Although Iceland’s food is unlikely to be the highlight of your trip, things have improved from the early 1980s, when beer was illegal and canned soup supplemented dreary daily doses of plain-cooked lamb or fish. The country’s low industrial output and high environmental consciousness means that its meat, fish and seafood are some of the healthiest in Europe, with hothouses providing a fair range of vegetables.
While in Reykjavík and Akureyri the variety of food is pretty well what you’d find at home, menus elsewhere are far more monotonous and prone to fads; one year they all offer lobster, the next it’ll be lamb or fish and chips. At least there’s usually some alternative to fast-food grills or pizzas, however, even if salads have yet to really catch on; otherwise cooking for yourself will have to see you through.
Iceland’s cold climate and long winters meant that the settlers’ original diet was low in vegetables and high in cereals, fish and meat, with preserved foods playing a big role. Some of the following traditional foods are still eaten every day; others crop up mainly at special occasions such as the midwinter Þorramatur feasts, though restaurants may serve them year round.
Harðifiskur, wind-dried haddock or cod, is a popular snack, eaten by tearing off a piece and chewing away, though some people like to spread butter on it first. Most Icelandic seafood is superb and even everyday things like a breakfast of sild (pickled herrings) are worth trying. Hákarl (Greenland shark) is a more doubtful delicacy, as it is first buried for up to six months in sand to break down the high levels of toxins contained in its flesh. Different parts of the rotted shark yield either white or dark meat, and the advice for beginners is to start on the milder-tasting dark (gler hákarl), which is translucent – rather like smoked glass. Either way, the flavour is likely to make your eyes water, even if connoisseurs compare the taste and texture favourably to a strong cheese. Don’t worry if you can’t stomach the stuff, because neither can many Icelanders.
As for meat, there’s ordinary hangikjöt, which is hung, smoked lamb, popular in sandwiches and as part of a traditional Christmas spread; svið, boiled and singed sheep’s heads; haggis-like varieties of slátur (“slaughter”), of which blood pudding (blóðmör) is a favourite; and a whole range of scraps pressed into cakes and pickled in whey, collectively known as súrmatur – leftover svið is often prepared like this, as is súrsaðir hrútspungar, or pickled rams’ testicles.
Game dishes include the grouse-like ptarmigan (rjúpa), which takes the place of turkey at Icelandic Christmas dinners; an occasional reindeer (hreindýr) in the east of the country; and puffin (lundi) in the south, which is usually smoked before being cooked. In a few places you’ll also come across whale or seal meat, as both are still hunted in limited numbers. Rather more appealing to non-Icelandic palates, lobster (humar), salmon (lax), trout (silingur) and char (bleikja) are all superb and relatively inexpensive. In addition to smoked salmon or trout, try the similar-looking gravað, whereby the fish is marinated with herbs until it’s soft and quite delicious.
About the only endemic vegetable is fjallagrös, Iceland moss, a starch-rich lichen that’s dried into almost tasteless, resilient black curls and snacked on raw or cooked with milk. Home-produced cheese and dairy products are very good, and it’s worth trying yoghurt-like skyr, sold all over the country plain or flavoured with fruit. Pancakes known as flatbrauð or laufabrauð are traditionally eaten at Christmas, and a few places – notably at Hveragerði and Mývatn – bake a delicious rye bread called hverabrauð in underground ovens (see Northeast of Mývatn).
It’s been said with some justification that Iceland runs on coffee, with just about everyone in the country firmly hooked. There’s a definite café culture in the cities – including a national generic café chain, Kaffitar – and decent quality brews are offered even at rural cafés. In some supermarkets, hot thermoses of free coffee are laid on for customers to help themselves, and wherever you pay for a cup, the price usually includes a refill or two. Tea is also pretty popular, though not consumed with such enthusiasm. Bottled water and familiar brands of soft drinks are available everywhere. Milk comes in a bewildering range of styles, making a trip to the supermarket fridge quite a challenge if you can’t read Icelandic. Mjolk is normal full-fat milk, Lettmjolk is skimmed, AB Mjolk is plain runny skyr, and G-Mjolk is UHT milk.
