It was Scandinavian sailors that discovered Iceland in the ninth century. It is believed that a Norse Viking named Floki, sailed to Iceland and named it such. The book of Settlements called, “Landnamabok”, was written in the twelfth century and contains information on the first four hundred settlers. Among the settlers the Scandinavians brought, were people of Irish and Norse descent. They went to Iceland in search of a better life but what they faced was a continuous struggle against Mother Nature. The land is made habitable only by the warm currents of the jet stream. Much of the folklore and myths surrounding Iceland were created during this early settlement time. The four guardians of the land are the eagle, the giant, the dragon and the bull, all of which are found on the coat of arms, the parliament building and their coins.
Iceland is an island, located in the North Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Norway, just south of the Arctic Circle. Some people say that Greenland should have been called Iceland and Iceland should have been called Greenland, just because of the way the lands look. Iceland is much greener than Greenland. Iceland is a volcanic island in one of the most active volcanic areas of the world. It is also one of the youngest islands and the latest to be inhabited by humans. The interior known as “The Highlands” are cold and uninhabitable, consisting of a plateau of sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers. Many glacier rivers flow to the sea through the lowlands where waterfalls abound. She is a land of contrasts and called, “The Land of Fire and Ice”. The island nation is sparsely populated with most of her 330,000 residents living in the capital city of Reykjavik, the northern most capital city in the world. The language they speak is Icelandic, which has not changed much through the centuries and is a symbol of national pride. It is probably closest to Old Norse, of all modern Scandinavian languages.
Iceland became independent on June 17, 1944, after 97 percent of the population voted overwhelmingly in favor of separating from Denmark. Iceland has the longest surviving parliament, known as “the Althingi” which was established in the year 930, when Iceland became a commonwealth. Iceland was also ruled for a time in the 1200s by Norway.
Icelanders are a very proud people and it seems that nearly all are related to each other. They have a unique way of naming people. They don’t use surnames, they are named as the dottir (daughter) or son of the father. For example, the daughter of Jon (whose first name is Anna) is called Anna Jonsdottir. The first name has to be in the Icelandic book of names or has to be approved. In the phonebook, the people are listed by their first name, with their occupation.
Due to Iceland’s geographical location, the winter may only have 4 hours of daylight and in the summertime, it is light 24 hours a day. Both seasons bring tourists, as the famous Northern Lights are best observed during the winter months, yet many festivals are held during the summertime. They even host the midnight, International golf tournaments during the summer months. Both seasons are also times to enjoy the many geothermal pools and geysers that are found across the country. One called the Blue Lagoon is a popular favorite.
Iceland ranks very high in many world categories. They are one of the most literate nations in the world and many speak English as well as Icelandic. They rank 13th in the world regarding environmental protection and they are incredibly green, with 85 percent of their power coming from sustainable sources and half of that, from geothermal power. They have universal health care, free education, low taxes and unemployment, and have hardly any crime. Even the police in Iceland do not carry guns. It is common to see small children and babies parked outside a café all bundled up for a nap, in a stroller, sleeping in the cool, crisp air, while the parents are inside visiting without a worry about abduction. They also have the second highest, life expectancy in the world. The world’s strongest man was from Iceland and they see more movies than any other nation on earth.
Most of the animals found in Iceland were brought there by early settlers, however there was one indigenous animal found on the island, the arctic fox. The animals you will see most commonly are sheep, which are everywhere, and the strikingly beautiful Icelandic ponies, who are famous for their ambling gaits called the tölt . There are no mosquitos in Iceland and no reptiles or amphibians. Iceland is home to about 300 species of birds and some 6000 plant species. One bird that you may find on an occasional Icelandic menu, is the beautiful puffin. The puffin’s heart is considered one of Iceland’s delicacies.
As we look into the cuisine of this island nation, it is fish and sheep that rule the diet. Iceland has little arable land and a very short growing season but they do grow potatoes and turnips. Most of the other produce is imported.
Fishing is the main industry in Iceland and delicious types of seafood can be found throughout the island. Iceland has been criticized for recently lifting a ban and allowing whaling to be legal again. Minke whale is another item you will find on their menu. Evidently, it is a real treat for those that can get past the fact that it is whale. I have heard it described as the best carpaccio you will ever eat.
Icelandic cuisine however, does not have the best reputation, as they do have some strange items for which they are known. These are typically served as part of a Porramatur, an Icelandic banquet, served at the midwinter festival known as a Porrablot. One is called hakari, a fermented dried shark that some say, if you don’t throw up when you smell it, you can probably handle eating it. A few other delicacies are from the sheep; like cooking the whole sheep head and then of course, serving the testicles.
There was prohibition in Iceland on beer (and all alcohol for a while) from back in 1915 and beer didn’t become available for sale until March 1, 1989, popularly known as Beer Day. “Viking” is Iceland’s most popular beer. Other alcohol is sold in state run stores. Their most famous drink is Brennivin, known as “Black Death”, made from fermented grain or potato mash and flavored with caraway. It is described as an aquavit, as the steeping of herbs in alcohol to create schnapps is a long held tradition in Scandinavian countries. They also are the largest per capita consumers of Coca-Cola.
