S.A.L.T. Spotlight: Here’s Why Icelandic Cuisine Will Surprise You

There might not be a place on Earth where the food is as misunderstood as Iceland.

Many outside the country have heard only of extreme ingredients they have seen on television with adventurous globetrotting chefs and TV hosts trying to eat hákarl, Greenland shark that has been cured and left to ferment for months. It has a strong ammonia taste, but it’s nothing compared with fermented skate, eaten on Dec. 23, Þorláksmessa (Mass of Saint Þorlákur), to mark the start of Christmas. The smell is so rank that you need to wear old clothes that can be thrown out after eating it.

It hasn’t helped that in recent decades many restaurants and tour operators have tried to capitalize on the shock value of some of these ingredients. How many times have you heard of whale sashimi or reindeer burgers when reading about the food of Iceland? These aren’t foods that Icelanders eat; they were created for tourists.

As you cruise around Iceland, you’ll start to see Icelandic food in a different way. Silversea’s S.A.L.T. (Sea and Land Taste Program) has been designed so that you see how Icelandic cuisine has changed since settlement and to understand how Icelanders eat today. It’s nothing like you have probably read about.

Fishing vessels in the harbor of Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands of Iceland. Photo by Nicholas Gill

This is a pristine island nation with some of the richest fisheries in the world. Not only is fish here abundant, but the sustainability of Icelandic fish populations is also a model that much of the world hopes to emulate. You may have heard of the free roaming lambs that are fattened up on mountain herbs, and Icelandic goats and wild fowl should be on your radar, too.

The New Nordic movement that is often attributed to Denmark and Sweden is here, too, and creative chefs can be found at every port, eager to experiment with the ingredients they can find regionally. In Reykjavík, you can dine at Michelin starred restaurants like Dill and Óx. While Icelandic food once revolved around survival through the long winters, now it revolves around pleasure. Whatever you thought you knew about it, forget it.

Building on Iceland’s culinary foundations

An Icelander gathering dulse, a nearly forgotten seaweed that is seeing a resurgence in consumption./Photo by Nicholas Gill

In the second half of the ninth century, Iceland was settled by Vikings, and the people they enslaved, who were mostly from the British Isles. While there is little written record of what people ate, we do know they struggled mightily. They did everything they could to adapt, and that tradition continues.

Few crops grew in the short summers, though barley was the most reliable grain. While it disappeared during a mini Ice Age that occurred in the region from the 14th to 19th centuries, a farmer named Eymundur Magnússon at Vallanes farm in East Iceland started farming it again in 1985, and it has made a comeback. The organic farm, which can be visited on S.A.L.T. Experiences from Seyðisfjörður, had to plant a forest with more than a million trees around it to change the climate and make it suitable for a range of different crops.

While much of the livestock that was brought over at Settlement couldn’t survive the cold winters, lamb and their fatty meat and milk, not to mention their thick wool, were well suited. Today, the lineage of sheep, like the Icelandic goats that are gradually making a comeback, has not been adulterated with other breeds, keeping the bloodline pure. They graze freely on mountain pastures and tiny islets off the coast. Still, the predominant meat in the country, you can find it roasted with the local herb Arctic thyme, sliced thinly for carpaccio, or in hearty stews.

Pure ingredients from an unspoiled landscape

Slippurinn, a family run restaurant in the Westman Islands, uses nearly everything from the local ecosystem./Photo by Nicholas Gill

The old Icelandic methods for fermenting nearly anything in whey and other methods for preservation are used minimally, so what’s left are exceptional ingredients from a pristine landscape. They often surprise you in places you least expect it. Sometimes it’s a plate of steamed blue mussels that were harvested in the waters off the Snæfellsnes peninsula or the dark blue crowberries you find in a bowl of skyr, Iceland’s yogurt-like snack.

On the island of Heimaey, the kitchen team at the family-run restaurant Slippurinn — as well as Silversea guests on S.A.L.T. experiences there — goes foraging multiple times per week to seek out wild plants that are at their peak often for just weeks at a time. Depending on the micro-season, it might be the dulse and other seaweeds on a beach just below a barren cape called Stórhöfði, or herbs like oyster leaves that grow in the volcanic soil of the lava fields on the edge of town. All of it finds its way into plates and cocktails.

The island is home to one of Iceland’s most robust fishing communities and the restaurant sources fish and shellfish sourced directly from the fishermen there. Not only do they work within a strict quota system that ensures fish populations remain strong, but marine resources are also given additional value by using roughly 80 percent of every fish, far greater than the global average, which sends parts to other industries. For example, skins are transformed into fish leather, collagen and bandages.

Growing the future

Saltverk is a flaky Icelandic sea salt made with geothermal energy./Photo via Saltwerk

For much of the past century, Iceland had to import much produce from mainland Europe. Iceland’s agricultural revolution continues to advance, however, because of hydropower and geothermal energy. Around Flúðir, a rural town in the south, dozens of greenhouses have turned the volcanic landscape it what appears to be a scene straight out of The Martian.

Greenhouses are now able to provide half of the country’s vegetable needs and produce tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, cucumbers, mushrooms and even wasabi.

Despite being an island surrounded by seawater, there has never been enough sunlight or trees for firewood to make salt by evaporation. Yet, by using a short-lived 18th-century method for producing salt with geothermal energy, the creative saltmakers at Saltverk have found a reliable method. Their plant in the Westfjords makes flaky, sustainable, hand harvested sea salt that has caught the attention of some of the world’s finest restaurants.

Beer was illegal until 1989, but dozens of craft breweries have opened, and even they are going green. At Ölverk, a craft brewery in Hveragerði, geothermal energy is used in the brewing process by using the steam to boil the wort and heat up the water to make beer. They have a wide range of IPAs, lagers and seasonal summer saison and skyr sour ales that can be found in bars and restaurants around the country.

Skal to that!

Want to learn what and where to eat in Iceland? Read more here.