Detour: Iceland


The snow is finally melting, and spring is in the air, but Jess and I decided to venture once more into the bleak winter with a globetrotting detour to one of the northernmost countries in the world, Iceland, in coordination with Boston’s annual Taste of Iceland festival. Geographically, this country is about the size of Maine, but has only one fourth the population. Lying in the North Atlantic on the continental divide between Europe and North America, Iceland was first inhabited by Norse settlers around the year 900.

Leif Erikson, the first European explorer to reach North America, is one of the country’s most famous historical figures. He was born in Iceland around 970. Today, Erikson is known to have reached only the eastern shore of Canada, but a century ago Americans believed that he had actually surveyed much of the northern United States. It is for this reason that the people of Boston once saw fit to erect a statue of Leif Erikson on Commonwealth Avenue, complete with a stone-carved longboat:


Since freezing rain was in the forecast for much of the weekend, I snapped this picture on Friday afternoon as I was walking to the Boston Public Library to pick up some Icelandic films. Erikson didn’t really discover Boston, unfortunately, but it’s nice to have a statue of him nonetheless. That evening, we listened to the music of another famous Icelander, Björk.

Saturday morning began just as it does for many Icelanders: with a bowl of hot oatmeal, known to the locals as hafragrautur. Here is Jess’s version of this worldwide classic, served with a pinch of brown sugar on top:


Knowing that we’d need to camp out at the Kendall Cinema in order to secure our seats at the Icelandic Short Film Festival that afternoon, I arrived mid-morning (while Jess was still at her yoga class) and managed to obtain a pair of tickets. For lunch, I had picked up a couple of sandwiches at Flour Bakery. While these weren’t particularly Icelandic, my sandwich did feature roast lamb, which is supposedly a popular meat on the island:


We finished up our sandwiches just as the ushers opened the house, and soon we were enjoying a series of gripping shorts from a variety of talented Icelandic directors: Börkur Sigþórsson’s “Come to Harm,” Eyþór Jóvinsson’s “Sker,” Muriel d’Ansembourg’s “Good Night,” Ísold Uggadóttir’s  “Revolution Reykjavik,” Guðni Líndal Benediktsson’s “No Homo,” and Vera Sölvadóttir’s “In Search of Livingstone.”

After a break, the festival continued with two documentaries filmed in the country: Lindsay Blatt’s “Herd in Iceland,” the trailer for which you can see above, and Alma Ómarsdóttir’s “You Have to Look Good.” Although we certainly enjoyed some films more than others, it was still exciting to take in such a wide cross-section of the Icelandic film scene. If only every globetrotting destination could include a three-hour film festival!

For dinner, Jess modified a traditional recipe for kjotsupa (lamb soup) by substituting the lamb for the seitan from this vegetarian “meat and potatoes” stew. This was quite delicious, even if a native Icelander might have noticed that something was a little different.


Jess had learned that rúgbrauð, or steamed rye bread, is very popular in Iceland because of the country’s volcanic geology. Thanks to its many geothermal hot springs, residents can simply leave a jar of bread to steam near the spring rather than burning fuel to heat an oven. This cooking method can take a long time, but fortunately we New Englanders have our own tradition of steamed rye bread: canned brown bread, also known as “hobo bread,” which we traditionally eat with baked beans. This was Jess’s first time eating bread from a can, and I think she’s still getting used to the flavor.

For dessert, Jess pulled out all the stops and baked a Hjónabandssæla, which is Icelandic for “happy marriage.” This crumbly treat is made with an oatmeal batter and sweet blueberry jam. Neither of us could help having seconds!


After dinner, we watched White Night Wedding, one of the films that I’d picked up at the library.

This bleak comedy gets its title from the fact that on Midsummer’s Eve, the shortest night of the year, the sun sinks below the horizon for only a couple of hours. (Iceland lies just below the arctic circle, the imaginary line which denotes the latitude above which the sun wouldn’t sink at all.) For the remainder of the night, the sun is shining.

After getting a much longer night’s rest ourselves, we awoke on Sunday for another breakfast of Icelandic porridge, this time accompanied by some skyr—a type of Icelandic yogurt. The skyr that we found in Whole Foods was actually imported from Iceland!


We spent the morning each cooking our lunches to pack during the week, but then as lunchtime rolled around I boiled some red potatoes and attempted to make Brúnaðar Kartöflur, an Icelandic recipe for caramel-glazed potatoes. They came out all right, but the highlight of the meal were Jess’s Icelandic hot dogs, served with rémoulade (a type of tartar sauce), mustard, ketchup, and fried onions.


These weren’t real hotdogs, of course, but rather the tasty vegetarian sausages that last made an appearance in our weekend in Austria. We were pretty excited about the fried onions, as you can see above, because I’d managed to locate not the everyday American brand (French’s) but a brand imported from the Netherlands and designed specifically for Danish cuisine. Not quite Icelandic, but pretty close!

By happy coincidence, a brand of imported Icelandic chocolate is also available for purchase here in Massachusetts, and we enjoyed some of the 56% dark variety. You probably noticed it in the photo at the top of the page.

Later in the afternoon, as sleet turned to snow, we settled in to watch Jitters (2010), our final film for the weekend. The plot centers around a group of Icelandic high schoolers as they explore love, friendship, and what it means to be an adult:

Like many of the other films we’d seen in the last forty-eight hours, this one was rather grim, but it did have a happy ending. After the movie, we dined on another meal of lamb soup (this time topped with crispy onions) and brown bread. There were still a few slices of “happy marriage” left over, too!

As our weekend in Iceland drew to a close, we continued to look forward to warmer weather while reflecting on our newfound knowledge of this island in the north.


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