Bilberries, AB mjolk, lifrarpylsa, harðfiskur: Icelandic fare may comprise the freshest, most distinctive cuisine you’ve ever tried to pronounce. But before we delve into what the youngest descendants of Vikings eat in “The Land of the Midnight Sun” (that’s in the summer; Iceland’s winters are nearly perpetual darkness), let’s set the culinary stage.
Perched on the periphery of the Arctic Circle way up north, this tiny Nordic island nation is encircled by the North Atlantic Ocean, which teems with seafood—e.g., cod, haddock, monkfish, herring, skate, lobster, and salmon. While fresh fruits and vegetables resisted cultivation for centuries (frigid temps, lack of light, it’s real tough to grow things in lava fields), these days there’s a veritable explosion of primo produce coming out of greenhouses powered by the country’s abundant renewable geothermal energy.
Those volcanic underpinnings also get the credit for the surreal landscapes which have vaulted Iceland to the top of the tourism charts: steaming milky-blue geothermal pools, gargantuan glacial waterfalls, and twisted pinnacles of rock and ice.
Amid this otherworldly terrain has even arisen a mythology—still believed in some quarters—that elves and other magical beings live here. If they do, it’s alongside the sheep and dairy cows which graze Iceland’s grassy flanks, supplying its tabletops with exceptionally tender lamb and an array of singular dairy products. (Iceland also has some insanely adorable furry horses, but people don’t eat those.)
“All kids in Iceland are raised up on Skyr, as it’s easy to give to them, easy to have around, fills you up, and is healthy.”
At breakfast time, kids often eat muesli with AB mjolk (a sour, yogurt-like beverage rich in digestion-aiding probiotics) or an oatmeal porridge topped with nýmjólk (regular milk) or súrmjólk (sour milk), brown sugar or maple syrup, butter, and/or a scattering of blueberry-like bilberries or crowberries. As is common across the sun-starved northern latitudes, many Icelandic kids get the added “pleasure” of a morning swig of vitamin D-rich cod liver oil.
A typical lunch might include fish, toast with cheese, rice pudding, or a traditional lamb liver sausage—a relative of Scottish haggis called lifrarpylsa. “My four-year-old daughter, Hekla (named for the ‘queen’ of Icelandic volcanos) loves that stuff,” says Jon Olafur Sigurbjornsson, owner of luxury tour company Private Travel Iceland. “When she was younger, I had to watch my fingers feeding it to her or she would have bit them off!”
For a snack, Icelandic tykes might nosh on omega-3 and protein–rich harðfiskur instead of, say, popcorn or potato chips. Hung outside to dry in the cold air and then pounded with a mallet until soft, it’s essentially fish jerky served with cold salted butter.
Dinner in Iceland’s two-season climate often features lamb (often slow-cooked or barbecued—and a key ingredient in their uber-popular hot dogs, sold everywhere), beef, and other meats during the summer, and seafood in the winter. “Our lambs run free, eating herbs, marinating themselves for us!” Sigurbjornsson says. Despite the availability of a few more exotic, headline-making seafood specialties (fermented shark, anyone?), most families stick with the basics, like fried or boiled cod with potatoes and salad. And chances are that the cod was still swimming early that morning.
For dessert—or breakfast, snack, or really any and all the time, people from age 0 to 100 (Icelanders have one of the highest life expectancies in the world) devour Skyr, a yogurt-like strained cheese made with skim milk that comes from the cattle Norse settlers brought to Iceland 1,000 years ago. Sky-high in protein and calcium but nearly fat-free, it has a light, whipped custard consistency.
“All kids in Iceland are raised up on Skyr, as it’s easy to give to them, easy to have around, fills you up, and is healthy,” Sigurbjornsson says. “It’s one of the first things you taste after mother’s milk.”
Cooking native dishes together is a great way to introduce your child to other cultures. Pop in some Icelandic tunes (Björk!) and chat about the location—Iceland’s Viking history, belief in elves, and volcanic geology are fun topics to start with. Afterward, check out some jaw-dropping photos of the country together, read books on the region, or, best of all, plan your own family’s journey to the center of the earth.
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