Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cusine In the Land of Fire and Ice

Part II of my 2 Part Blog Post About My Trip to Iceland! (See Part I Here!)

Upon setting foot in Iceland, I had one culinary goal, and one culinary goal only:

Eat a freaking puffin.

The little vegetarian that was left in me from my college days of experimental dieting died that day, when I decided to sample an animal that was absolutely on the list of some child's "Favorite Animals," or at the very least a bird with a plush conterpart nestled snugly on many a childhood bedspread. I wanted to eat it. My runner-up "only goal" was to try Hákarl, so I could get the full Andrew Zimmern Bizarre Foods experience. Hákarl is fermented shark, and the national food of Iceland. I was dying to try one of the few foods that made Mr. Zimmern gag! I accomplished one of these goals, and then some, but we'll get to that.

Iceland is a tiny island in the Atlantic, and anything imported is pretty pricey. Considering that, as a rule, things are rather expensive in Iceland, this makes imported food even moreso. So, as budget travelers, we were almost forced to try the local cuisine. I typically don't like lamb, but since lamb is as popular as beef is over here, I got over my aversion during our trip.

Upon arriving in Reykjavik, we had about four hours before we could check into our hotel. The concierge suggested the Cafe Paris, so off we went to fuel up for our first day in the city!

Icelandic coffee is just the best. It's so rich and flavorful. We asked many locals what made it so good, and the overwhelming response was "glacier water." We needed many cups of java to wake us up, since we'd only had a few hours of sleep on the plane!

For my meal, I chose a croque monsieur with an egg. I assumed it would be a croque madame, but it just came with a side of egg. It wasn't like other croques I'd had, and certainly wasn't the most spectacular, but it was a hearty start to the day and came with a lovely fresh side salad. 

I also tried some Skyr. You can see it in the back, but here's a closeup of what you can find in the grocery stores:

Skyr is a traditional Icelandic yogurt that is super popular because it is very thick and creamy, but very low in fat. We became obsessed with this yogurt during our stay, with pear being the overwhelming winner in regards to flavor. Pictured is my last cup of it while we were driving to the airport. You can find it in whole food stores in America, I suggest giving it a try!

We re-fueled with coffee yet again at C is for Cookie before continuing with our day. This cafe is adorable. The decor is a mish mash of cute old fashioned furniture and the walls alternate old wallpaper and bright colors. The coffees are delicious and come in many varieties, and the cost isn't terrible. I got a Swiss Mocha, and my friend's latte was gorgeously decorated with a flower pattern.

After a long day of exploring (see my previous post!) and some relaxing in the hotel, a few of us decided to get a pre-dinner snack at the famous hot dog stand in Reykjavik: Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Famous celebrities from all over even make this a stop! Their hotdogs are supposedly "the Icelandic National Food"--aside from the shark!

As I said before, lamb is the staple food there. So naturally, the hotdogs are made up of lamb meat. The bun is piled with raw onions, fried onions, ketchup (which seemed way more like tomato sauce to me!), then the hot dog, and it is topped with gravy and a mayo-based "hot dog sauce." It is certainly an interesting experience of the taste buds! I rather liked it despite all the onions (onions are one of the few foods I truly dislike) but I think I'll stick to my Americanized dogs. I couldn't imagine myself eating too many of them. It's also the cheapest lunch in town, under $3 after the exchange rate! When you're paying at least $15 for a sandwich everywhere else, this is a welcome cheap eat.

Finally, for dinner that night we stopped at Fru Berglaug, a cozy little restaurant in the heart of the city. My friend Shawna had been there before and said their prices were reasonable and they had many traditional Icelandic foods to sample. SCORE! Sadly, Puffin was not on the menu. but guess what was.


Okay, so, admittedly, I didn't get a whole whale steak. That picture is of my friend's plate, taken with a phone. I was actually way overzealous and got the Iceland Sampler. It included whale, lobster salad, haggis, Icelandic fish stew, and dried fish. I was excited to try Haggis (another EW GROSS YOU ATE THAT??! food), and I figured if nothing else I'd enjoy the lobster portion.

