The cuisine is a substantial part of a country’s image as it is shaped by natural conditions and reflects both culture and history. When it comes to our culinary history and unique ingredients, Iceland has a richer heritage than most people might suspect. We live on an island surrounded by generous fishing grounds. Our access to fresh fish is unique. Bays and fjords are full of life; seals on rocks, salmon and trout in rivers and waters. Game seasoned by the taste of Icelandic fells and heaths. The brief summer shapes our agriculture. Sheep roam free and graze in the wild and untarnished mountain regions. Dairy products have been a constant presence on Iceland’s plates and dinner tables for centuries. Even though our vegetation is less diverse than in most countries, we’ve made inventive use of it for centuries. More Information on chefs & restaurants, wine & dine and Iceland responsible fisheries.
Battling the untamed Nature
It’s incredible to see how much change this small nation of ours has gone through in a short time. For the better part of Iceland’s history and up until only a 100 years ago a large part of the nation lived in turf houses. Throughout the ages, the Icelandic nation has fought with vigor and stubbornness and battled the untamed nature, volcanic eruptions, pests, hunger, cold and hardship. People have survived in this country by means of agriculture and fishing in harsh conditions, lacking most of what modern man would consider necessities.
In the past decades, the climate has become warmer, and many exciting changes have taken place in the domestic production of vegetables, grains and even fruit. Centuries passed with little in the way of change, marked by stagnation and regression. When progress came knocking on the door, things happened quickly, and the 19th-century society of poverty and isolation became an affluent 20th-century society.
Radical changes in a short amount of time
Our position and opportunities have radically changed in a short amount of time. Reshaped production knowledge, uninterrupted communication, and transportation have fundamentally transformed life on this island. Our ancestors’ history still exerts its influence on our daily lives; it has shaped us just like the land we inhabit. Change and progress march on, and it is important not to forget one’s origins, care for one’s history and respect both the past and what is yet to come.
Recently, an awakening has taken place in the Nordic countries, and people have realized that a great deal of value lies in local food production. In Iceland we need to open our eyes to the fact that our wealth is not lesser than that of our neighbors. Domestic production is vital for our food security and carbon footprint, as well as professional opportunities and food culture.
Most of us have a desire to be able to relate what we consume to some origins and meaning. Sitting at a restaurant in Öræfasveit with a view over the magnificent glacier Vatnajökull, drinking a beer brewed from the glacial water, or having a bite of warm rye bread cooked in a hot spring topped with cold smoked trout at Mývatn are just two examples of how food relates to land and history.
Great opportunities lie in local food production and processing, and we should strive to support and promote innovation in this area. An increase in tourism raises the likelihood of such production proving sustainable. Our culinary culture thus becomes richer.
It can be hard to define what national food truly is. Surely, we can call on tradition and say: This is native, this is Icelandic. However, a part of living in a society is to reconsider things occasionally and develop them according to the spirit of the times.
Most would agree that native food mostly, if not wholly, consists of raw ingredients grown in Icelandic conditions and based on old or new culinary methods. Today, local cuisine is rapidly increasing as it incorporates seasonal ingredients.
It´s so much more than sheap´s heads and ram´s testicles
It is fashionable to inform tourists that Þorramatur, served at midwinter festivals is the only real Icelandic food. It is the type of food foreign journalists like to write about and Icelanders love to provoke our guests with.
Yes some of it is weird stuff like ram´s testicles, sheep heads and fermented shark. But also lamb meat and lamb haggish (slátur) pickled in whey, smoked lamb (hangikjöt) on flatbread and dried fish (harðfiskur) with butter and dark sweet rye bread (rúgbrauð). While it is true that Þorramatur contains many of the traditional Icelandic foods because of it´s preservation methods, we must not forget that in the past we also enjoyed fresh meat, dairy products, seafood, birds, eggs, herbs and trout from lakes and rivers.
Many of the native dishes we have grown up with were influenced by Danish cuisine, such as glazed ham with a crunchy rind, sugar browned potatoes, red cabbage, marinated herring, meat and fish balls, Danish pastry, open sandwiches and sandwich loaves to name a few. Many believe that the occupation of Iceland by British and American soldiers 1940-1947 influenced Icelandic cuisine to a considerable extent, but the fact of the matter is that it changed rather little. However, Icelanders’ access to grain, sugar, fruits and canned meat improved while popcorn, soda, hot dogs and ice cream became popular. Consumerism and new ways of life took hold.