By Kelly Marley
Several years ago, I couldn’t have imagined going to Iceland. It wasn’t a place that was anywhere on my radar. Yet the more I read and heard about Iceland, the more I was intrigued. Enough so that I booked a photography trip to experience the beautiful landscape I had heard so much about lava fields, moon-like terrain, glaciers, waterfalls, and the special Icelandic horses! These were top of mind as I boarded my flight.
While the landscape did not disappoint, I was most surprised at how incredible the food was! I could write endlessly about the beauty of this country. But it is the food that stood out the most to me and what I want to share with you. From the casual to the elegant, Icelandic cuisine and wine far exceeded my expectations.
Lunch in a Fishing Village
After we arrived, we took some time for relaxation, and got to know our companions for the next week. We then set out for our first photo walk around Reykjavik. The walk led us to Kaffivagninn, a casual and colorful waterfront restaurant with outside picnic tables right on the harbor. Kaffivagninn proudly takes the honors as the oldest restaurant in Reykjavik. Being surrounded by the cleanest water on earth, it’s no surprise that Iceland is known for fresh fish, particularly cod.
Cod is so popular in Iceland that fisherman have been supplying it to South America and Europe for generations. Of course it is also available in North America. Icelandic fisheries are certified as sustainable, to ensure that the fish stock has a healthy and long future. As a result, the Icelandic cod population is the highest it’s ever been. In these waters, other seafood such as haddock, monkfish, lobster, and salmon are also highly popular.
We had a generous helping of fish and chips with three homemade dipping sauces. It was the perfect fuel for an afternoon of photography in the capital of Iceland.
Dinner, an Unforgettable Dining Experience
After an introduction to Iceland with an afternoon of urban photography, we prepared for our “Welcome Dinner” and an incredible dining experience at one of Reykjavik’s top restaurants… Grillmarkadurinn. Grillmarkadurinn works closely with local farmers, preparing what’s in season and uses fire, smoke, fire logs and coal to grill the food. As we entered this stunning restaurant we were led down a winding staircase to a beautifully lit cavern and into a private dining area. There were no menus to study. There was just the flow of wine, and the well timed appearance of food that a tasting menu can provides. We were presented with delicacies so well prepared and plated that it really didn’t matter what it was. I knew I was going to try them all!
As dinner commenced, we were Initially served a sampling of salmon with capers and sauce. The servings were small enough to try, while leaving you wanting more, knowing the cuisine was only going to get more interesting.
Our next dish was puffin. While puffins are protected and safeguarded worldwide, it is perfectly legal to catch and eat puffins in Iceland. Around 10 million of the 15 million puffins around the world live in Iceland. They are served in a variety of ways, including smoked. The fresh heart of the puffin is considered a delicacy, and is eaten raw. Since I am not that adventurous, I was relieved to know ours was served grilled!
Whale was served next, and is mostly ordered by tourists rather than the locals. It is mostly minke whales that are caught close to the shoreline and served domestically. Fin whales are hunted offshore and shipped exclusively to Japan.
Next up was a tasting of horse meat. Iceland is a country of just over 300,000 people, and 80,000 horses. Some horses, in the most remote parts of the country, are bred specifically for eating. Those horses are kept separate from domesticated horses that are bred for riding, sheepherding, and showing. Iceland produces about 950 tons of horse meat a year, which is considerably less than lamb and chicken.
With the extensive population of sheep in Iceland, it’s no surprise that this country produces over 10,000 tons of lamb each year. It is hard to find a restaurant menu that doesn’t have lamb, and this was no exception. The lamb is exceptionally tender. The sheep roam free in the highlands and valleys. They feed on grass, herbs, and berries until being herded up in the winter. As a result, you will find the most tender lamb you will ever eat.
Last but not least, we had a table full of dessert platters and coffee. Although I was feeling full, I wasn’t able to resist dipping into this artfully prepared tray of desserts!
In addition to the memorable cuisine, memories of the textures and elegance of this restaurant will stay with me forever. As a photographer, I am always looking for great light and shadows. And it was all around me on this magical evening.
A mere 310,000 people live in Iceland, and 250,000 of them live in the urban hub of Reykjavik. When we left the capital, I wasn’t expecting the cuisine to match what I had just experienced. But I couldn’t have been more wrong!
