By the time I finally set foot in Reykjavík, I had been traveling for about 24 hours and was running off of a disappointing oatmeal and a Payday bar. My main fuel throughout the trip had been the knowledge that I was on my way to Iceland. But now I was here, and I was hungry. Lucky for me, when I slipped into apartment 301 for the first time I found my CouchSurfing host, Katrín, shoving a full onion into a full chicken on a clear baking dish. As she did this, her phone rang. It was a French man named Thomas who would also be staying the night, before setting out the following morning to hitchhike his way around Southern Iceland. We bundled up and met him at the Bónus grocery store down the road. Thomas and I pathetically tried to practice the Icelandic greeting “góðan daginn” at each other while Katrín picked up some salad ingredients.
Queued by the garlic-y, chicken-y scent that had filled the apartment while we were away, the three of us sat down around Katrín’s perfectly round dining table and she poured us three glasses of Iceland’s finest tap: water. I was informed that it is the finest tap water in the world, and after sampling it I must agree. This was my first introduction to Iceland’s rampant nationalism, a topic that would be brought up repeatedly as the Grapevine staff introduced me to the annual phenomenon ‘Eurovision.’ More to come on that later.
While the chicken hissed and cracked, we kicked off conversation safely with a topic we were all intimately tied to: travel. Between the Normandy born Frenchman, the Iceland native, and my own Californian roots, we verbally spanned the globe talking somewhat of ‘been there’s’ but mostly of ‘where to’s.’
My journal was passed back and forth so that they could jot down the names of some places that I could hardly pronounce, let alone spell. Among them: Landmannalaugar, a ‘can’t-be-missed’ highland hot spring; Þingvellir, the site of Iceland’s Viking Parliament; and Þingvallavatn, the lake where supposed witches were taken to be drowned. We talked about things like native wildlife (or lack thereof), skateboarding (hjólabretti), and George W. Bush. We talked about dark humor, national pride, and how to party in Iceland. We talked about siblings and grandmothers and crafty old men. We talked about the three biggest threats in Iceland–the cold, the sheep, and the volcanoes–and the respective dangers associated with each.
And then we ate. Katrín insisted that we try the Icelander’s favourite ‘kokkteilsósa,’ which tries to taste like, well, sound it out. It almost does too, if you mixed what I know as cocktail sauce with mayonnaise and ketchup. The chicken was cooked to perfection, and not a second past. Dipped in the kokkteilsósa and with a side of leafy greens, my worries about the meat-fish-and-meat diet of Iceland disappeared as quickly as the food on our plates. “You cook chicken just like my grandmother,” Thomas mentioned at one point. It was an assumed complement, though he never specified if his grandmother’s chicken was any good.
According to Katrín, Icelandic cuisine is not all that tasty. “It’s horrible,” she tells us, and follows-up with a slew of body parts that makes my stomach tighten involuntarily. The lone-standing, brave little Iceland traditionally had little access to mainland delicacies, which meant that everything had to be either eaten immediately or preserved. Everything. Lamb’s heads (svið), sheep’s intestines (a component in lifrarpylsur), ram’s balls (súrsaðir hrútspungar) and all. Some of it’s not too bad though, she added, with the right amount of kokkteil.
Her case was not helped when she brought out a frosted tupperware of homemade “skyrterta.” Apparently, all you have to do to make this dreamy dessert is take Iceland’s healthiest treat, the low-fat and protein-rich skyr, inject it with fat and sugar, and lay it over a caramely graham-cracker crust. Skyrterta! It tasted like cheesecake, with the consistency of pudding.
So far my experience with the local cuisine has not been nearly as scarring as Katrín prepared me for. In fact, it has been quite the contrary. That being said, I arrived a mere 30 hours ago and have yet to get around to most of the Icelandic “must-haves,” a line-up which includes preserved shark (hákarl), dried fish (recommended by Katrín), and of course, the famous Icelandic hot dogs.