20 July 2007

eating locally

One of the things I get asked about oftenish is the quality of the food here. Yes, it is expensive, and choices are limited, but that doesn't mean you can't eat well and still stay close to the land. This is something A has thought about quite a bit, so while she was around, we got to talking about it, and thinking about the localness of the meals we were cooking. It's hard to go 100%, but it's actually quite easy to have a pretty good time with mostly locally produced food.

One dinner we made was so good we spent the evening congratulating ourselves on our better-than-restaurant flavors, and then had to have it again a few days later. The menu was:

Main course:
  • Icelandic lobster (Vestmannaeyjar)
  • with butter (Selfoss)
  • and garlic (not local)
we saved the shells from the lobster and made a lobster stock, adding more Icelandic butter and some local carrots for a delectable summer soup.

  • tomatoes (Hveragerði)
  • cucumber (Laugarás)
  • red pepper (somewhere over the hill as well)
  • spiced feta (Búðardalur, although the oil & seasoning was not from Iceland)
  • lemon (also not local)
Garlic bread:
  • Bread baked in Reykjavík from flour ground about a mile away (imported wheat)
  • Italian cheese (some things aren't the same unless they're the Real Deal)
  • Butter (again, Selfoss)
  • Garlic (again, from Far Away)
  • Basil (from my own windowsill)
It can be frustrating that still so many of the things we buy and eat here come from overseas, but at least when you're eating Icelandic produce, it is a very local experience. I can see the chicken farms where my eggs come from practically from my kitchen window, I have probably passed a cow or three in my time here that has produced the dairy I consume, and I have been through most of the towns producing the vegetables I eat from here. The ships that catch the fish and lobster are a part of the daily landscape of life here, and the processes they go through are very close to the surface. I know some of the farmers, the fishermen, and the millers that are all contributing.

However, there are still some things that are just Not The Same when compared to where I am from. It's impossible to get a decent apple here, not to mention strawberries that haven't come in from Holland on their little bubble-pack mattress, and sweet corn! How I miss the sweet corn of a late New England summer. On the positive side though, I had the first of the season's local blueberries last night, picked straight from a bush in Hvalfjörður, and mixed with that wild-hillside flavor of krækiber.

16 July 2007

all over again

My friend A from the US has been visiting this past week, and on her first weekend, we went up to Snæfellsnes and stayed in Hellnar at the fantastically situated hotel there. It's not big, and is obviously more popular with the locals (I'd say I heard about 90% Icelandic in the mornings), but when you're eating breakfast with the view of the whole peninsula spread out in front of you, you can understand why.

We borrowed a car (thanks K & S!) and toured the area at the most leisurely pace I've ever explored, watching birds on the cliffs, stacking pebbles at Djúpalónssandur, surprising sheep at the tippy-tip of the peninsula, visiting horses and wandering along the lava cliff pathway between Hellnar and Arnarstapi.

I rediscovered the secret hot spring I'd been to years ago, and we watched the midnight sun splash across the mountains while tucked in the bathwater-perfect pool. The next day we spent half the day lazing on the yellow sand beach, watching the volcano gathering clouds to its peak at regular intervals. That beach is so marvelous- it's in a lovely location, with the soft sand clustered between the lava cliffs, but so still and unpopulated that I could hear the busy flight of every individual fly as it hurried over my head between grass tufts.

We also hiked across the lava at Búðir, to the caves there, inspecting the hundreds of tiny plants that give such life to these lava expanses- forget-me-nots, wild purple geraniums, herds of buttercups, columbines, poppies, and arctic birch.

A is really into birds, so I learned all about the types that live and nest here. It's baby bird season now, so the seas were full of little bobbing fluff-bits, baby eider ducks feeding on the reedy seaweed at the shore edge. The arctic terns are also in full swirl, so driving on the northern end of Snæfellsnes was full of terns in the turns ("those are the bachelors", said S).

Since the first weekend, the weather has continued the freakishly unicelandic streak, and the only disagreeable thing about it is that it brings the flies. We were at Þingvellir a few nights ago in a haze of midges (thanks H for the evening tour!). Still, the lake was lovely as always, and the flowers are obviously enjoying all the heat. We finished the ring around the lake as the sun dropped behind the mountains, and returned to Reykjavík among the swirls of fog that had developed in the low-lying areas.

