Sunday, October 18, 2015

Discovery Weekend (Extended): Mad Gourmet’s Epic Icelandic Food Saga

I have not had a Discovery Weekend post in a while since I decided to not focus on restaurant experiences in my blog. That is what Yelp, Foursquare, and Instagram are for, right? However, this last adventure inspired me to do one...

We recently returned from a fabulous adventure to the Land of Fire and Ice. It was a much needed rest from work and all the things that occupy us in our normal lives.  It was my husband’s choice this time, so he decided (with some of my influence) to go to Iceland (There is obviously a longer story behind this). We have been seeing a number of pictures on the web, and the country looks spectacular.

Our choice of tours was an 8-day guided classic circle tour around the island.  The tour would take us in different places around the country and allowed us to experience the varying landscape and environments. It’s really like a cruise – except on wheels (and you may need to unload your luggage every night).

Originally, I did not plan to blog about this trip because I was not expecting a lot about my food choices. As you all know by now, I have strict medical dietary restrictions so I was not expecting to have a lot of options as we tour the country. Obviously, I changed my mind after the trip.

Let us take you on short food adventure around the island, and tell us what you think...

cod with potatoes and a green salad Dinner first evening at the Old Icelandic Restaurant in Reykjavik. This is our first close encounter with cod in Iceland. I am not sure what it is, but cod tastes different here: so fresh, light and tender. Absolutely, delicious  and not a bad start...can I have another?

fish and chips
I did say "have another," didn't I? How about some cod in the form of Fish and Chips? This is our dinner in Akureyri at Akureyri Fish and Chips. How can you improve fried food? Make it with the best cod ever. This place is has a very hipster vibe. They have open seating, music, and funky sauces. I had mine with mango chili sauce, while my husband (who is patiently waiting in the background for the photo shoot) had it with traditional vinegar. The vinegar is served in a perfume bottle (so verify before you spray it on the fish or yourself - unless you are into that).

I really cannot go two pictures into this post without a mention of soups. I think we had soup with most of our dinners. My husband and I usually share an appetizer or two and an entree since we're not big eaters. It also can cut on the cost (Iceland is somewhat pricey). This is a curry fish soup also from Akureyri Fish and Chips (and my attempt of brand photographing). It has a very unique flavor and great with the fish and chips. You know, I will be looking for this soup recipe. Admittedly, we're hungrier than usual that day (probably from all the hiking) and should have ordered a bowl. 

curry fish soup

My favorite soup is the Kjötsúpa or the Lamb meat soup. I actually had this on our first evening in Reykjavik but it does not photograph as well (Don't worry, there is one coming). This is a very simple soup made with lamb and vegetables (usually potatoes and carrots). I think what makes this soup is the quality of Icelandic lamb. Talk about free range... The sheep usually roam free around the country, which results in tasty and tender meat.

gluten-free bread for breakfast
Speaking of soup, one cannot have good soup without good bread. The bread is probably half the equation. Breads here are so good and come in different varieties: oats, rye, spelt, barley. Since I occasionally need a wheat break, having gluten-free options are great! I probably had one of the best gluten-free breads also at the Aurora Restaurant in our hotel (Iceland Air Hotel Akureyri). These are also freshly baked... so good! Other hotels do not have GF bread like this.

Unfortunately, vegans - options are few, if not limited.

skyr, deli sandwich and kitkatWe didn't eat this well all the time. Sometimes we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere (somewhere in the midst of pseudo-craters) or the coffee shop was not serving food yet (what?). There were very limited options. In those instances, my husband opted for a deli sandwich, the freshest one that he could find and I had Skyr, the Icelandic yogurt, with one of my nut bars from my stash. I think in this photo, I ran out of bars and am carrying and munching on (what I luckily thought as) honey peanuts. The Dark Chocolate Kit Kat Bar? Those who follow me in Instagram know that I am obsessed with them, especially when I travel overseas where they have unique flavors and approaches. I can't wait for Paris where there is alledgedly a huge Kit Kat bar... but I digress. Oooh, pumpkin Kit Kat.... sorry, back to the adventure.