So let’s eat an Icelandic meal:
Lobster Soup (Humarsúpa)
Cod with Egg and Butter Sauce (Þorskur með Eggja og Smjörsósu)
Caramel-Glazed Potatoes (Brúnaðar Kartöflur)
Roasted Asparagus and Fennel
Skyr White chocolate Crème Brulee
served with Blueberry Schnapps
For this meal we were thrilled to enjoy it with my sister, Dale and her husband, Bo, who were on their way back home to Texas. Dale does not eat red meat, so the menu was perfect for her. We set the table with the colors of the Icelandic flag; blue represents the surrounding Atlantic Ocean and the pristine skies, red represents the fires of the nation’s volcanoes and white is for the snow and ice that cover much of the land. We adorned the table with beautiful, white petal flowers that looked like the mountain avens; Iceland’s national flower. We added staves, magical symbols that are believed to keep Icelanders safe from harm.
Our first course was a rich and delectable lobster and shrimp soup. To be honest, I had never made my own seafood stock before, it was really easy to do and the flavor it rendered was awesome. The base was similar to a lobster bisque and we garnished with fresh thyme. Bo said it was the best he ever had. This is a keeper for sure!
For the main course, we dined on a perfectly cooked, filet of cod. (as James Brown would say, “Good cod!”) Cod is a much loved fish in Iceland, they even fought cod wars with the United Kingdom, back in the 1970s, to protect their cod fishing grounds. Our fish was baked and then covered with an egg and butter sauce that was creamy and delicious. The fish was served with roasted asparagus and fennel, another lovely combination of flavors. And then there were the caramelized potatoes; seriously, sinful potatoes that were definitely loved by all.
For dessert, a skyr, white chocolate, crème brulee. Skyr, (pronounced skeer) is a type of creamy, smooth, low fat yogurt, popular all over Iceland. My husband simply said, this was the best crème brulee he has ever had, and we all agreed! Finally a toast, “Skal”, means cheers in Iceland which went with a shot of blueberry schnapps. This was the finish to our unbelievably delicious, Icelandic meal.
Honestly, Iceland will have to go down as one of our favorites. The food was outstanding and good meals are always enjoyed best in the company of friends and family.
This week I wanted to give you a little extra something and introduce you to my nephew, Eliot. He has such a beautiful perspective on life and is real free spirit. He works on Oahu, Hawaii as a life guard. He has traveled to many exotic places including Iceland and was willing to share some of his awesome pictures and experiences with us. He went on his own, in the dead of winter and had the time of his life. Please note that all of the beautiful photos in this post were provided by Eliot! Enjoy my interview with Eliot:
How did you decide on Iceland and how do you pick where your next trip is?
That's kind of a tough one. I think it usually starts with a photo in a magazine or an exotic backdrop in a movie or book that sparks my interest and imagination. I think we are all guilty of daydreaming of somewhere far off and exotic from time to time. From there I start reading guide books, researching maps and photos and it pretty much snowballs into an obsession with a place until I buy my plane ticket. Iceland was no different. I think it was the "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" that first put it on my radar, then those otherworldly, volcanic landscapes just started to call my name...
What does travel mean to you?
For me, travel is my reset button. Day to day routines at home can get mundane and stale at times (even in Hawaii). You get numb to your surroundings and things around you. Some days you don't even remember driving to work or eating lunch. Traveling opens up your senses like nothing else. New sights, people and experiences are everywhere. Even just grabbing breakfast can be an adventure in a new city. That's what travel means to me, a great opportunity to live in the moment, just the way we are meant to do.
What about travel makes you feel like you're getting a true cultural experience?
I think the best way to immerse yourself in a culture is food! Food is always the nucleus of any culture, it brings people together like nothing else. A good meal in a foreign place gives you a taste of the local traditions, language, taboos, religions and social hierarchy. Dinner in a foreign country is like cliff notes on the culture.
What camera equipment do you pack to get such beautiful shots?
I use a Canon T3i, not the most expensive or best camera but it's light and gets the job done. (Some say it's the Indian and not the arrow.) Other than that I pack a tripod, extra batteries and a remote shutter button for long exposures. The key is patience and a lot of luck. At one point, I was freezing and started doing jumping jacks at 2am, wearing every piece of clothing I packed to stay warm just to get a Northern lights shot. So let's factor in a little resilience too.
What will stay with you forever on that trip?
My trip around Iceland had so many moments I'll never forget. One that stands out is camping by an icy lagoon, towards the end of my trip. There was a floating dock on the edge of the water. It was late in the afternoon and I decided to post up on the dock for the sunset with a couple of "Viking" beers. I brought my sleeping bag to keep warm while the air cooled off and some of my favorite tunes as well. Every couple of minutes, a piece of ice would break off and gently rock the wood platform. It was hypnotic and so relaxing that I ended up falling asleep before the sun went down. I woke up at 10pm, slightly dazed on the dock and I couldn't believe my eyes. Earlier in the trip I had seen some northern lights but they were nothing compared to what I saw this night. Huge beams of green, purple and golden light swayed from one horizon, clear over my head to the next horizon. It was a powerful moment; to dream about something for years finally and have it displayed right in front of my eyes. The solar storm lasted until 3am and I loved every minute of it. I'll remember that night the rest of my life. That's why I travel.
You can find Eliot on Instagram at eliot_beebe. He always has beautiful photos and inspiring thoughts to share; you should definitely follow him.
Until next week,