•  Travel Diaries

    A Belly of Fire & Ice

  • –  Varud Gupta

    The first time Iceland entered my life, was as the antagonists to my favorite sports team, The Mighty Ducks. (Quack… Quack… Quack… Quack.)

    There’s a scene when Gordon Bombay (played by Emilio Estevez) flirts with the rival’s assistant coach —

    Gordon: I thought Iceland was covered with ice. 

    Assistant Coach: No, it’s very green!

    Gordon: I thought Greenland was green.

    Assistant Coach: Greenland is covered with ice, and Iceland is very nice.

    It’s true, Iceland is very nice. But since the reputation for its cuisinefalls a little flat in the global foodie scene, which is what I usually plan my travels around, I never made the trek up north. And so,finally,with the start of a depressing Game of Thrones season, I’m inspired to get there myself; with nothing to lose, I plan the trip off of a post on Reddit.

    Flash Forward 

    I’m down a couple shots of Opal, a popular licorice liquor, near Hella with Petur, (one of these Redditors) and his friends. We’d just spent the last two hours watching sheep give birth as lambing season is in full swing. But it’s getting late now as I’ve gathered around a firewith these three strangers. The midnight sun of the summer months is in full. It casts pink on his mares and stallion galloping the fields. One of his friends, Sven, turns to me. He points to an infant, hiding behind his mother.

    That foal was born yesterday. You know, given a little more time, it’ll be delicious to eat.

    Iceland is an island born from fire; half of the island covered in rocks while the other in ice. So in the “Old Times”, they would eat simply what was found around them. When it comes to the animals wandering about: there’s more food than friends. They eventually become stews. Or roasted. Or preserved.

    But you don’t always get the best bits. You gotta eat everything.

    So when I say lamb, I mean the whole lamb (the head a delicacy during the holiday time). Another one of them tells me that even cod wasn’t consumed in his grandmother’s generation. It was too important of an export to Mainland Europe as part of the Bacalao (salt dried cod) trade. So they were left with the other aquatic creatures, such as Haddock or Wolfish.

    And then there’s even some of the cuddlier creatures, like Puffin – the first item on the BBQ tonight.

    About a month after the birds return to the island during the summer to consummate their relationship, hunters stand along the little riffs along cliffs with long nets to catch their prey. Fish is a large part of the diet of Icelanders and Puffin alike. And that’s what gives these birds their soft tenderloin-like texture with the taste and smells of the ocean – the ultimate surf n’ turf deal.

    A couple days pass

    Fresh shark meat is notoriously bad for you.

    I’ve found myself at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes peninsula with the caretaker, Christian, known for producing the Icelandic delicacy, Hákarl — or fermented shark meat. In an oh-so-jollily fashion he continues:

    The way they dispose of their urea is by simply letting it out through their body. Coupled with another agent which serves as their natural anti-freeze for cold waters, this meat is toxic.

    Naturally, the first thought that pops into my mind, is who decided to start eating this in first place. But that’s when Christian has another surprise for me:

    So what has happened is that some scholars back-tracked through Medieval texts for mysterious deaths linked to witchcraft, butactually, those poor souls might have just eaten some fresh shark meat.

    Iceland catches only glimpses of the sun for most of the year; the rest of the year battered by wind, dust, and snow. Preserving food for bad weather, or lazy Sundays, is kind of important.

    Fermenting a shark was one such method. In case you’ve still been wondering all along after talking about urea and deaths, how Hákarl is edible today: after a series of months fermenting, the urea and natural anti-freeze agent is broken down by lacto-bacteria. Lacto-bacteria needs oxygen, which raises the pH level killing (almost) all the other toxins. And done properly, it won’t rot. Science.

    Christian was born a legacy to shark hunters dating 400 years. While some traditions have faded – such as now only using shark accidentally caught by fishing trollies – others have lumbered on – like feeding Hákarl as the first foods to a teething infant in his family. And this museum serves a preservation purpose of its own to that heritage.

    The taste is just how he describes: a chewy ammonia.

    I humbly wanted to prove others who didn’t like Hákarl wrong and tout my godly constitution. I truly did; butdefeated, popped some gum as I drovemy campervan through the mossed over lava fields while catching up on the sensation that is Billie Eilish further up north.

    The next day

    The strange thing to notice while hours on the road is that there aren’t farms here in Iceland. Over the course of twelve days, I saw maybe a couple greenhouses, that’s it. For good reason, much doesn’t grow here – and because it’s a bit far from the neighbors, reliable access to many fresh staples has only been around for a couple decades.