Having her around has made me do some of the things I have always meant to do, like visit the Landsbókasafn on Hverfisgata where some of the oldest books in Iceland are on display in a lovely turn-of-the-century building that's all marble floors and droll door handles. We also spent an afternoon walking in the botanical gardens, and sipping coffee in the little café there. It's cottonwood season now, so the white seed parts have covered whole sections of lawn and built up in piles that look like fairy snow- slow drifting, and even packable like a snowball that oozes moisture when squeezed hard. When we were in the gardens, the plants were almost all in bloom and had also captured the cottonwood fluff, frosting branches and blossoms in a thin halo of white filaments.

This is my second July here, and I'm amazed at everything I have managed to miss the first time around. Perhaps it's the weather this year being consistently, suspiciously sunny, perhaps it was something else. At any rate, it's continuing to be one of the best places to spend a summer.

02 July 2007

a chacun son paradis

Saturday continued the glorious weather theme from last week, so I headed out to Snæfellsnes with K, the Danish vistors M and J & L, the Italian nephew. Unlike when I went in January, the hillsides now were bursting with green, the fields spotted with baby horses & sheep. It was a great day for mowing, so tractors spiraled alongside the road, and the scent of grass rose from the neat strips of drying hay as we drove out.

First stop, the yellow beach at Búðir. After nearly 2 years in Iceland, I've gotten used to beaches being black. It's how the world works here, so this one looking so much like the New England quartz sand shores seemed out of place. When I got a closer look though, things were back to Iceland-usual. The shimmering shiny "sand" was actually tiny particles of cream shells, crushed so fine they resembled sand, and mixed with just a peppery touch of lava black.

I could not imagine a more spectacular setting for a beach, tucked between black lava turrets, below mountains still spotted with snow, sprinkled with tiny flowers, and surrounded by the crystal-clear rich teal water. Happily, the area was also quite unspoiled by interfering constructions, so the only visible architecture was the scenically placed little church.

We still had more things to see though, so we headed back to the car, through the fluffy horsetail, the cool grass speckled with buttercups, the waving lupines. On the road for a little longer, K dropped all the visitors off with me as the guide, to walk from Árnarstapi to Hellnar along the hillock-y cliffs. The path hugs the coastline for the first part, offering views to the lava-sculpture western edge of the island, and to the right, glimpses of Snæfellsjökull, hugging clouds to its upper crest. A little further, the lava closes off the sea, and it's just you and all the miniature Arctic flowers growing in the stone cracks. On Saturday they were at their most splendid, a mix of buttercups and columbines, and dozens of other small-scale plants, including wild thyme. The scent of the last one mixed with all the sea flavors coming from over the cliff, a rich combination I gulped deeply in hopes of storing it for wintertime memories.

When we came to the rocky Hellnar shore, we walked through a wedding celebration in full swing- kids romping in the grass, adults dozing on the hillsides, and two grills busily prepping lamb. After a Kaldi and cake stop in the delectable café there, we continued on to Djúpalónssandur. Although I've been to these beaches at the end of Snæfellsnes many times by now, I still ended up leaving with pockets full of the smooth pebbles, looking more like candies than something washed up and tumbled by the surf.

By then, it was getting to suppertime, so we clambered back in the car and rounded the end of the peninsula, destination Grundarfjörður. Here, down by the sea, is an unassuming restaurant, still wearing stained-glass Christmas wreath decor in the window. The inside is jammed with what looks like everyone's leftover house decorations, homegrown paintings, and a dizzying variety of lighting from a multicolored glass chandelier to vintage wall sconces. The tables were covered in white crochet tablecloths, and in the ladies room, someone had handpainted two Italian cherubs on the wall next to the sink. Truly a homemade restaurant. The food was a simple, plentiful, and insanely inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffet- the traditional kjötsúpa, lamb, two kinds of fish, sauces, fries, potatoes, and salad.

The proprietor is a former policeman, an endearing older gentleman who told us all to be "dugleg að borða" (diligent eaters), and with food this good, it was not a problem. The kjötsúpa was the best I'd tasted anywhere in the country, and after a day at the beach, the buffet style was appreciated by all. After we'd all enjoyed several helpings, we were offered schnapps ("to wash down the flavor of all this terrible food"), coffee, and exhortations to sign the guestbook. K was sent with greetings for her whole family back in Reykjavík (her ancestors are from the area), and an offer for a bottle of cognac, "just for the back seat to sip on during the ride back".

We left the restaurant in approaching gloom, with the sun hiding behind the imposing shape of Kirkjufell, and the clouds rolling in overhead. After such a glorious day, a slightly more subdued lighting was the right kind atmosphere for the trip back, and when we finally reached Borgarnes, there was one last flash of orange before we all turned our eyes Reykjavíkwards, roadsore from all the driving but full of fish and glorious memories.