Yes, Ma, we are eating vegetables in the campervan
My mother, who died 15 years ago, was an artistic soul. When speaking to her, she was usually more interested in what I was reading and whether I had been to the opera recently than whether I was sleeping or eating. Saul’s mom has her own artistic leanings (she reads Ovid in Latin and is an award-winning orchid grower) but also has a more practical mindset. Saul being the baby of the family and Tessa being a Jewish mother, phone calls from her to ask whether Saul is dressed warmly in Cape Town (usually when it is particularly cold in Johannesburg) never really surprised me. Over the last 6 months, however, she has also started taking a renewed interest in his nutrition. I think it was the incident of the pork chops in the campervan (confession here) that did it. Of course, Tessa need not worry about whether her youngest son is eating properly. Saul loves food, passionately and indiscriminately. He even has a universal, seen-across-continents “Yay, my food has arrived!” expression. It looks like this:
Nevertheless, two weeks after arriving back in Cape Town, it is probably about time that Saul’s mom (and Garth) start getting the long-awaited report-back on What We Ate On Our
Summer Winter Vacation. First up, Iceland!
Despite the exclamation mark, Iceland is probably one of the least exciting countries that I have visited from a food perspective. If you’ve been looking at all those photographs of black volcanic beaches below ridiculously moody skies, you’ve probably worked out that the environment is not optimal for varied agriculture. If you recall my sheep photographs, you’ll already know that the lamb is excellent. The usual tourist and airline magazines contain the usual rhetoric about the “exciting emerging gourmet scene” in Reykjavik and Akureyri where “innovative young chefs” are producing “‘world-class cuisine” with “the finest local ingredients” but it feels as if fine dining, of which we did a limited amount, is still a long way off the mark in Iceland. The plates are pretty enough, but the flavours do not quite live up to the looks, which is always a disappointing experience and doubly disappointing when you are paying at least R400 for a main course.
We declined to eat those supposedly “unmissable local delicacies” dished up mostly to tourists (every country seems to have them). In Iceland this comprises whale, puffin and fermented shark. There is fairly clear evidence that both puffin and shark numbers are in decline around Iceland and whale is controversial enough that once in a lifetime is probably sufficient (I ate it in Norway a few years ago – I thought it tasted quite similar to kudu).
Fine dining disappointments and local delicacies aside, outside Reykjavik and Akureyri, life in the campervan was good. Given the high cost of (often imported) fresh produce, we quickly made friends with Bonus, Iceland’s cheapest supermarket chain. Bonus is Iceland’s equivalent of Shoprite and I’d venture to say that their branding is even better than Shoprite’s at making it absolutely clear that they are a discount operation. I loved Bonus.
The campervan’s kitchen was not exactly spacious, but it is surprising how many dishes you can build around the essential basics of salt, black pepper, olive oil, fresh lemons and fresh garlic. Bonus-sourced supplies in hand, we had a lot of one-pot rice dishes (with vegetables), pastas (with vegetables) and stir-fries (with vegetables), interspersed with lamb chops (with vegetables), lamb steaks (with vegetables), lamb sausages (with vegetables) and, only very occasionally, those infamous pork chops (without vegetables). We also had fresh espresso every morning – even after Saul melted the handle of my espresso pot on the camp stove. Yes, it was a cheap espresso pot – an Old Mutual corporate gift, as I recall – but I did haul it all the way over there from Cape Town and there really was no need to melt it. Saul also threw away the dishwashing liquid, after which we had to use my shower gel to wash the dishes until we got to a town big enough to have a Bonus, but I guess that was an accident (he said it was).
Our top 3 food experiences in Iceland were completely stumbled-upon (and, I’m afraid, if you’re planning to travel there, unlikely to be repeatable).
Third place goes to a coffee shop called Simbahöllin in the small Westfjords town of Thingeyri. We stopped in Thingeyri to fill up with diesel and to wash the campervan. Yes, really. Saul never mentioned this in all his glamorous posts about being chatted up by Dutch girls who wanted to show him the northern lights, but the campervan would become covered in mud up to its roof on the Icelandic roads and we had to wash it every few days to avoid becoming equally muddy ourselves. Everyone in Iceland constantly needs to wash their cars, so facilities are readily available. The reward for our industrious labour was coffee, cake and the best Belgian waffles I’ve ever had (and yes, I’ve been to Belgium). Of course, in Iceland, waffles and pancakes generally come with rhubarb jam, which I admit is not very Belgian.
Second place also goes to a Westfjords location: Húsið in Ísafjörður. After going for a casual late afternoon drink here, I started to develop a serious case of envy for the daily special being ordered by locals all around me. We decided to stay for an early dinner and I promptly ordered “whatever they’re having”, which turned out to be salted cod. And was told that they had just sold the last one. I must have looked like I was going to burst into tears because after seeing my face the waitress said “one moment, I will go and speak to the chef”. I think one of the kitchen staff members was down-graded to lamb chops for their dinner that night and I received a huge hunk of fish with an unlikely grape and olive sauce that some of those “innovative young chefs” would do well to copy. It was hands-down the best cod I’ve ever eaten.
Number one spot for Iceland goes to another coffee shop, where we stopped in for a coffee and wi-fi pause and stumbled across the most authentic meal of the trip. Bókakaffi Hlöðum near Egilsstaðir is one of those coffee shops that has a poem on its window, vintage furniture, second-hand books and two not-so-little old Icelandic ladies (they looked like sisters and were definitely of Viking descent) running the place. After we drank two cups of coffee each and were starting to think about moving on, Saul and I were surprised by the previously quiet coffee shop suddenly filling up with hordes of people. Entire road construction crews, farmers and other salt-of-the-earth types were arriving and filling up every chair in the place. Turned out it was the once-a-month eat-all-you-like traditional buffet lunch. Crumbed lamb chops and traditional accompaniments, including boiled potatoes, peas, a kind of pickled cabbage that tasted like no other pickled cabbage I’ve ever had and rhubarb coulis (although I’m sure the maybe-sisters would turn up their noses at me calling their rhubarb jam a coulis). It was the diametric opposite of fine dining, and the kind of experience that any travelling foodie would kill for – the real deal. Exactly the same thing that Icelandic grandmothers still make for the extended family for lunch on a Sunday.
Of course, the quick highlights package above can’t quite cover 5 weeks of eating in a foreign country and there is much more that can be said about harðfiskur (the equivalent of bokkoms, but eaten with butter), plokkfiskur (a delicious fish-and-potato mishmash), smoked lamb and spelt pancakes, all of which we tracked down and tried. One could also get into the history of how Iceland became besotted with hot dogs and Coca-Cola and what makes Icelandic hot dogs the best hot dogs in the world (and that’s according to Bill Clinton, not me). Or why the Doritos in the blue packet are called “Cool American Flavour” in Iceland and a variety of other names (but with the identical stuff inside the packet) in other countries. But I am suddenly quite hungry. So I will leave you with a final few images to contemplate while I go in search of some lunch…