Reindeer steak with vegetablesOf course, there are times where we ate very very well, also, because there were few options and our legs are too relaxed and are like jello from the hot mineral sulfur baths. When we were in Myatvn, a town of 200 people, we had the opportunity to taste reindeer at Hotel Reynihlid. My husband finished the steak; I just had a bite. The server said that the owner just shot it with a bow and arrow "in the east", and they are making the most of the meat. Now, that is sustainable hunting. Expectedly, the steak was gamey, yet tender and had a unique flavor, closer to, but not quite like, venison. For my sake, it was well done, but spiced well.

Other exotic meats are also available in Iceland but we did not want to try: Puffin, the black and white birds with a colorful beak, and Minke Whale. Puffin allegedly tastes like liver, and whale like beef (Forget it, PASS - for various reasons). 

Lamb Soup with Rye BreadIf you think 200 people in one town is tiny, our lunch the next day was in the middle of nowhere, literally. According to our guide, the town name translates to "Middle of Nowhere". We stopped at a small farm house and enjoyed a simple lunch of soup and bread at Fjallakaffi (Mountain cafe). My husband had the curry vegetable soup, Grænmetissúpa. He wanted to have Icelandic moss soup, but it was out of season. I had my favorite Kjötsúpa. I figured I should take advantage of lamb soup while we're still in the country (I got to find a recipe). We were even visited by a pair of juvenile Arctic fox during lunch.
Arctic Char from Iceland Hotel KlausturIn addition to cod, we had our share of char and salmon. The char in Iceland Hotel Klaustur is considered to be the best trout anywhere. It is raised in the water that comes directly from under the Skaftáreldahraun lava field. As always, the fish was perfectly grilled and delicious. I started with cauliflower soup while my husband had lobster soup.
While we also had fish while we were in Fludir, the highlight of our visit in that city were the geothermal greenhouses. Call me old-school, but I think this is the most foodie of the foodie stops that we had. We visited Friðheimar where fresh tomatoes are grown year-round in electronically lit greenhouses. The greenhouses are powered by geothermal energy from the ground, the water for irrigation coming from the numerous rivers and waterfalls in the country. Talk about sustainable! The tomatoes are delicious and the tomato soup sold in the bar is delicious, so light and fresh and perfect with rye bread. I could not resist.

Geothermal Greenhouse, Tomato Soup and Rye Bread

Langoustine SoupAlas, we returned to Reykjavik and our trip is almost ending. In our last full day, we went to the famous Blue Lagoon, just for a look and lunch. The lunch at the Lava restaurant was phenomenal and world-class. My husband and I shared a three course lunch. Each course was delicious and beautifully plated: we had lobster soup for an appetizer, lamb as main course, and ice cream and chocolate caramel mousse with an Icelandic donut for dessert. The soup was topped with creme fraiche, white chocolate (yes, chocolate) and seaweed flakes. It also had two langostines in the soup. Oh heavens! This restaurant is worthy for a landmark like Blue Lagoon.

Sadly, our trip had to end. We did have one last chance to have Kjötsúpa and langoustine at Norð in the Keflavik International Airport. Really what other airport can you have four lobster tails for lunch and with sunchokes too. Now, we're ready for the long flight home...

grilled langoustine and vegetables

Einstok beer I hope you enjoyed our virtual food trip. Overall, Iceland was a wonderful experience: the majestic mountains, volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, and even the vast expanses of lava fields or plains are quite magnificent. We had a great time! And when you enjoy it with good food and a great beer, it makes it more enjoyable. 

Hope you can also have an Icelandic adventure soon.

Icelandic Hotdog with everything on itP.S. No trip to Iceland is complete without trying out an Icelandic hotdog or a pylsur. I had to make the mandatory foodie visit to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, this is the hotdog stand made popular by President's Bill Clinton and by social media. In fact, there was already one Asian young lady waiting for hers and her mom's. As advised by the guide books, I got the one with everything on it, ketchup,  mustard, remoulade, raw onions, and get this, fried onions. They add an awesome and very unexpected crunch to it. I would get one more... if I was not on my way to breakfast.