Iceland's waterfalls and otherworldly landscapes may be better known outside the country than its cuisine. But there are some pretty unique, homegrown foods here to help you refuel after an exhausting trek. Here are a few eats and sweets to try on your next trip to Iceland.
Walk into any convenience store or grocery store’s confectionary aisle in Iceland and you’ll find an impressive selection of black licorice. Apparently, the hardy and sugar-rich licorice root was one of the only sweets that could be grown in Iceland's harsh climate, which led to the candy’s proliferation in not only Iceland but much of Scandinavia.
Today you can find it in long ropes and dense jelly-like lozenges meant to be savoured slowly. But one of my favourite varieties is covered in chocolate — a good introductory option for those of you that might be averse to the flavour of licorice. There are also some more questionable licorice combinations available, such as chocolate-covered licorice dusted with spicy pepper, and what might be the most divisive: salty licorice.
This is Iceland’s best-known recent export, thanks to American brands like Siggi’s, who popularized this thick, slightly tart, and low-in-sugar yogurt-like food on the other side of the Atlantic. While skyr was initially made as a byproduct of sour whey, which Icelanders of yore used to preserve meat and fish, the thick and creamy food was soon discovered to be delicious in its own right. Skyr is made by fermenting skimmed milk for about 12 hours. After the whey separates, it’s drained off and what remains is skyr. This actually makes it a type of cheese and not a yogurt.
But, like yogurt, skyr today is packaged and served with all manner of flavourings (cherry, berry, crème brûlée) but it’s best to first try it plain. Icelanders also use skyr in baked goods, cheesecake-like skyrcakes, smoothies, and dips.
Iceland is famed for tapping its geothermal activity to power greenhouses, to heat homes, and to generate electricity. But one of the most delicious uses of geothermal energy is the humble loaf of goodness called geyser bread (pictured above). The “ovens” used to cook this bread are actually just holes in geothermic grounds. By digging about one foot deep in a geothermal area, geyser-bread ovens can maintain a temperature of around 100 degrees F when covered. To cook, dough is poured into a round pot — or, commonly, an empty one-litre milk carton — and is slowly steam-baked in the underground oven for about 24 hours.
Icelandic families typically have their own traditional recipes for geyser bread, which are passed down through generations. The appearance and taste is similar to the dark, moist and slightly tart rye bread found throughout Scandinavia. The quality of the bread can also change depending on the “oven” in which it’s baked — a bit like the terroir of wine. Some higher-end restaurants will serve geyser bread as their table bread during a meal, but you can also find it in cafés and bakeries across the country.
Aside from the aforementioned sour whey, another method Icelanders use to preserve their meat is to smoke it. Smokers are often built with mounds of lava rocks that help insulate the interior from external fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Meanwhile, sheep dung is dried out in the sun over weeks in the summer, then compacted into tidy squares that can easily be cut and transported. The most popular cut of lamb to smoke is the leg, which is first brined then rinsed and hung in a smoker where dung is burned. Legs can be smoked for one to two weeks, depending on the flavour and smokiness desired.
Smoked lamb, called hangikjöt in Icelandic (which means ‘hung meat’), is traditionally shaved to serve and eaten as a special treat at Christmas dinner. But it also tastes great with a berry compote or on bread. You can find smoked lamb as part of charcuterie boards at restaurants in Iceland.
Every country and cuisine has its own stunt-like eats to challenge the hardiest of stomachs. In Iceland, that item would undoubtedly be fermented shark, called hakarl. The shark’s body is first buried in a shallow hole to ferment for up to eight weeks. Then the meat is cut into strips and hung for three to four months, resulting in an ammonia-rich, rancid cheese-like aroma — and a food that the late Anthony Bourdain described as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible-tasting thing” he'd ever eaten when he visited Iceland for his show No Reservations in 2014.
Chefs in Iceland will remind you that their ancestors ate for sustenance, not for taste. The country’s harsh climate resulted in unusual preservation practises. But with the advent of refrigeration and imported foods, everyday Icelanders opt for tastier eats and the consumption of fermented shark has been relegated to the curiosity of tourists and food travel TV show hosts. You can find cubes of fermented shark for sale at the Kolaportið Flea Market in Reykjavík
One of the few species of trees that grow in Iceland is a short and gnarled variety of birch. And being a resourceful (and thirsty) bunch, Icelanders have figured out the best way to make use of these trees: to flavour its alcohol. Birch, birch bark, and sweet birch syrup (which is a bit like fancy maple syrup) is infused in a grain distillate to produce a range of bitters, liqueurs, and snaps. A small birch branch is sometimes left in the bottle.
Foss Distillery currently produces a line of birch-infused spirits. The results are fresh, woodsy, and work well mixed in cocktails or consumed on the rocks as an aperitif or post-meal digestif. Birch spirits can be found at the Keflavik airport — a convenient souvenir to pick up on your way out of Iceland.
Hungry for some hakarl — or one of the many other tasty Icelandic eats on this list? Check out our small group tours in Iceland here.