Icelandic food adventures to savour

So today I’m transporting you back to fabulous Iceland to enjoy some of the special treats this unique country has to offer.

After an amazing morning exploring wide open spaces, waterfalls and geysers we were ready for some nourishment, and warmth too, that wind blowing down off the glacier is biting. And Fridheimar turned out to be the perfect place for both.

This magical (and enormous) greenhouse is set in the Icelandic countryside. It’s heated naturally by the waters from the underground geothermal springs and they grow four different varieties of tomatoes. It’s basically a massive tomato home – with tables set up in the warmth of the greenhouse where you can tuck into tasty tomato-based dishes.

On arrival we were greeted with tomato schnapps. Little tomatoes are hollowed out and filled with Icelandic Birch schnapps. What a wonderful idea, sip from your unusual receptacle and feel the warmth of the schnapps spread through your body. And when you’re finished (I had to go back for seconds the schnapps is so delicious), you have a juicy schnapps-flavoured tomato to enjoy. The best drink ever? Possibly.

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A tray of tomato glasses ready for pouring

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Here’s the warming local schnapps

The menu is kept really simple. First up home-made tomato soup which you help yourself to served with the freshest of fabulous bread which is sliced straight out of the oven. I loved the olive and cheese one. The soup is also served with sour cream, cucumber salsa (amazingly delicious) and there are pots of fresh basil on the table so you can add a few leaves for a herby boost.

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The wonderful fresh bread selection

Mains offer a choice of pasta or tortilla and there are 4 ‘Mary’ drinks – bloody, virgin, healthy and happy (two alcohol free), again all freshly made from the greenhouse tomatoes. Oh and even the jugs of water were served with cherry tomatoes added. Yummy.

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Happiness is the perfect bloody mary

Desserts included green tomato and apple pie, tomato ice cream and cheesecake with a jam of green tomatoes, cinnamon and lime. All beautifully served in little terracotta pots, they were certainly an unusual take on dessert, did love the tomato ice cream.

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The prettiest of tomato desserts

Fridheimar is open every day from noon to 16.00. As well as enjoying lunch among the tomato plants you can also shop for a range of tomato-based goodies. Find out more at www.fridheimar.is

Moving on from the lovely warmth of the tomato greenhouse we headed to Farm Efstidalur, a dairy farm in Laugardalur on the way to Gullfoss and Geyser (the waterfall and geyser you simply have to see).

Here you can watch the cows and calves through the window of the restaurant and feast on a range of dairy products. There’s plenty of ice cream on offer, I went for orange (first time I’ve sampled orange ice cream, so delicious, creamy and zesty. Plus their home-made cones are among the best I’ve had.

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The colourful selection of home-made ice cream on offer

We also got to taste the local cheese and the beautifully tart Icelandic Skyr which is kind of like a cross between yogurt and cheese.

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Skyr is another unique bit of Iceland

You can find out more at www.efstidalur.is

Just outside Reykjavik in the heart of the old Viking town of Hafnarfjordur is a family-owned business making artisan gourmet goods using Icelandic herbs – which pretty much grow wild everywhere.

Urta.Islandica offers an intriguing mix of salts, syrups, teas and jams and was founded by the charming artist Thora Thorisdottir in 2010. I came home with a mix of goodies to experiment with – they certainly help add another dimension to your cooking. My blueberry champagne cocktail using their blueberry syrup was loved all round (recipe coming soon). And look out for more recipes coming up using these unique (that word again!) ingredients.

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Add variety to your pantry with Icelandic syrups

You can find out more (and order online) at www.urtia.is

It’s so inspiring to travel around a country and experience the creative ways people have come up with for eating and cooking enjoyment. I loved tasting their wares and I’m certainly loving the bit of Iceland I now have in my kitchen.

While I was in Iceland I stayed at the fabulous Hotel Ranga. Find out more at www.hotelranga.is

Fabulous Icelandic cuisine at Hotel Ranga’s restaurant

On my recent trip to beautiful Iceland I was fortunate to stay in the fabulous Hotel Ranga (you can read more about that by clicking here). And even more fortunate to be treated to the genius cooking of their head chef Karl Johan Unnarsson.

The ingredients of Iceland are amazingly plentiful with ample lamb, fish and dairy. Salmon, trout and cod are particular favourites as well as at the tastiest of langoustines. And there’s also the more unusual with seabirds like puffin and other waterfowl and even shark (no, I didn’t go there!) plus dried seaweed and moss to add a uniquely Icelandic flavour.

