Exceptionally talented travel, parenting, interiors and lifestyle blogger, Penny Alexander of A Residence and Parentshaped also happens to be one of my closest friends. She recently took a press trip to Iceland on my behalf, to find out what foodie treats were on offer in this incredible country. In the second of her posts, she explains what happened when she kindly volunteered to taste the best of what gourmet Iceland has to offer for me.
If you haven't considered Iceland as a foodie destination it's time to think again, as a country that values sustainability, fresh, local and high quality food, Iceland packs a massive and quite often surprising foodie punch which will keep you guessing - it's fun to have your taste buds challenged. Iceland is also very family and child palette friendly.
Highlights included a pinch of liquorice salt on ice cream from a secret family recipe; a green tomato and gin cocktail in a geothermal powered tomato greenhouse; ice cream eaten next to the cows who produced the milk; a cinnamon scone in a Rekjavik coffee house; a 6 course tasting menu and a beer tasting - wherever I went, Iceland consistently presented itself as a gourmet destination with loads to wow both gourmet lovers and kids.
Icelandic Herbs - Urta.Islandica, Hafnafjordur
Our first stop in Iceland was a tiny shop called Urta.Islandica. Here a family team hand-makes an outstanding range of gourmet teas, syrups and salts, all using traditional Icelandic herbs.
I brought home a 'Runner's Tea' with Icelandic moss 'to support my lungs', and Artic root which is 'aptogenic and works against stress and fatigue'; having been for my third run of the week before sitting down to write this, I can vouch for the energy giving barley.
Divine angelica spiced rhubarb chutney tasted amazing on crackers and pairs really well with cheese too. Last week I served it alongside a mushroom omelette; it was a wonderful ketchup substitute. Emily popped over to try some over a lunchtime picnic in my garden, and to take home some foodie gifts I brought back for her.
There are a wide range of salts blended with spices to try. Liquorice salt is incredible, and can even be sprinkled on ice cream, salt brings out the most incredible sweet flavours, in the ice cream and the liquorice.
Efstidalur Ice Cream Farm
As part of our tour with Midgard adventure we stopped at a small Icelandic farm to taste Skyrr (a thick Icelandic yogurt, now available in the UK), cheese and ice cream. This too was family run and the welcome was warm and cosy.
It is a cafe, but also feels cosy like someone's sitting room, with a twist - through the glass windows you can see the cows who produced the milk that went into the products, a very healthy and happy looking herd.
Friðheimar Tomato Farm
I really didn't expect to find myself in a tomato greenhouse in the middle of Iceland downing shots out of a cored out plum tomato, eating the most beautiful tomato soup that made my mouth truly ping with excitement, followed by the most amazing cocktail. Happy Mary includes green tomato, gin and ginger goes down as the best cocktail I have ever tasted.
Looking round later, I spotted this article framed, from The Guardian foodie traveller, pronouncing Friðheimar the home of the best Bloody Mary in the world, so it appears I do know what I am talking about when it comes to food and drink, and that I am not exaggerating when I say this was the best cocktail I have ever drunk.
We started with a quick tour of the greenhouse, learning how geothermal energy powers the greenhouse, about Icelanders love for the humble tomato that just couldn't grow naturally here and about the bees that are flown over from Holland to pollinate the plants.
Eating and drinking in a greenhouse was a wonderful experience, it is so lovely to be among the food you are eating and my goodness these tomatoes are otherworldly. Friðheimar is a family run centre with warm and friendly service. I loved carving my own hunks of homemade bread to go with the soup.
It is also super kid friendly - pizza and pasta also feature on the menu and the red tomato and strawberry dessert sauce is the perfect topping for ice cream.
Friðheimar is also one restaurant where it makes perfect sense for your tomato cheesecake pudding to come served in a miniature flowerpot. Just incredible.
Stories are so important to Icelanders, and I loved the fact that all the Olvisholt Brewery beers we tasted at Hotel Ranga were named after legendary characters or volcanoes. I loved Freya, named after the Norse goddess of fertility, a refreshing and sparkling wheat ale, gently spiced with cardamon and orange. I love this:
'Freya...brewed in the honor of the Icelandic women who have surrounded us with love for more than thousand years, Freyja is soft like a mother´s kiss.'
In Wallonia, Belgium, Saison beer was brewed at farms for seasonal workers in the summer. Skaði is inspired by this style of beer. Another brew to feature Icelandic angelica, as well as rye which enhances the character of spice that defines the style.
Chef Karl Johann Unnarsson is a rising foodie star on the island, his food showcases the best of what Iceland has to offer, fresh, sustainable, local ingredients. Tasting menus offer an exciting opportunity to sample a little bit of all Iceland’s delicacies in one sitting. An unexpected highlight was the mushroom soup with tiny pieces of pickled sweet mushroom at the bottom. The whole thing was a taste and texture sensation.
Favourites as a vegetarian were the smoked potatoes and the sunchoke salad, a small saucepan filled with tomato and coriander was the perfect precursor to our trip to the geothermal powered tomato farm the next day. Icelanders rival Italians for their ability to make tomatoes ping my taste buds.
I was really impressed to be treated to such imaginative dishes and flavours as a vegetarian, my perception of Iceland has always been that fish and meat are staples, so it was wonderful to eat some of the most tasty vegetable creations I have experienced in some time. Tiny pickles, jellies and sauces played against salad leaves and smoked root veg, flakes of traditional cheese and cheese cubes.
My ‘no-meat but fish eating’ travel companion loved the scallops and torched salmon with garlic mashed potato. ‘The colour of the torched salmon against the green kale jelly and yellow smoked egg yolk was stunning. Balsamic sauce complemented but not overpowered the delicate flavour of the salmon.’
So many dishes were reminiscent of the landscape in some way. A gently torched cauliflower reminded me of the lava covered landscape brought alive by the sun lighting up the green grasses. It tasted amazing too. Pudding was an adventure too, a trail of amazing tastes.
Cinnamon scones in Rekjavik Roasters
With only a couple of hours in Rekjavik on the way back to the airport, Rekjavik Roasters was a star find. I've since found it listed in plenty of top 5 or 10 coffee houses in Rekjavik so I'm pleased we stumbled on it all by ourselves. I loved the industrial style interior, warm welcome and knowing I was in the place with the best coffee in the city, even I don't actually drink coffee, I can totally appreciate the smell. It was the snacks I fell in love with...
I've had cinnamon bread served to me as a welcome by my Icelandic friends, so I know it is a really yummy Icelandic thing, it tastes amazing hot and buttered. We had cinnamon scones with jam and cheese, with some David Bowie on the record player, the perfect way to bid a sad farewell to Iceland.
Penny stayed for two nights as a guest of Hotel Ranga and took a Golden Circle Tour with Midgard Adventure which included stops at Friðheimar and Efstidalur. She tasted beers from Brugghus Brewery as part of a beer tasting at Hotel Ranga.
Pictures are © Penny Alexander, except for 1,7,12,13,14 which are © Brent Darby and used with permission.