that she greeted us with at the shore. I only had one more day before the conclusion of our tour and at that moment I realized just how much I was going to miss our fantastic, fun loving group.
After lunch at one of Husevik’s seafood restaurants that serves fish freshly plucked from the sea, we set off for the geothermal nature baths of Lake Myvatn. There are many regions of Iceland that feel otherworldly (they even trained here for the first lunar landing) but the Myvatn area is particularly notable as an out of this world place of percolating electric blue geothermal waters, steaming geyser heat and ash dusted volcanoes.
Along the way to the baths we stopped to explore the “mud pots” of Myvatn, a vast expanse of bubbling aquamarine pools and cones pumping out plumes of geothermal steam.
We enjoyed our last dinner of the tour that night in the home of a local resident who prepared a resplendent meal of grilled lamb accompanied by angelica cocktails and garden fresh produce. The special evening even included a traditional Icelandic pastry making lesson, an artisan cheese tasting and berry foraging before dinner. It was the perfect way to end the trip… although it was not quite over yet.
After a short puddle-jumper (or in this case, glacier-jumper) flight back to Reykjavik, we jumpstarted our morning in the able hands of the roasters at easily Reykjavik’s best coffee house, Reykjavik Roasters.
We were joined by the owner of one of my favorite products in Iceland, Saltverk, an artisanal salt produced using geothermal steam in the remote Westfjords. Bjorn discussed his salt production process and told us the fascinating history of his company as we sipped our smooth cappuccinos which energized us for our final meal of the tour.
It was over a simple meal of fish and chips coated in spelt and barley batter and served with skyr dipping sauces at the organic eatery Icelandic Fish & Chips that we enjoyed our last few hours of the tour. I knew already that I was going to miss each and every member of our curious, enthusiastic, amazing group as we hugged our final goodbyes. It really was an “epic adventure” and I am already dreaming of the trips we are planning for 2014.