Vegetable production is steadily growing with some vegetables started in greenhouses in the early spring and then grown outside. Tomatoes and cucumbers are produced entirely indoors. Crowberries and blueberries grow easily and you’ll find herbs growing wild, like thyme. And there are plenty of wild mushrooms on offer, too.

Karl is passionate about using local, seasonal ingredients and came up with two amazing tasting menus – one of four courses and the other of eight. Perfect for getting a really good feel for his take on the food of Iceland. And what a fabulous take it is, too, real food inspiration. Feast your eyes on a selection of the some of Karl’s creations.

An earthy, creamy wild mushroom soup is served with vivid drops of dill oil – an Icelandic store-cupboard essential.

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Beautifully silken mushroom soup

On the second night our first course (of eight) was this amazing tomato extravaganza. Tomato juice with slow-cooked mini tomatoes, onion, pepper and tomato sorbet. My love for tomatoes is well documented – a dish like this is always guaranteed to get my night off to a great start.

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Tomato heaven to get started with

A clever and pretty vegetable creation: slow cooked cauliflower with buttermilk sauce and pickled red onion.

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Cauliflower like you haven’t tasted before

I loved the salmon at Hotel Ranga. Well, it is one of Iceland’s key ingredients – we are in this island nation after all. This is lightly cured and blowtorched, served with trout roe and a smoked egg yolk. A dish that melts joyfully on the tongue.

Cured Salmon with trout roe and dill

And now for some beautifully flaky cod which was lightly salted and served with smoked haddock foam and mustard cress.

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Another great fish dish to savour

Seabirds are also a big part of Icelandic cuisine, here’s a dainty dish of beet and smoked puffin.

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Smoked puffin is local delicacy

The pan-fried langoustine came with onion puree, apples, celery and dill sauce (more of that delicious dill). The wonderfully sweet seafood went perfectly with the crunch of apple and celery.

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Plump and juice langoustine

Skyr is another great Icelandic product. It’s kind of like a cross between yogurt and cheese – it’s made using a cheese-making process which gives it a bit more of a savoury flavour, slightly more cheesy than yogurty. It’s widely used in desserts, like here, served with crumble and berries.

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I loved the tasty local skyr

And here’s Karl in the kitchen where he produces all his works of art. Because this is the gourmet food of an artist. A real joyful experience of tastiness and inventiveness. The food of Iceland rocks.

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Visit Hotel Ranga’s website to find out more.

Where to stay in Iceland: Hotel Ranga

Today we’re heading back to Iceland, the land of fire and ice, dramatic scenery and great food. It’s only really over the last 15 years that tourism has grown significantly in the country with most visitors coming from the US, UK and Germany. I reckon it’s going to get bigger and bigger, there’s so much to do and see and so much tasty fare to indulge in. Iceland should certainly be a destination on every travel wishlist.

But where should you stay? Hotel Ranga’s located about an hour’s drive from the capital, Reykjavik. Set just off the main road, it’s perfect for exploring everything South Iceland has to offer – and that’s a lot! So what’s good about it?

The beauty,  peace and views

Set on the River Ranga you’re surrounded by pretty much nothing…Well, there’s the famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano and some snow-capped mountains in the distance and lots and lots of wide open space. And all that fresh air. The sense of tranquillity is amazing and you’ll wake up to the melodious sound of birds and open your curtains to wide-open spaces stretching as far as the eye can see. This is a place to truly get away from it all.

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The charming log-built hotel overlooking the Ranga River

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Far reaching views from my room through the perfect latte

The rooms

There are 51 comfortable, plush rooms and suites to choose from. The suites are decorated for and named after the continents and are the ultimate in luxury. The bathrooms offer piping hot, high pressure showers and amazing spa baths, the perfect place to bask in after a day’s sightseeing. All the spacious rooms have large flat-screen TVs (with British channels…hooray), tea and coffee making facilities, a safe, packed mini bar and endless free Icelandic water – straight out of the tap.

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The stunning Antarctica suite

The warmth

Iceland is a cold country climatically (I guess the clue’s in the name) but you’ll discover plenty of warmth in many other ways. Nothing is too much trouble and there’s always the a smile and a story. Plus the hotel is properly  heated…they  have the natural resources to do it to the highest level after all. There are also three outdoor hot tubs heated with geothermal water. So there’s really no need to feel cold at all.

The food

First there’s the breakfast. How I love a good hotel breakfast, and it’s a real spread at Hotel Ranga with cold meat and cheese options and your usual array of hot stuff. I really loved the mini waffle irons with little jugs of batter waiting for you to cook your own. And then there were the jars of herring and sardines…when in Iceland tuck into the herring, it’s delicious.