It was... eh. Haggis was so bland and disappointing. It didn't taste gross, it just kind of tasted like nothing. The fish stew was also okay, but had the consistency of canned tuna. The dried fish was difficult to eat, despite it coming with bread and butter. Lobster was good--Icelandic lobster is small and sweet. Whale. WHALE. Whale was fantastic! I know we're supposed to be saving the whales or something but when you're a tiny island of a country and one whale can serve 100 people, there's some logic to that, right? It was delicious. It tasted like the most tender beef steak you've ever eaten. I only had a tiny bit in my sampler, but I ate everyone's leftovers. In retrospect, I'm happy I got to try a few weird foods, but overall I should have gone with the suggestion to just get the whale.

Then we had some drinks at the hotel. Reyka is probably the best vodka I've ever had. While you can find it in the States in some select stores, I stocked up at the duty free store on my way home. Seriously amazing. Not pictured: Brennivín, an Icelandic Schnapps that is a very popular and inexpensive liquer. It has a unique taste (I think it tastes like melted snow) from cumin. Brennivín is a must-try when you visit Iceland, so definitely take a shot of it, it does go down smooth! Apparently it was the sole alcohol in Iceland for years. I also got a bottle at the duty free store for novelty's sake, since I probably wouldn't choose to drink it myself.

Picture from this blog

The next day we awoke early to the most amazing free breakfast I've ever experienced in my life. Shawna assures me her previous experience in Iceland yielded a much more bountiful spread but dude. Look at that. I forgot to take a picture myself (hence the citation) but every morning we were greeted with plates and plates of fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, hot items (sausage, eggs, beans, potatoes) and the best waffles ever ever. Plus tons of coffee and juice! It was an amazing way to start the day, truly.

During our own little Golden Circle Tour we stopped at the various cafeterias on the way. I had a weird lamb burger with Old Bay seasoning (didn't know that was the standard "hamburger" there) and some limp fries at the cafeteria near the Geysirs, and that delicious cake with a tiny bottle of wine at the waterfall cafeteria. Bailey's cream cake, yummm...

The cake can be found near this attraction

That night was our tour of the Northern Lights, complete with "lobster feast." Now, when you have a free dinner included in something, your hopes are not high, right? But, as with the free breakfast, this free dinner was fantastic!

The walls of Fjorubordid are adorned with fishing equipment and framed photos of celebrities who have eaten there. We were served an amazing dinner that included fresh bread with taupenaude (sun dried tomato and olive), salad, couscous, potatoes, and as many tiny lobsters as we could eat! The lobsters were sweet and delicious and I ate so many my stomach was painfully full. If I ever return to Iceland, you can be sure I'm making this a stop!

The next day we woke up early (ate our fill of amazing breakfast) to ride Icelandic ponies. Upon our return, we were a bit worn out and sleepy, but we managed to get in a good lunch at Vegamot, as suggested by our concierge at the hotel. Everyone was absolutely blown away by their meals here. I ordered french onion soup and a veggie bagel and expected a light snack--what I got was a huge and filling meal! The soup was in a bowl bigger than my head, and my bagel was PILED. My friends got hot steak sandwiches, soups, and salads and everyone waddled back to the hotel for a nice nap before heading off to the Blue Lagoon.

Finally, it was my big night. The night we had set aside, specifically, to eat puffin. I had come across a tapas bar in my research of our trip, and everyone agreed to make it our last dinner out. Plus, it was the only place I found with affordable puffin, SCORE. Tapas Berinn is a lovely Spanish/Icelandic tapas bar. If you want a good sample of Icelandic cuisine, this is the place to go! Small plates, affordable prices, and even the drinks are not too bad price-wise if you split pitchers.

A bit sweaty and bloaty looking after a day in the hot springs

I got a side of puffin and split a tasting menu and pitcher of peach margaritas with Shawna's boyfriend. I couldn't bring myself to try horse meat, but thankfully my tasting menu did not include the horse portion--though I'm a little sad the random order of kangaroo was not included.

Puffin was not part of the tasting menu, so I got it as an extra. That hunk of grey-brown? That's smoked puffin. Since it was off-season, fresh puffin was not an option. It tasted... okay. It wasn't wonderful, wasn't bad. Had a smoky flavor and a raw-meat-like consistency. It almost tasted like how cat food smells. I was happy I got to try it, but a little disappointed that I didn't find it delicious. Maybe next time I'll be there in the summer, and can try it fresh!

The tasting menu began with a sparkling drink, and then a plate of small bites. Clockwise from left: smoked salmon on bread, smoked lamb, procuitto, and bacon wrapped scallops with dates.