To see some of the incredible sights of Iceland, it requires traveling along the southern rim of the country, which is quite remote. Here, you will experience the Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls. And then there’s the Black Sand beaches of Vik, and the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, among many other iconic spots.
Seeing these natural wonders meant that we drove for hours, stopping for many photographic opportunities. We would stay in some hotels in very remote areas. Some hotels were newer than others, and one in particular reminded us of the traditional motels found along the most desolate roads in the United States.
More Memorable Meals
Staying here meant dinner was served in the main lodge, where we checked in. We were doubtful, but hungry. But I have to say, we had another incredible meal! We enjoyed it so much, that we asked the chef to come out after our meal so we could personally thank him. He is looking for an executive chef position in the United States, and no doubt he will succeed!
Dessert was a Skyr based item, that was skillfully prepared and the perfect compliment to the stew on the menu that night. You can’t go to Iceland and not have Skyr. It’s a breakfast staple, low in fat, and high in protein. Technically, it’s a cheese, but most just think of it as somewhere in between greek yogurt and creme fraiche. Icelanders eat it anytime, as breakfast, a snack, in drinks, dessert, and in dipping sauces.
Traveling to the area where we could photograph the geysers, we stayed at another remote hotel. Rustic elegance came to mind as I entered the dining room. While it’s increasingly common to have to ask for water in the United States, that’s not the case in Iceland. A small simple glass is always set next to the wine glass in Iceland, with a full carafe of crisp Icelandic water nearby.
I was told that Icelandic bread was fantastic, and let me tell you, it is! Bread is freshly baked, and always served in bowls and boards that look handcrafted. It is usually paired with whipped butter and lava salt on the side. The Icelandic chefs know how to creatively serve their cuisine, and commonly serve the bread and butter on rocks, wood, or other natural elements.
Below is another local restaurant in the remote village of Arnarstapi along the western Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It was surrounded by small shops, a geyser tour company, and the sea. We stopped here for lunch. I’ve never seen french camembert cheese offered on a hamburger, but by now, it was no surprise to see this in Iceland.
Inside every restaurant we entered, was a well appointed bar, and this one had a beautifully tiled wall. Icelanders pride themselves on dessert, and everywhere we went we saw beautiful pies, cakes, and cookies on the countertops.
The Icelandic hot dog, or “plysur” is famous! They are made mostly from Icelandic lamb, beef, and pork, and are cooked with the casing intact. Frequently loaded up, and served with crunchy fried onions, they can be found everywhere. Why are they so good? The ingredients come from animals that feed on organic and hormone free lands, resulting in a hot dog like no other.
Winding down the week, we stayed in a monastery-turned-hotel in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where we had another incredible meal in a small fishing village. The restaurant was packed, and clearly a favorite of both locals and tourists. Cod was the specialty here, and the chef was exceptionally talented and creative in his serving dishes. They were made from split Christmas trees, shellacked and standing on small “legs” from the tree trunks.
Heading back to Reykjavik at the end of our trip, we walked along a funky, hipster area on a Saturday night, where the town was alive with color and activity everywhere. There is no shortage of things to do or places to dine in Reykjavik!
As the week came to an end, there were a few Icelandic foods we did not try, such as fermented shark, or smoked sheep head, but that was ok by me! I’ll take Anthony Bourdain’s word on the shark being only for the very brave. Our “Farewell Dinner” at Sjavargrillid Restaurant in Reykjavik was thoroughly enjoyable, no less than amazing really. The house specialty were the free range and grass fed lamb chops and of course we had more beautifully crafted desserts.
I will never forget this amazing country with its outstanding cuisine, breathtaking landscape, friendly people, and pristine environment. I hope you have enjoyed dining with me in Iceland!
Photo Workshop Adventures hosts three Iceland Photo Adventures each year. Experiencing the amazing Icelandic Cuisine is a large part of what makes our journey so enjoyable. And if you’re looking for a truly unique adventure, be sure to check out our 14 Days of Discovery trip in May 2019 and May 2020. You’ll visit both Iceland and Cuba in a grand two-island adventure!