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Heavenly herrings for breakfast

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The spacious restaurant looks out over the river

And then there’s dinner. Icelandic Chef Karl Johann Unnarsson is in charge at Hotel Ranga. He’s a young, passionate chef who produces the most amazing dishes (more about this in my next post). Like this fabulous cured salmon dish with trout roe and dill…and an amazingly tasty smoked egg yolk. Karl’s gourmet offerings make the hotel worth a visit just for the food.

Cured Salmon with trout roe and dill

Delicately cured salmon that melts in the mouth

The stars

So here’s a unique one. How many hotels can you think of that have their own resident astronomer who can tell you all about the myriad stars that light up the sky? There’s an observatory with a retractable roof and some of the most sophisticated telescopes for some serious star gazing. And then of course there’s the spectacular Northern Lights. I didn’t have the good fortune to experience this myself but here’s what the hotel looks like when this amazing natural phenomenon occurs, so magical.

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Hotel Ranga and the Northern Lights, simply stunning

The adventures

Iceland is certainly a country for adventure seekers and there’s plenty of thrills to be experienced from your base at the Hotel Ranga. Depending on the time of the year you can go dog sledding, hiking, exploring volcanoes, scuba diving, snowmobiling, glacier climbing, walking behind waterfalls or geyser spotting. In the summer you can even play golf – 24 hours a day if you like – there’s all that daylight. You can read about some of the adventures I experienced by clicking here.

Get pulled along at speed by these beautiful dogs

Get pulled along at speed by these beautiful dogs

Or climb aboard a Super Jeep and be driving through the amazing landscape – in all weathers.

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Your Super Jeep can get you pretty much anywhere in Iceland, no matter what the weather

Hotel Ranga is simply the perfect place for a wonderful Icelandic idyll. Put it on your list.

You can find out more about Hotel Ranga by clicking here.

 

My magical weekend in mystical Iceland

Iceland is an island set at the juncture of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It’s directly south of the Arctic Circle and east of Greenland. If that makes it sound like it’s miles from anywhere, it’s only a three-hour flight from London and five-and-a-half from New York, so quite convenient for city breaks, then.

It has a dramatic volcanic landscape of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers and black-sand beaches – basically a comprehensive geography lesson all in one country.

The island is 103,001 square kilometres in surface area and has a total population of around 328,000. To put that into some sort of perspective, England has a surface area of 130,395 square kilometres and a population of just over 53 million. So if you live in Iceland you’ll be sharing a square kilometre with just less than two other people – in England you’ll be living side by side with around another 419. I love maths.

All of these wonderful statistics show that a lot of Iceland is uninhabited, with around two-thirds of the population living in the capital. Reykjavik is the most northernmost capital in the world and runs totally on geothermal power – well, if you’ve got all those natural resources you really should put them to the best use.

It’s a picturesquely colourful city surrounded by mountains in the distance. And it’s obviously quite small, so you’re in for some wonderful wandering. There are few high rises, lots of boutique and souvenir shops and, even better, a wide choice of bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Apparently there are around 180 licensed bars in the city and I’ve heard it has a hectic night life (though I haven’t experienced it myself…yet).

It’s easy to find your way around, just don’t try to pronounce any of those streets names, Icelandic is a hard language to get your tongue around. Don’t worry though, everyone speaks perfect English.

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The view of Reykjavik taken from atop the Hallgrimskirja church

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The dramatic Hallgrimskirja towers over the city

It’s also a city of sculptures, there’s something to peruse around every corner. I particularly loved The Sun Voyager (Solfario), the amazing skeleton of a boat set on Reykjavik’s pond-still shore overlooking snow-capped mountains in the background.

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The spectacular Solfario sculpture

After a good meander around Reykjavik I headed to my home for the weekend Hotel Ranga (more of which in a later post), a few hours south of the airport. Just keep looking out the window and taking it all in, you’ll probably never see anything like it again – like the amazing lava meadows where moss grows on lava that’s spilled out of the volcanoes. Don’t search for trees though, there are no forests in Ireland – one local told me if you see two trees together, that’s an Icelandic forest!

