ICELAND: DON”T EAT THE YELLOW SNOW
Once again, the extraordinary generosity of you folk amazes me.
This time, it was in mid January as I headed off to explore the joy that is Iceland at that time of year. A time when the lakes of capital city, Reykjavik are frozen solid enough for local high schools to use as an extra sports field. A time when most normal citizens of this small but thriving city are wrapped up warm inside.
Backtrack a bit to the beginning of EAT MY GLOBE and I am sitting in one of my favourite bars, Pinchito and, no, it is not just my favourite because it is less than thrity seconds walk from my apartment.
I am telling anyone who will listen that I have just quit my job and will be heading out on the road. The only person who is, in fact, paying any attention is my the manager of the bar and my friend, the glamorously named Magga Kristiansdottir. She is both stunning and can mix a good Martini which makes her, in my shallow book, as close to the perfect woman as it is possible to get.
“Come to Iceland” She announced, between delivering some plates of excellent Spanish food to a table and greeting some new customers.
“You can eat mouldy shark”
To be honest, that was about as good an offer as a man like me is ever going to get from someone like Magga so Iceland was on the list.
Fast forward almost nine months and there I am again in the same bar, this time agreeing with Magga that I shall meet her at some ungodly hour the next morning to head off to London’s least lovely airport, Stanstead for our early flight to her homeland.
Magga, it turned out had the opportunity to head home for her sister’s graduation ceremony. So, it made sense that I join her so, for the time she had free, she could show me around.
We were met at the airport by one of her closest friends, Erla who announced that she was handing me the keys to her apartment to sue for a few days and heading off to stay with her boyfriend. Never, as Frankie Howerd might say, has my flabber been so ghasted. I knew from Magga that I had been offered a bed for my three nights there, but had no idea that the whole place was being turned over to me. As I said, I should be used to the acts of generosity I have encountered as I travel the globe, but people continue to astonish me.
Before pondering on food, Erla and Magga wanted to introduce me to one of Iceland’s most famous landmarks, The Blue Lagoon, formed in the middle of a stunning outcrop of volcanic rock, is a lake that takes its naturally warmed water from mineral springs. It is a beautiful set up and the three of us spent the next couple of hours happily pampering ourselves in the therapeutic waters until The Sun began to decline over the horizon.
Magga had decided that my first experience of Icelandic food would not be in Reykjavic, however, but out on the coast at a small restaurant called Fjorubordid which specialised in local crayfish.
It was only a short distance away from The Blue Lagoon, but when you added that to the fact that it was now dark, beginning to snow quite heavily and that Erla’s car had, to be kind, seen better days, it was one of the more interesting transportation experiences of EAT MY GLOBE to date.
We made it however and were soon seated in the warm and cheery dining room of Fjorubordid drinking our first beer. Actually, it was our only beer because, like everything else in Iceland, everything is ludicrously expensive and the one small bottle of local beer came in at nearly £10. They had wines on the list too, but a bottle that you might turn your nose up to at the supermarket was coming in at close to £40.
The food was expensive too, but not quite as nosebleed inducing as the booze. It was also rather good. The restaurant served only crayfish in varying portions, which came simply steamed with accompanying sauces, salads and deliciously addictive small potatoes. The crayfish were the stars though. Great steaming pots of them, to be peeled and sucked down with dubious slurping noises.
A lot of people had told me that food in Iceland was, well, crap. Some of it was. Much of it was weird and some of it was downright nasty. But, these small, sweet, plump little beauties were as good as anything I had tried on the trip to date and made the effort of getting there and, indeed back to Reykjavik worth all the effort.
By the time we got back to the city and Erla had settled me in her flat, I was ready to crash out. I wanted a reasonably early night as Magga had promised me that the next day brought with it the threat of a boiled sheep’s head, Bill Clinton’s favourite hot dog and the chance to go clubbing with a gaggle of Icelandic lovelies.
As you can imagine, with those thoughts in my head, my dreams were, shall we say, quite vivid.
I was not meeting Magga until later the next morning as she had errands to run, so, I took one of the all too rare opportunities to sleep in, the pelting snow outside being an added disincentive to forcing myself into the great outdoors any earlier.
On top of which, I had just begun to take my Malaria medication in anticipation of my forthcoming trip to South East Asia & India with all the joys of morning nausea that came in attendance.
By the time I did drag myself up and out of the flat, The Sun was shining and, although it was still as cold as a first date that you take to see Monday Night Smack Down, I was well prepared, with coat, hat and gloves, to take in the city.
It is a small place. The whole country only boasts a population of some 300,000 but the city of Reykjavic itself is vibrant and attractive. The hosts of coffee shops were already filled with bright skinned youngsters talking about ever such important stuff and well-dressed people were milling around the streets doing their weekend shop.
By the time, Magga turned up, I think I had just about seen everything there was to see in the town centre, so was glad when she suggested we head off to lunch. I was slightly less pleased when she said we were going to a café the local bus station, but I knew she must have a reason.
She did. The café at the local bus station is run by a slightly odd looking man whose has taken it upon himself to protect the traditional foods of Iceland.. In particular he wanted to maintain the tradition of eating Swidd (pronounced swith) which I was delighted to find out was half a boiled sheep’s head with the fur singed off.