    Like grain. Even by the 19th century, grain was an expensive import and thus not a common food. Without any bread to eat with their meals, the Old Times Icelanders turned elsewhere: Harðfiskur – haddock, cod, or wolfish, salt dried and then pounded to be a flat, flaky fish jerky, still popular today with a touch of butter or beer.

    Fermented and substituting are two testaments to Icelandic innovation, required for survival when the land doesn’t give you what you. But sometimes, it’s been there all along. Hidden (underground). And only humanity needs time to catch up to the potential.

    Iceland is sitting on top of a force of nature… a pillar of lava, tons of volcanic activity still active today. 

    The Westfjords are, geologically, the oldest parts of Iceland. The central terrain was born from then-and-now active volcanoes, the land splitting apart to be filled by lava. And about and hour and a half away from Ísafjörður, Gisli and his fellow squad at Saltverk use that geothermal energy to dry seawater into salt.

    Travel back in time

    Iceland now belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark. The salted cod trade is at full swing. At a salt mine near Reykjanes, they too wish to innovate: 

    “Hey, I have an idea, maybe this will be faster,” a fictional worker from the time is tense with excitement as he places giant salt pans on top of a geyser. His, also fictional, work colleague, peers closer into the lead pans, “Mate, is that supposed to be happening?” The first one responds, “Magic!” 

    Because of a chemical reaction caused by the lead pans, all the fish turn blue. This salt mine runs for 20 years, but then eventually closes down. We don’t know where these two fictional characters ended up.

    Return to present 

    Geothermal energy comes from water heated by the intense heat and pressure underground. Harnessing the energy of this island, they are able to output salt more efficiently than neighboring countries that use salt flats (relying on solar energy). ButSaltverk isn’t alone in the use of this energy. One of Iceland’s greatest accolades is that the majority of the power comes from renewable energy – the majority from geothermal, followed by hydroelectric. Houses are all heated using this energy. And now even those rare and few greenhouses speckled across the country do the same to bring access to fruits and vegetables around there year.

    And in their blends, Saltverk gives an additional ode to Icelandic traditions: Birch salt reminds them of the smoked delicacies during Christmas time. Arctic thyme which gives the lamb it’s unique taste here while they roam the lands during the summer (and hopefully avoid tourists driving). And seaweed salt with kelp, one of the many foraged foods found along Iceland’s coast.

    But more over, they are using what the island has provided, what could truly be more Icelandic.

    At Airport waiting for the flight

    When you travel to a country, the first thing you (at least I) do sitting at a restaurant is ask for something “local” or “traditional”. In Spain, you might get Paella, some Pasta in Italy, and McDonalds in the US (jokes). But that’s not what happens in Iceland.

    There’s no Icelandic fast food (besides the infamous gas station hot dog with both raw and crunchy onions). The best restaurants don’t cook traditional food. And if even the locals admit to the truly ‘rustic’ qualities of their traditional foods, imagine how it must be for tourists.

    One of the few restaurants I budgeted for was Tjöruhúsið, whom are quite unbashful that they don’t try to cook Icelandic cuisine. They stick to what they know – fresh fish from the fjords cooking in a variety of styles: parsley cod cheeks, maple glazed salmon, or haddock marsala. So fresh, that some fisherman who joined for the buffet brought their own fish along to the party.

    But as Emilio had the misconception regarding the weather of Iceland, it’s easy to fall into the misconception of its food. Sometimes a cuisine isn’t synonymous with the food of their past; and a cuisine needs time to develop a flavor of its own. Iceland is trying to build theirs, while fast food, pasta, and hamburgers have already started their reign over Reykjavik.

    With a culinary culture built from what was available in the land and sea, chefs pushing the quality of local ingredients, and innovative uses of energy, it is not fair to say that there is no great Icelandic cuisine.

    No, it is just in its infancy; and given a little time, it’ll be even more delicious to eat.

    Varud Gupta was born and bred for business until a brusque millenial existential crisis sent him travelling through the culinary cultures of the world. He’s been a NY cheese monger, an Argentine asador, a Peruvian bartender and a spy in countless household kitchens. 

    And now, a Delhi based author. His latest book, ‘Bhagvaan Ke Pakwaan’ or ‘Food of the Gods’ , is an exploration of the intersection of the food & faith in India. He has launched his second book, a graphic novel, ‘Chotu’, that takes us back to 1947 and Partition of India.