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Lava meadows add rarely seen greens to Iceland

Breathtakingly beautifully stark landscape unfolds until you reach a charming log-built building set on the River Ranga. It overlooks the famous (infamous) Eyjafjnallajokull (try pronouncing that…the locals will wish you luck) which erupted in 2010. The resulting ash cloud brought European air space to a standstill for nearly a week. Iceland has more than 20 active volcanoes which sounds pretty scary to a Londoner like me, but it doesn’t seem to faze them – and of course with today’s modern technology, eruptions can be accurately predicted. Earthquakes are even more frequent but don’t worry you won’t even feel most of them.

From our lovely base at Hotel Ranga (an oasis of peace and warmth) where we delighted in the most amazing food (again more of that in a later post), we set off to explore the Golden Circle.

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The picturesque Hotel Ranga where we based our exploration from

The Golden Circle is a route of around 300km which takes you through some of the most spectacularly different scenery you’re ever going to see.

First stop the majestic Pingvellir National Park (Game of Thrones is filmed here). You can go scuba diving in the lakes of perfectly clear water which has come down from the mountains, taking 50 years to get there. Not without a wetsuit though, it’s always icily cold.

You can also take a lovely long walk through vast and overwhelming territory. Iceland’s the only place I’ve been (so far) where I felt so overawed by the amazing natural wonders. It’s dramatically, gaspingly beautiful. And there’s plenty of history and geography to amaze at too. Alpine, the Icelandic parliament was founded here (yes they held it outdoors) in 930AD. It’s said to be the first parliament ever.

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The setting for the first parliament in the world

Iceland is a land of fire and ice (as you’ve probably gathered) – it straddles two tectonic plates – the North American and Eurasian Plates. The two continental shelves are moving apart, slowly of course, and looking at the landscape you get a real feel of that power.

There’s also plenty of local legend to absorb on your journey. Icelanders really tell  a good story, be prepared to be scared by ghosts and entranced by elves. Some of the stories are pretty brutal. Women condemned as witches were put to death here in the Drowning Pond and people found guilty of crimes (which they sometimes hadn’t committed) were banished into the wilderness – and it’s proper wilderness.

Next stop is the awe-inspiring Gullfoss waterfall (it means Golden Falls). I can’t do it justice with words, hopefully my picture can do it for you. In April there was still a lot of snow on the higher slopes, the whole waterfall freezes over, I mean totally solid, in the winter. It’s obviously called Iceland for a reason. There are plenty of other waterfalls to explore, including some you can walk behind and you can also tour a volcano. Put me down for that!

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One of many views you can get of the spectacular Gullfoss

So far we’ve had tectonic plates, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, history and magical story telling to take in. Now it’s time to head for the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur with its geysers. The two main ones are called Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir is quiet these days but Strokkur erupts every five to 10 minutes.

On a decidedly chilly April day we stood by the bubbling pool waiting for action. The freezing wind down from the glacier (yes there are glaciers, too) bit through my five layers of clothes (including two hoods) as the minutes ticked by. And suddenly there it was with an almighty woosh. One of the most unexpectedly amazing sights I’ve ever seen, even if my iPhone died, temporarily of course – as did everyone else’s – too cold for iPhones there, then.

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Strokkur erupts in all its glory

Our journey through the wonders of the Golden Circle was even more fun as we did it in a Super jeep. The best way to travel in Iceland – and the only way in winter when the country is covered in snow and ice and doesn’t have much daylight. The contrast of the seasons mean that for two to three months of the year there’s pretty much continuous daylight while winter is dark and seriously cold.

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Clamber into a super jeep for your adventure

With such dramatic landscapes, unpredictable weather and a lot of darkness it’s not surprising that you’re told myriad ghost stories and start to believe them. And another mystical side of Iceland is that most Icelanders believe in elves. You’ll sometimes see little elf houses built into rocks. It’s a totally uplifting concept, I could do with some elves in my life.

This is a totally unique country. Even their horses are unique. They’re smaller and hardier than average and have five gaits unlike the typical three of other horses (walk, trot, canter/gallop), making them sure-footed over rough terrain. They live outdoors year round and have a double coat developed for insulation in cold temperatures. They need it! You’ll often spot them as you travel around.

Beautiful Icelandic horses with their stylish hair-dos

Beautiful Icelandic horses with their stylish hair-dos

Of course Iceland is famous for  viewing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). I was under the impression they only happened at certain times of the years but it seems it’s totally random. And in fact they happened the night before I got there, what a narrow miss and also the perfect excuse to go back!

Because Iceland is awesome. Totally awesome. For once I don’t feel like I’m over-using the word.

Read more about the fabulous food of this unique country by clicking here.

Find out more about Hotel Ranga by clicking here. And about my stay there by clicking here.