Next up were two full-sized portions of lamb and chicken, since my meal got upgraded halfway through. Pictured is the lamb, with a mushroom mash.

More Icelandic fish--cod maybe?--with butternut squash.

And my dessert--woah! Again, due to my upgrade I was given the dessert sampler. Clockwise from top: Skyr cheesecake, creme brulee, flourless chocolate cake, and pot de creme, with fresh whipped cream in the middle. This was my favorite part of the whole meal. SO GOOD. I will dream of that chocolate cream.

They also gave my friend a free dessert because it was his birthday!

I won't go into too much detail over my debacle at this restaurant, it is explained over at my other blog, but to summarize: something was in my salad that shouldn't have been, and the staff more than compensated for it by giving me my puffin for free and upgrading my tasting menu. The customer service was so incredible. Despite my icky experience early on, I highly HIGHLY recommend this place to anyone wanting to sample some amazing and unique dishes!

European "blue bag" Doritos are called "Cool American"

Our last day we had just one more amazing breakfast, made one last stop at the hot dog stand, and then nibbled snacks before getting things to eat on the plane. We stumbled upon this guy doing a demonstration for an Icelandic cooking program--making those delicious little lobsters!

Iceland was my first experience abroad as a novice foodie where I wasn't just content to eat whatever was cheapest. It was truly an experience, and I don't think I had one bad meal while I was there! Aside from my first dinner, where the food was fine but I just wished I'd ordered something different, every dish was entirely satisfying and full of unique flavors. I do hope I can make it back to Iceland someday, find Hákarl (the one thing on my list I didn't get to try!) and sample more things I missed out on.

I fully intend on pushing my culinary and tasting boundaries in all my future journies! Until then, farewell Iceland, you will be in my heart (and stomach!) until then :)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Adventures in the Land of Fire and Ice

Part I of my Iceland posts! Stay tuned for Part II where I talk about the FOOD!

In September of 2007, my sophomore year of college, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a special program with my school. Eighty of my peers and I lived in a castle in the Netherlands for a semester. I was able to afford it thanks to generous financial aid and a summer of working three jobs to save up some spending money. While I checked off my Bucket List cities of London and Paris, there were many times where my friends took me along to cities that had never even been on my radar, but which immediately became treasured memories.

Castle Friends! Shawna, Me, Meredith, Heather

Iceland was just that--a country that was only mildly on my radar. But when my study abroad friend, Shawna, found an excellent deal on a long weekend in Reykjavik, my travel bug was thrust out of its shell again and I signed on. We booked our tickets in November, and waited patiently for January to roll around. For less than $1000 we had round-trip airfare, four nights in a central hotel (we even got upgraded to a nicer, newer hotel with a spa due to overbooking), breakfast every morning, and a tour of the Northern Lights with dinner included. In all it was four of us from our Castle days in college, Shawna's boyfriend, Shawna's friend from her home city of Chicago, and my roommate. It was the ideal reunion for us all!

Horse with a white batman spot, hanging out in front of a pretty landscape

"Why are you going to Iceland in the WINTER?" asked every friend who knew how unhappy winter weather makes me. Iceland also is rather dark in the winter, with only 5-6 hours of sunlight. "Because it's ICELAND?" I responded, still having no clue how absolutely breathtaking this country is.

Iceland, 9:30am

We landed at 7am, hours before we could check in to our hotel. All of us had had less than five hours of sleep and the sun wouldn't rise until at least 10am. So, we found breakfast and wandered the streets a bit. After stopping at a cafe for even more coffee, we were fueled enough to trek to the Reykjavík Cathedral at the top of the city. We paid the 600 kroner to visit the top of the Cathedral, and were treated to some excellent views. A great introduction to the city!

Cathedral as the sun rose

View from the Cathedral

After the Cathedral we still had another hour to kill, so we made our way to a cafe for even more coffee (Icelandic coffee is the best I've ever had!) and found the flea market. I had read that it was the best place to find discounted Icelandic wool (generally 20000 kroner or $190-ish American), and I left the market with not only a sweater (8000 kroner!) but an awesome pair of boots, score! They also were giving samples of Icelandic Dried Fish, which the locals seem to eat like potato chips. It was... fishy.

Stupid Americans in the Icelandic History Museum

After the flea market we drove around aimlessly for a bit, and then decided to go to a museum of Icelandic History. While there, we happened upon an art gallery opening and got some free wine! It was cool to read about the history of the country, and play with some of the Viking gear in the little kid playroom.

