Northern Iceland: A Locavore Tour

The locavore turn seems to be everywhere in evidence. An intensified interest in local food products, the rediscovery of forgotten local food traditions and creative attempts to merge various culinary heritages with modern preparation techniques all fuel this turn.

One side effect of this movement is the increased prominence, in many places, of local food products – on menus, in markets and in the profusion of food tours.

In August, I took a fantastic locavore tour in the form of a northern Iceland culinary tour, put together by Akureyri‘s Saga Travel. Iceland, despite its northerly position, is no agricultural wasteland. The country is self-sufficient in fish, meat and dairy and also produces vegetables.

The entire tour is worthwhile, though its first three stops are especially compelling. First up on the tour’s August incarnation: Hrísey, a quiet island to the north of Akureyri whose surrounding waters are used to farm beautiful fat, organic blue mussels. We boarded a fishing vessel and checked out submerged ropes used to farm the mussels before motoring on to the island itself. Here, we sat down to a simple and delicious lunch of mussels served with a garlic sauce and bread. These orange-hued mussels are richly flavorful, a real revelation after years of soggy, near-tasteless mussels.

Next up on the tour was a stop at Kaldi, Iceland’s first microbrewery, in the small town of Árskógssandur. Beer was actually banned in Iceland from 1915 until 1989. Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that the microbrewery explosion present in many locations has been slow to develop here.

Kaldi’s founders hired a Czech brewmaster to get the brewery off the ground. Today, demand for the company’s brews is so high that the company doesn’t yet see the need to export. (An Icelandic resident abroad told me that the seasonal Christmas brew sells out so quickly that he has to ask his parents to buy it so that he will be able to enjoy it when he returns for Christmas.) Kaldi beer is not pasteurized, nor does it contain preservatives. It is also delicious.

There is one jokey part of the tour, a stop at the Ekta factory to sample hákarl, the rotten shark for which Iceland is notorious. Our sample was provided by the company’s hilarious manager, Elvar Reykjalin, who also graciously facilitated passage of the stinking flesh down our convulsed throats with a shot of bright red liqueur. Hákarl, with its aggressive ammonia aftertaste, might be the worst thing I have ever tasted. A nice light meal followed, centered around Ekta’s very good salted cod.

Subsequent stops included Kaffi Kú for beef carpaccio and Holtsel for ice cream. The local food tour is offered year-round, with the itinerary varying from season to season. Pricing is not cheap, at 24,500 Icelandic kronur ($200), though in the context of Iceland’s high cost index, it seems relatively reasonable.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]

Five Exciting Things About Iceland’s Second City

Akureyri is Iceland’s second city. It’s not Iceland’s second largest city in terms of population – that honor goes to Kópavogur just south of Reyjkavík – but it is the country’s second city in cultural terms. Akureyri may have just 18,000 residents but with its range of tourist facilities, restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and cultural institutions, it possesses a certain urban atmosphere.

Akureyri makes an easy base for nearby sites of interest, too. The tiny island of Grímsey, which bisects the Arctic Circle, is about 60 miles north of Akureyri. Lake Mývatn, a major summer tourist attraction, is about 55 miles to the east of Akureyri.

Akureyri itself is worth some time. Mountains frame the city and the air is incredibly crisp. Once you’re done just taking in the physical environment, there are things to do. Here are five of them – five exciting Akureyri activities.

1. The city’s core – Akureyri Church, designed by Icelandic state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, is an imposing structure with art deco elements. It bears some stylistic similarity to the architect’s much better known Hallgríms Church in Reyjkavík. Across the street is the visit-worthy Center for Visual Arts (Kaupvangsstræti 12). And on Hafnarstræti at the epicenter of town there is Blaá Kannan Cafe, a bustling place to socialize and eat cake.

2. Hof – This culture, conference and performance center also houses a tourist information center, a shop selling lots of nice items (many of them Icelandic) and a cafe. Architecturally, Hof is pretty impressive. The hockey puck-shaped building is round, squat and graced by enormous windows to maximize light. Hof opened in late 2010.

3. Northern lights – Your chance of sighting the aurora borealis from November through April is quite good, assuming clear night skies. Saga Travel offers a night’s excursion for 9000 ISK ($71), including hot chocolate. They’ll take you out the following night if you don’t see the Northern lights on your first trip out.4. Kjarnaskógur Forest – Iceland doesn’t have many forests to speak of. This one, just south of Akureyri, is one of the best loved in the country. The forest features several walking trails, some accessible at night as well as a dedicated bicycle path. A river runs through the forest.

5. Flóra – This amazing shop, open Thursday through Saturday, sells both new and vintage items, mostly of Icelandic provenance. Notable wares include foodstuffs (tea, honey, syrups), clothes, yarn and artwork. The emphasis is on sustainability across various product lines, and the aesthetic (see above) is homespun yet stylish. Flóra also features exhibitions and occasional talks.

Sigur Rós Heima Trailer

Sigur Rós is a band from Iceland. This coming November, they’ll be releasing a live DVD called Heima which chronicles their return home over several live shows. I just saw the trailer for the DVD today (above), and it’s exquisite. I’ve never been to Iceland, so I can’t speak first-handedly, but the outdoor footage in the trailer is absolutely gorgeous and very surreal. Many of the moon-like landscapes were shot at a live show performed at the Ásbyrgi canyon, 2 hours east of the second-largest Icelandic town of Akureyri. If the trailer is any indication of the feature-length production, I’ll be ordering the DVD (though I suppose it helps that I’m a fan of the band as well). Regardless, the footage is really re-sparking my interest in a trip to Iceland.