22 July 2009

summer barbecuing

One of the staples of an Icelandic summer is the single use grill. These are available at every grocery store and discount shop, and often at most gas stations as well. They're an aluminum pan filled with coals, covered with a sheet of paper soaked in some lighter fluid, and topped with a metal mesh. The idea is that you can have all the joys of barbecuing without having to own all the apparatus of grilling, and when you're done you don't have to carefully carry all the ashes back home.

On the covers they depict fat kebabs covering the entire grill surface, sizzling merrily. Of course this is rather far from the truth. The first challenge is to get them lit, which requires a wind-free spot (good luck with that in Iceland!), and a little prayer and a little bit of lighter-action. If you're fortunate enough to for the flames to take hold, the next feature to enjoy is that there is never a full pan of coals, so you maybe have 2/3 of the grill to work with, which always burns inconsistently. Still, it's enough to make a dinner for two with several grilled components. Word to the wise though- avoid the one that is labeled as being "handy, rapid, and sure!". We had a few of these on a trip to the West Fjords last year and discovered that all 3 of the claims were totally false. We got creative with the primus stove in an attempt to ignite the thing but ended up melting the aluminum and getting no reaction whatsoever out of the coals.

Enough of the boring stuff- what to cook on the onesie grills anyway? Well, in addition to selling these made-for-camping grills, the grocery stores sell all kinds of delights that make for the perfect picnic. To start, there are these nice shrink-wrapped packets of lamb, beef, and pork that are already seasoned in a variety of tempting flavors. Want Argentinian-seasoned beef chops, dry-spice lamb ribs? It's all available in an easily packable flava-bag. You can add grillsósa if you like, available in a dazzling selection of flavors- sundried tomato, green peppercorn, blue cheese.

On to the veggie department, pick up a package of the huge mushrooms stuffed in cheese and ready for the grill in their own little aluminum pan. These come with blue cheese (if you go to Hagkaup), cream cheese (if you go to Krónan- but skip these, they don't have enough zip) or my favorite, the industry standard ones filled with a soft cheese that's zipped up on garlic and herbs. Grab some Icelandic-grown red or yellow peppers, and then in the dairy section, grab a triangle of Akureyri blue cheese. When it's grill time, slice the peppers in half and mash some blue cheese inside. When the pepper starts hissing and the cheese has melted, they're ready (and soo mm good).

For dessert if you still have room, pick up a pair of bananas and some chocolate (I prefer the orange Sirius variety). Slice the bananas on one side, stuff with chocolate, and grill until the banana oozes and the chocolate is all melted. Add some screw-top wine or a few beers and that's all you need to have a grand time.

The best part, of course, is finding the perfect spot for this grilling where you can contemplate a great view, soak up some sun, and enjoy the amazing freedom and solitude that is summertime in Iceland. The countryside is chock-full of these staggeringly beautiful locations where the only company might be a few birds wading in the waves or a solitary Arctic fox slinking by, perhaps attracted by the smell of the sizzle.

In some ways this summer is becoming the swan song for the community I know here. At the last party I attended I talked to so many people who were planning to stay until the end of the summer and then move on to jobs elsewhere in continental Europe. As long as the weather's nice we can all ignore the situation a bit and get to our grilling and admiring of sunsets but sooner than I'd like to think, the great weather will be all over and then what?

07 July 2009

not getting the hype

The local English-language tourists-and-foreigners paper, the Grapevine, recently came out with its best-of-Reykjavík edition, ranking the best of everything from swimming pools to lobster soup. While most of them are places I totally agree with or have always meant to try, there are a few things I just must disagree with.

For example, I don't get the hype over Sægrefinn's lobster soup. The kebabs there are great, and I know that all the toursits feel like they're getting in on the authentic due to the straight-from-the-sea venue and the slightly crusty looking proprietor, but come on! That place has been advertised so heavily as the "best kept secret" that it's not a secret anymore. He has an advert in every single tourist paper and free guide and I'm sure every Lonely Planetish guidebook points out exactly where it is.

On to the soup though. I like a perfumed and creamy lobster soup and this one is frankly neither. The broth is thin, the chunks of lobster are meager, and it contains the bane of all vegetables, the green pepper. If I want lobster soup, I go to one of two places, either Fjöruborðið down in Stokkseyri (which is also hyped but in my opinion deserves it), or I'll go to B5. The latter is known as the boozin' place for all the pretty young things and the erstwhile bankers who love them but serves food in the earlier hours. Over the years the quality has gone from amazing to mediocre to confused but the lobster bisque has remained delicious. So that is where I go when I want my lobster fix.

Up next, the ice cream category. As a resident of the west side of Reykjavík, I have already spent time singing the praises of the 'hood, although I tend to forget one of the reasons many people venture my direction- the ice cream. Since Saturday ended up being unIcelandically warm, S and I decided to find out what the Big Exciting Deal was, so we beelined for ísbúðinn and its usual snaking line. He went for the large with caramel-chocolate and licorice bits, while I had the medium with caramel chocolate and Snickers. As I believe I've pointed out before, ice cream here tends to come only in vanilla, with the fancy being added to the top.

They've got excellent selection there, and when you come out with an ice cream the height of your forearm (that's just the medium), you definitely feel like you've got a good deal, but that's where the fun ends. S and I both went for the creamier of the two options available there but frankly the ice cream was not creamy, and its fast melt-rate was another indication that it just wasn't up there on the butterfat scale. The toppings were just fine and they offer amazing variety but if the base ice cream isn't bringing it to the table, what's the point? After two consecutive weekends sampling the stuff, I'm voting for the campsite service spot and tourist center in Þingvellir as my favorite ice cream. It's creamy and delicious enough to stand on its own- no frills required there.

Finally, in the hamburger category, Búllan always wins on almost everyone's fave-burger list. It's got the cute location and the charming American burgerjoint campiness but I just don't love their burgers enough to make a special effort to get them there. When I get my meat 'n bun craving I go to the burger wagon outside my local pool down the street. Less hype, more delicious. That's how it should be.

06 July 2009

sensational summer

The smell of white clover and angelica, the scent of ocean breeze on an otherwise oddly sultry day, that tangy mixed flavor coming from the short birches and the black cottonwood. It's the discovery of piny running paths on Öskuhlíð that almost feels like I'm not here in Iceland.

The flavor of over abundant rhubarb baked into cakes, of grilled lamb and mushrooms stuffed with cheese, of new restaurants serving properly middle eastern fare, of Bulgarian salads. It's that unexpectedly sweet taste of one of the famous flies from Mývatn, inhaled on the downbeat before singing, the creamy cool of soft serve at þingvellir.

There's the feel of sun late in the evening, still warm enough for balcony-sits, the unexpected sensation of actually getting hot enough to sweat while on a run, the sensation of endless adventure potential on these sunsetless days.

It's summer in Iceland and while at times I feel terribly betrayed by this country that's busy destroying the livelihoods of so many people, it's still difficult to resist the allure of so lovely a place. Most weekends have been spent off somewhere, finding new favorite waterfalls, investigating power stations and old tractors, hiking over ridges and sometimes revisiting old favorites. It's good for the soul but bad for blogging.

Like many people here I've been focusing a lot of my time on the domestic delights, although I'm planning my first properly European summer vacation later this year (meaning it's a luxurious span of nearly two weeks) and I am most certainly getting out of this country. As great as it is here, I need my breathing space.