Drying fish is a traditional method of food preservation in Iceland © Daria Medvedeva, Shutterstock
Icelandic cuisine relies on anything that could be harvested from the barren landscape. It is simple in that its ingredients are what can be pulled from the ocean or what can live off the earth. That means fish, sheep, and the few things that do grow in Iceland – potatoes, blueberries, rhubarb, and caraway seeds. Once upon a time, Icelanders ate a greenish porridge made from boiled moss. Lifestyles have since improved, but there is still a blend of what nature provides and whatever can be shipped from Scandinavia.
Learn your Icelandic fish and you’ll know something about what’s on your plate. Cod (thorsku) is a mainstay and on every menu. Traditional throughout Scandinavia is fiskbollur – fried balls of fish and herbs – though the quintessential Icelandic dish is plokkfiskur: flaked white fish (typically plaice) cooked in white sauce with onions and mashed potatoes. Icelandic salmon (lax) is some of the best in the world.
With so many sheep around, lamb is the red meat option most preferred by Icelanders. They use their cows for dairy, so beef is not traditional (though steak is now listed on every menu). The same goes for horse meat, which was once taboo, but is now a common tourist dish. Whale is unfortunately not taboo, and is still more common than people think. Both the meat and the blubber are eaten, often heavily salted or pickled.
Vegetables and fruit were never Iceland’s forte, but potatoes did catch on in the 19th century. Icelanders avoided getting scurvy by eating scurvy grass and blueberries. Bláber are actually bilberries and they grow so ubiquitously that you can get filled up just by picking them as you walk. The berries are sweet, juicy, and tart (and blue) and are best from August and into September.
Compared with the rest of Europe, Icelanders devour an alarming amount of dairy products. Icelandic butter, milk, yoghurt and ice cream are some of the best you’ll ever taste, and the truly unique skyr is downright addictive. Traditional Icelandic cheese is little known outside the country, but ranges from very soft brie-like cheese to harder Edam-style cheeses.
The first thing that anyone should drink in Iceland is the water, which is incredibly pure and tastes so good that upon returning home, you’ll feel disappointed by your tap. In most places, it is quite safe to simply dip into the clear rocky streams, waterfalls, and lakes and drink the cool water. Almost all the cold water you encounter is glacial run-off and free from the sulphur smell that comes with naturally heated groundwater. When searching for a spot to drink from, look for clear water flowing over rocks. If you are somewhere remote and there’s nothing animal or human upriver, the water is safe. Otherwise, use caution if drinking water near farms, cities and dams. Mineral springs dot the countryside, some of which are naturally carbonated and bottled Icelandic water is sold everywhere.
The Icelandic national religion that is coffee has been in force ever since the Danes first brought it here. No matter where you go, you will be offered a cup of coffee, typically with lots of sugar and lots of milk. Even when people speak of ‘tea’ they usually mean coffee. Finding a good cup of tea in Iceland isn’t that easy.