The Great Vanilja Mystery

It’s the little things that really surprise me living in Iceland. The things that I take for granted as being the same anywhere, and then come to find are really just not. These are often the things, I might add, which Icelanders take for granted, too.

Take, for instance, The Mystery of the Missing Vanilla Extract. Last year, when I unexpectedly took to baking, I found myself, naturally enough, needing a lot of vanilla extract. (Seriously, vanilla is the sauteed onion of baking: it is nigh on impossible to find a baking recipe without it.) I had sent my spice collection to us in Iceland but hadn’t thought to send extract because they would totally have that there, right? Well, yes. Kind of. When you go to the grocery store and check the baking aisle, you will invariably find several kinds of extracts: lemon, almond, and rum are pretty standard, and then depending on the time of year and how well stocked your store is, there will also be cardamom extract and peppermint extract etc. What you won’t ever find on the shelf is vanilla extract. Vials of vanilla beans, definitely. But no vanilla extract.

Back at home, vanilla beans are particularly pricey compared to extract—I actually got a vial of nice vanilla beans for Christmas one year—and so I found the ubiquitousness of the vanilla bean in Iceland to be pretty strange. Also, why wasn’t there any vanilla extract when they had all these other types? I asked the ladies in my saumaklubbur (sewing club), and they assured me that there was, in fact, vanilla extract in Iceland, but sometimes, it was placed in weird parts of the grocery store. So I started checking spice aisles and around the candy, but still—never any vanilla extract. I checked online how to make your own and discovered that it requires a fair amount of vodka to make. Vodka costs a pinky finger here, so that was right out. And yeah, I had other things to be thinking about besides vanilla extract, so I just gave up and started using vanilla bean.

(You totally didn’t expect me to go on this long about vanilla extract, did you? Now you know.)

And then! This year, just days ago, after I’d had my mother send me a super-sized, Price Club bottle of vanilla extract, the mystery was solved. Vanilla extract is certainly available at pretty much any grocery store in Iceland, my friend told me while we were shopping for Christmas treat ingredients: they just keep it under the counter at the cash register.


Yeah, she said. Because of the bums.

The bums?

Yeah. It’s got alcohol in it, so if they kept it on the shelves, homeless alcoholics could just come in and buy/steal all the vanilla extract and have a pretty gleeful afternoon.

So, okay, guys. The “weird places” that they keep the extract in the grocery store? Under the cash register. Why? Because of the bums.

Even being familiar with Iceland’s strict alcohol control, in a million years, this would have never occurred to me. I didn’t try to purchase vanilla from the lady at the cash register at the time of this epic discovery, because, thanks to mom, I now am basically swimming in it. But now I don’t feel quite as compelled to ration it out so carefully. Mystery solved!

5 thoughts on “The Great Vanilja Mystery

  1. I worked in a grocery store for 2 years and the most frequent question I received was about the wherabouts of the vanilla extract. Icelanders were asking this and I was rather surprised because it has been the custom to keep it by the counter for years, along with other frequently stolen items (such as condoms). We even put up a sign in the baking aisle, but the questions kept coming.

    • I’m kind of relieved to hear that Icelanders are somewhat confused about this, too, Margrét. It does make sense, of course, to keep the frequently stolen items behind the counter—condoms are often sold at the register in the states as well, but I’ve never seen a sign about this in a store. That would have been helpful!

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