Random view of a village (taken at a gas station)

After that, we finally were able to check in to our hotel. We unpacked a little, changed, and spent some relaxation time in the hotel's spa. The spa was okay, but it was free and included a huge hot tub, so it was a great way to relax after all the running around!

View from our Hotel Room!

"Pre-gaming" for nightlife, Reyka vodka is THE BEST.

That night our plan was to take advantage of Iceland's famous nightlife, bars are open all night and locals party until 6am, but we got sidetracked when we saw a bit of the Northern Lights from the street. We immediately piled into our rented van and scoured the countryside looking for a better view. We couldn't find it, but got a crazy tour of the city from our driver, Shawna's boyfriend. By the time we got back we barely made it through the "pre-game" phase of our partying before everyone decided bar hopping was just not for us.

Snowy lava fields

Gorgeous sunrise

The next day was our own private tour of The Golden Circle--you can buy tours for this, but since Shawna and her boyfriend had been there before, they showed us around. The tour started with the sunrise over the snow-covered lava fields on our way to Þingvellir (thing-va-lir). According to Wikipedia, " Þingvellir is a site of historical, cultural, and geological importance and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland." According to me, it's a gorgeous stretch of land that made for some fantastic pictures. The views are just breathtaking--it looks like another planet!



Next was Geysir, where you may have guessed from the name, we saw geysers! They shot out of the ground with such force I actually yelped the first time it was behind me. Pretty neat, for sure. The water is all scalding hot in this area, and the ground steams. Down the road from the geysirs, we found a pony who had gotten out of his pen! We stopped for some pictures, but couldn't figure out exactly what to do about the escapee, so we left him and hoped for the best. He was very friendly!

Friendly pony

On our way back from Geysir, we stopped at a local hot springs pool. It was a very unique experience--freezing temps outside, hot hot water, us in our bathing suits, with snow capped mountains in the background!

That night was our Northern Lights Tour. The sky was clear and our hopes were high--but honestly, the views weren't spectacular. It was bitter cold and the best you could see were tiny bits of green in the sky. I handed off my camera and stayed in the car for the most part. The included dinner, however, was incredible. I ate so much I was too full to move! I'm glad the pictures came out cool, but I wish we'd had a better viewing. The tour guides were super friendly and very helpful, giving us some Icelandic history and even a shot of the Icelandic spirit Brennevin! We were out until 1am chasing the lights, by the time we got back we all were too tired to go out again, so Icelandic Nightlife will have to wait until another trip.

Cars are ready to go--note the BLACK SAND on the beach!

My roommate's shot of the Northern Lights

Shot with my camera

The next morning was extremely exciting--we rode Icelandic ponies through the lava fields! It was only about $70 to take a two hour ride on the ponies through the lava fields surrounding the stables. As a super beginner I was more than content to ride my slow little pony, Blassa, at a leisurely pace. My roommate, who teaches riding, went with the more experienced group. She was happy with the experience but decided if she ever returned she'd take a harder course. We couldn't get many pictures here since we had to leave bulky cameras behind, but we did pretty okay with our phones.

Me and Blassa. I am in a onesie apparently.

Then it was off to the Blue Lagoon! A must-see for tourists, it's a geothermal spa, and there sure were a lot of tourists there. We went too late in the day to get massages, but it was still a very cool experience. We slathered our faces with the traditional silt and had fun swimming around the hot hot pool--I even got a glass of champagne at the swim-up bar! That night was our dinner at the Tapas bar, which I'll explain further in my food post, but I will say that our dinner there was a great example of Icelandic hospitality! Everyone is so so nice and really makes you feel welcome.

The last day we were all so sad to leave. We had a 5:00pm flight though, so we had a lot of time to souvenir shop and take some silly pictures. We each got a traditional Icelandic wool sweater--mine was in addition to my flea market find--and took silly pictures in them. Those things are well worth the money--we didn't even need coats while we shopped! I wish I'd gotten one at the BEGINNING of the trip to avoid the bulky coat...oh well! After one last stop at the famous hot dog stand, we took some pictures at a random sculpture and were off to the airport.

View from the top

Boston lights, sigh.

Iceland, in short, was amazing. I am already fantasizing about returning and catching up on all I missed. It was one of the most gorgeous landscapes I've ever seen, with the nicest people, and the most interesting food. I will return someday.