Food production in Iceland has, historically, been shaped by the country’s harsh climate and rugged landscape. Now it is focused on quality, freshness and sustainability. A 2014 study concluded that the traditional Icelandic diet is the best in the world, being rich in fish and high-quality, grass-fed meat and dairy, produced on small, family-run farms in one of the cleanest environments on Earth. For centuries Icelanders relied on their innovation and creativity for producing, storing and preparing food. Now that same mentality is being used to create new dishes and delicacies.
Evidence of what the earliest Icelanders ate is scarce. Being mainly of Norse origin, they would have wanted to uphold their food traditions, attempting to grow grain and keep the same livestock as they had in Scandinavia. Soon, however, they were forced to adapt to a harsher and cooler climate. Gradually sheep came to outnumber cattle, pig-rearing ceased with the dwindling forests, and barley – the only grain that could be grown in Iceland – disappeared, leaving the islanders reliant on wheat imports.
While farming continued to be practised, the importance of fishing grew. For centuries, it has been the lifeline of the nation, producing both a vital part of the national diet and the country’s primary export. In the clean waters, warm and cool ocean currents meet to create ideal conditions for prolific fishing grounds. Rigorous standards are now in place to ensure healthy, sustainable fisheries for future generations. With its glacial rivers teeming with rainbow trout, Arctic char and Atlantic salmon, freshwater fish is also a major part of the Icelandic diet.
Livestock production focuses primarily on sheep, which graze freely outdoors in summer, sustained by the Icelandic moss, wild grass and berries that grow on the loose, volcanic soil, giving the lean meat its unique flavour. For centuries, the moss was a life-saver to humans too. With the absence of grain, this vitamin-rich wild lichen was added to bread, porridge and soup.
Cattle in Iceland are kept mainly for their milk. Historically, an absence of wood and other fuel for boiling seawater led to a lack of salt production which resulted in the development of soured butter and skyr, a kind of fresh, strained cheese unique to Iceland. Whey, a by-product of skyr-making, was used to quench the thirst and preserve food.
Crop growers in Iceland have responded to the challenging conditions by harnessing the geothermal energy available under the soil. This renewable resource – coupled with the enormous reserves of pure water – has opened up possibilities for food production that are still being explored. Much of Iceland’s agricultural produce, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries, is grown in state-of-the-art, geothermally-heated greenhouses. Wild plants, herbs and berries – including the bilberry and crowberry – are important too.
In the 21st century, when foreign influences have never been stronger on the Icelandic restaurant scene and produce from all over the globe is available in the supermarkets, Icelanders are taking a nostalgic look back at their food history and culture. Chefs have been keen to embrace New Nordic cuisine – a philosophy that makes the most of local, seasonal and traditional ingredients – and, in so doing, are creating new and exciting dishes and products. Meanwhile, farmers and food producers are opening their doors to visitors and food markets and festivals are becoming increasingly popular.
We have created an inaugural Iceland for Food Lovers tour for next August and will be offering more opportunities for foodie visits around the country next year.