It is not a pleasant thing to look at. Well, it is half a boiled sheep’s head with the fur singed off as I just told you. The teeth are still intact in the jaw and the tongue is very firmly still in cheek. Despite that, it is quite tasty and I picked delicately at the flesh while sipping the “Xmas Ale” Magga had made for me. An odd mix of the local malt drink and a nasty, synthetic orange pop which, as the name suggests, they like to drink at Christmas. Odd stuff indeed.
Magga, however was in her element and, after devouring the cheek meat, she ripped open the jaw to reveal the tongue and started work on that before picking the whole thing up and gnawing on it. She is very much my kind of woman.
Not trusting dentists in London, Magga had made an appointment with her childhood Dr to have a check up and so left me to my own devices pointing me in the direction of one of Reykjaviks oldest institutions. It may come as a surprise to find that it was not a civic building or a church. It was not a place of archaeological interest or a sight of historical importance. It was a hot dog stand.
The Icelanders love their hot dogs. In fact, the fist thing Magga did when we got to The Blue Lagoon was rush inside and order one from their café. They appear to be addicted to them.
They are not the only ones because, and this wont come as any great surprise to you, when I arrived at the stall, there were a significant number of pictures of one Mr Billy Jeff Clinton gorging himself on them during a recent visit.
Well he has good taste. These are some of the best hot dogs I have ever tried. The dog itself is good, the remoulade sauce gives a nice tang, but the real trick is in the deep fried onions which give a pleasing counterpoint against the soft roll and the sausage. I ate a few during my visit. Not as many as Billy Jeff, that would be silly, but quite a few.
Full of dog and sheep, I headed back to the flat to prepare for my night out with the Icelandic lovelies. I was not disappointed as one after another of them arrived at my, I mean Erla’s flat as planned and began to get horribly pissed as they prepared for a night out.
In Iceland, booze in bars being so expensive, as result of recent prohibition which only ended less than twenty years ago, people tend to buy their liquor at the state run shops and drink at home to get a buzz on before going out where they limit themselves to one or two drinks.
So, I just sat as Magga, Erla and all their old school friends sat around, became more and more in their cups and talked about their husbands, boyfriends and sex lives. I was concerned that doing all of this might be uncomfortable for them with a balding forty something man sitting in their midst, but no one seemed phased and Magga announced
“It’s no problem, you are just like one of the girls”
Bloody Hell. Obviously, just what I wanted to hear.
By about Midnight, I was ready to head to sleep, but the girls were just about ready to head out. Their night was just beginning. Reykjavik has a legendary bar and club scene and I can see why. The main drag of the city is littered with places for people to meet and dance and it does not even begin to get going until well past 1am in the morning.
I gave it my best shot, I really did. But, by 5am, I was about to fall asleep, so left them to their own devices and walked back to the flat and to sleep.
No great surprise then that I did not wake up until well into the afternoon the next day. Peering through the window, I could see that the snow was pelting down again outside and I felt even less inclined to go out than I did the day before. So I didn’t. I ran across to a local supermarket for a snack and sat in the cosy warm flat writing until the doorbell rang at 6pm.
It was Erla.
She had not been up long either and offered to take me on a last tour of the city and to the places where I could go and get some of the mouldy shark I had avoided during the trip.
She knows and loves her city and took me on a whistle stop tour of all the places of interest. I loved the fact that you could head right up the driveway of the presidential palace and even more so when she told me that it is every Icelander’s right to make an appointment to see the president if they have something they wish to discuss. Imagine doing that with Mr Brown or Mr Bush
Finally, she took me to a local supermarket that specialises in some of the more unusual items on the Icelandic menu at this time of year.
Thooroblot literally means Thor’s Feast and celebrates the end of the winter when the last of the preserved foods could be eaten and fresh food caught for the first time in months. They are good at preserving things here and on offer with wonders like blood sausage, sour ram’s testicles, dried puffin and of course, Harrkl, mouldy shark.
I am not quite sure how they figured it out, but, because of the cold, the local basking shark has to produce a toxic substance under its skin in order to float. If you were to eat it immediately after you caught it, it would make you incredibly ill. So, they bury it until the toxins are removed by the ammonia produced during decomposition (stick with me) it can take up to six months after which, quite frankly, the stuff smells like piss.
Along with the Durrian fruit, it is easily the worst smell I have encountered on the trip so far.
I bought a tub of it, of course, being an intrepid explorer and I also bought a bottle of Brennivin, the local hooch made with Caraway, which is meant to be drunk with it.
But, and I am going to be honest with you here. I tried some in the supermarket and it persuaded me that the tub I bought, still sitting tightly sealed in my fridge, is going to remain that way for some time to come.
So, that was Iceland. We headed back to London early the next morning and I got ready to fly out to Thailand a couple of days later.
It is hardly the culinary capital of, well anywhere, but I rather liked it. I liked the people who were incredibly hospitable. I liked the city itself, if not the pelting snow and I even liked some of the food. The thought of those sweet crayfish and the onions in the hot dogs often come back to me when I am hungry.
Not so sure about the sheep’s head and the ram’s testicles though. I will leave those to Magga
Next stop, South East Asia