Alcohol is expensive – pick up a bottle on arrival (Keflavík airport’s duty-free is the cheapest place to buy alcohol in the country) – and, with the exception of beer, is only sold in bars, clubs, restaurants and state-owned liquor stores known as vinbúð. These are often tucked out of sight in distant corners of towns and cities, and always have ludicrously restricted opening hours – sometimes just an hour, five days a week. Most Icelanders drink very hard when they put their minds to it, most often at parties or on camping trips – the August bank holiday weekend is notorious. It’s surprising, then, to find that full-strength beer was actually illegal until March 1989, when the 75-year-old prohibition laws were revoked. In Reykjavík, March 1 is still celebrated as Bjórdagurinn, or Beer Day, with predictably riotous celebrations organized at bars throughout the capital. Beer is available in many supermarkets, and comes as relatively inexpensive, low-alcohol pilsner, and more expensive, stronger lagers. Some bars also serve domestically-brewed boutique beers: brands to look out for include Gæðingur, who produce a range of ales; and Steðji, known for its lagers.
All wine and most spirits are imported, though hard-liquor enthusiasts should try brennivín, a local spirit distilled from potatoes and flavoured with caraway seeds. It’s powerful stuff, affectionately known as svarti dauði or “black death”, and certainly warms you up in winter – you’ll also welcome its traditional use to clean the palate after eating fermented shark.
Restaurants, cafés and bars
Just about every settlement in Iceland has a restaurant of some sort. In Reykjavík, and to a lesser extent Akureyri and the larger towns, you can get everything from traditional Icelandic fare to Mexican, Thai, Chinese, and Italian- and French-inspired dishes, and there are even a couple of vegetarian places. This is the most expensive way to dine, though keep your eyes peeled for lunchtime specials, or inexpensive fixed-price meals of soup, bread and stew. All-you-can-eat smorgasbords or buffets also crop up, especially around Christmas, when restaurants seem to compete with each other over the calorie contents of their spreads of cold meats and cakes.
In the country, pickings are far slimmer. Some hotel restaurants have fine food, though it’s more often filling than particularly memorable; prices can be as high as in any restaurant, but are generally lower. Otherwise, the only place offering cooked food might be the nearest fuel station roadhouse, which will whip up fast fodder such as pylsur (hot dogs), burgers, grills, sandwiches and pizzas – virtually Iceland’s national dish – for a few hundred krónur.
Found all over the country, bars, besides being somewhere to have a drink, also usually sell meals and are frequently decorated along particular themes – decked out 1950s-style, for example, or hung with fishing memorabilia. Cafés are increasingly common in even small villages, offering light meals, coffee and cakes.
Self-catering will save a lot over eating out, though ingredients still cost more than they do at home – again, you might want to bring some supplies (especially camping rations) with you to save money. There are very few specialist food shops besides bakeries, but at least one supermarket in all villages, towns and cities. Don’t expect to find them attached to campsites, however, and when travelling about, buy supplies when you can: don’t get caught short by weekend shop hours, and know where the next supermarket is (they are listed throughout the guide). There are no shops in the Interior.
Larger supermarkets are well stocked with all manner of groceries, plus fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. Supermarkets also sell single-use barbecue packs (with aluminium tray, charcoal and firelighter) if you fancy eating alfresco. Iceland grows its own capsicums, mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers, but most other things are imported and therefore fairly expensive. Bónus and Krónan are the cheapest supermarket chains.
Rural stores – often incorporated into the local roadhouse – sell essential groceries and hardware, snacks, hot drinks and fast food; there’s often a microwave for you to heat up pre-cooked meals. At worst, they’ll be nothing more than a shelf or two of canned and dried food.