At one time Icelandic food was seen as something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed. It was mostly lamb and fish; vegetables were scarce, and vegetarian options even scarcer. Fortunately Icelandic cuisine has come a long way since then, and with a bit of planning it is possible to eat very well during a trip to Iceland.
Making The Most Of Local Ingredients
Iceland’s cool temperatures and volcanic terrain create a challenge for food producers. The land can support sheep, and there are some hardy breeds of cattle and chickens. And, of course, fish are plentiful. But it is much more difficult to cultivate plants for food.
The only food plant I saw growing freely was rhubarb, which seems to be present in just about every garden. However, plentiful thermal energy allows some produce to be grown in heated greenhouses. I saw a hotel with its own “kitchen garden” in a small hothouse, and the town of Hveragerði, with its abundant hot springs, is full of greenhouses, producing fruit, vegetables and even cut flowers for the shops and restaurants of Reykjavík.
In practice, much of Iceland’s food is imported. However, what Icelandic cuisine lacks in variety of ingredients it makes up for in versatility. Particularly in Reykjavík and the larger hotels, you will find restaurants making imaginative use of local produce.
The Staples Of Icelandic Cuisine
Meat And Fish
Every menu includes a variety of fish and seafood. You will probably also find lamb, beef and chicken. Dried meat and fish – once essential for surviving the Icelandic winter – may also feature. However, your breakfast bacon will probably be imported.
Eggs are plentiful, but are mostly imported. Cheese appears on menus less often, although you will find it in breakfast buffets. Supermarkets stock a wide range of imported cheeses, and a few local varieties.
The main dairy product to look out for is skyr. This is thick, creamy (but low-fat) yoghurt, made exclusively from milk from Icelandic cows. Skyr can be either natural or flavoured with fruit.
Fruit And Vegetables
Just about all the fruit and vegetables you eat will be either imported or grown locally in greenhouses. This means that humble crops such as potatoes and apples are regarded as equally exotic as tropical produce. They are generally served in small portions – I had one meal that featured a few chunks of potato and half a brussels sprout…
Coffee And Cake
This is Scandinavia, so of course coffee and cake are very popular, at any time of day. Look out for skyr cake, a sort of cheesecake made with skyr and fresh berries. Or Hjónabandssaela (“happy marriage cake”), a confection of oats, sugar, butter and rhubarb jam, for which every family has its own recipe.
Eating Out In Iceland
In Reykjavík you have a wide choice of places to eat, including cafés, fast food outlets and gourmet restaurants. Here you will find traditional food and a range of international cuisines.
Outside the capital provision is more patchy. There are restaurants in the towns and in the hotels, but you need to be aware that it is possible to travel long distances between towns without finding anywhere to eat. It may be worth stocking up at a supermarket before embarking on a lengthy road trip. (If you are planning ahead and taking food with you have a look at this post – Best Snacks to Take to Iceland.)
Most (although not all) restaurants have a choice of vegetarian and/or vegan options. Note that these will mostly use imported ingredients.
What To Drink In Iceland
Almost all alcohol in Iceland is imported and it can be very expensive! Locally produced drinks include Gull Beer and a range of Icelandic gins. If you want something stronger try a shot of Brennivin, a caraway flavoured schnapps.
Outside of restaurants and bars alcohol can only be purchased in the state liquor shops (Vínbúðin). These do not open on Sundays, and the prices may be higher than you are used to. In practice if you want alcohol to drink in your hotel room you might choose to stock up at the duty free shop before leaving the airport.
If you are looking for soft drinks, try drykkur (a yoghurt-based drink, either plain or flavoured with fruit) or Appelsín, a fizzy orange drink. Malt is a malt-flavoured soda – I haven’t tried it myself and it sounds like an acquired taste, but it is very popular.