Fake Duck, and Pork Buns, and Thai Eggplants, oh my!

So, one of the things I continually say that I miss the most about living in the US is the food. Not all the high fructose corn syrup, no, but the general availability and variety of fresh vegetables and ingredients and the breadth of affordable and interesting cuisines. It’s not to say that interesting an unexpected foods can’t be found in Reykjavík. I keep seeing fresh turmeric at the Bónus, which blows my mind, for instance, and we just got our first Ramen shop—a coworker told me they had Udon noodles, which he had to Google because he’d never seen them before. But I’m not always sure of where to look for these things here, or when I find them, they can be rather decadent expenses (i.e. the Halloween pumpkin when we first arrived).

But I’m starting to discover that while food options might be limited here, they are not as limited as I thought.

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Dandelion Harvest

Or, the uppskera túnfífils, I believe.

One of the most easily recognizable signs of summer’s arrival here in Iceland (what equates to a cold spring for most of the rest of you) is the sudden profusion of dandelions everywhere. I always found these pleasant enough to look at (that is, when the little puff balls weren’t making me sneeze) but had never thought much about trying to do anything with them until this year, when a particularly enterprising friend of mine mentioned that you can make all sorts of things out of them—wine, in particular.

Well, dandelion wine sounded quite romantic, and I do like make-your-own sorts of projects. Also, I am up for any and all opportunities to forage around for edible things, particularly in Iceland (see: MUSSELLING!). So I set about doing some research on how to make dandelion wine, found a number of recipes/websites/videos/tutorials explaining the process, and decided to set out this weekend in search of some lovely soon-to-be-wine.

(Happily, I found a perfect white wicker basket with a handle a few weekends ago, so I got to hop around the fields and ocean-side paths swinging a basket along with me as I collected flowers. It was seriously picturesque.)

Well. I waited until midday when the dandelions visible from my doorway seemed to be opening and ripe for plucking (I had read that it is best to pick them when they are fully open) and then went out and picked myself a whole blooming (pun!) basket of flowers. My hands were basically mustard-colored by the time I got done.

Observe:

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(I can’t believe) I made butter…

After the relative success of our first “Uncommon Adventure” video, we set out on round two yesterday, this time on an adventure of a much different, much more old-timey tenor. We had been brainstorming a variety of ideas (some of which, like surfing, I opted out of) and spinning off of my desire to learn how to milk an animal, my filmmaker colleague Hallur decided that perhaps we should visit Árbæjarsafn, Reykjavík’s Open Air Museum, and get them to teach me some traditional húsfreyja, or housewife, skills.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither am I going to become a really bang-up domestic worker in an hour, so we kept it simple and decided we’d stick to two tasks: spinning yarn and churning butter. I’ll be writing about this in more detail later—and there will be a video, too, of course—so I won’t go into too much hilarious detail about this except to say, spoiler-alert: this stuff ain’t easy. Spinning yarn is like the original multi-tasking nightmare: you have to pulse your foot on a peddle at a steady and somewhat unnatural rhythm, while gently twisting the carded wool into a thread which you feed into the spindle with your hands. It was very quickly determined that as a potential housewife, I had better have other skills on offer, because my yarn technique wasn’t going to nab me any husbands any time soon.

So, áfram með smjörið! (“Onwards with the butter!” LITERALLY, guys.)

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It’s Bun Day!

A delicious, delicious cream bun. (Photo by Anne Cathrine Nyberg via Wikimedia Commons)

A delicious, delicious cream bun. (Photo by Anne Cathrine Nyberg via Wikimedia Commons)

As you may remember from last year, Bolludagur, or Bun Day, kicks off a holiday spree here in Iceland just before Lent. It revolves entirely around one vital mission: to acquire and stuff yourself with as many cream buns as possible.

This is obviously totally pressing, breaking news, so I’ve written it up for the Grapevine (here).

But more importantly, we have upped the ante this year and yesterday—because, internet, we are heroes—we made our very own vatnsdeigsbollur (they weren’t hard at all, actually) using this recipe, with additional reference to this one, which even has a video. They came out amazingly, due in no small part to the fact that Mark decided it would be a good idea to make lemon cream for the filling. So: lemon cream buns with mixed berry jam and melted chocolate topping. I think we won. For-ev-er.

After which, we consumed the buns, a process which I can confirm was a lot like this (just sub in “cream bun!” for “cook-ie!”)

Now, I will post pictures to make you all very, very hungry. (I promise, I did some of the work. It just wasn’t documented.)

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Bolla, bolla, bolla!

Irreverent Icelandic Lessons

Or, Icelandic the fun way.

Icelandic language studies at the university may be characterized by a good deal of national pride in Icelanders’ great literary heritage, the nation’s veritable slew of firsts and per-capita records, it’s unique nature and uniquely bonkers weather patterns, but there is also a fair amount of irreverence mixed in, a willingness to poke fun at certain aspects of Icelandic life or the (stereotypical) Icelandic character, as well as slightly more scandalous (depending on your leanings) mix of study materials and subjects. This has been particularly, delightfully, evident to me in the last month or so.

As many of you might know, the pagan festival of Þorri begins at the end of January and lasts for a month. Þorri feasts, or Þorrablót, have been very popular in Iceland for several decades (the tradition sort of died out and then was revived by an industrious restaurant owner in the late 50s) and, due to the let’s say…exotic…nature of much of the food, have been the subject of a number of televised, gross-out food adventure programs, such as  Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (he goes to a Þorrablót during his extremely irritating Iceland episode).

Þorramatur, via Wikimedia Commons. The jellied slice with white orbs is, you guessed it, the rams testicles, and the hákarl is in the dish. The sheep’s head is called svið.

I had heard a lot about Þorrablót and þorramatur (Þorri food), but didn’t have the opportunity to go to a celebration last year. This year, however, I got to go to one held by Reykjavík’s Ásatrú association—you know, “on assignment.” A sample of the experience, from my article (full text here):

Filling my plate, I ended up with a veritable rainbow of sausages and pressed meats: pink, red, brown, grey, and a queasy marbled white. Not wanting to look greedy—and honestly, a little unsure that I would make it through the full plate—I skipped the svið the first time out. By accident, I also missed the slices of pressed ram’s testicles. (Full disclosure: I did end up trying the former—it’s…chewy—but skipped the latter. No regrets there.)

Back at the table, my dinner companion gustily carved into her sheep head and explained to me the best method of eating ear cartilage. I took her word for it and tried to show my sympathy when she discovered that her svið was, in fact, missing its most delicious eye. We swapped various unidentified meats. Feeling appropriately decadent, I made a return circuit of the buffet, filling up again on some of my familiar favourites—smoked lamb, salted lamb, and a dark red sausage of a jerky-like consistency. If the woman on my right had not caught me mid-bite and summarily informed me, while daintily cutting up her headcheese, that she did not eat horse “on principal,” I’d have never known the difference.

Well, it just so happened that as I was writing this article, we were also reading about Þorri in one of my classes (I quoted one of my class readings in the piece, actually). It’s one thing to read about þorramatur, however, and a whole ‘nother thing to eat it. So for those of us who had not yet had the opportunity to attend a Þorrablót, our teachers decided to bring the partý to us. So instead of a coffee break, we had a þorra-break, with big tupperware containers of hrútspungar (pressed rams’ testicles) and hákarl (that fermented shark that you’ve heard so much about) for us to sample (much to the dismay of our olfactorily-sensitive vegetarian). “Sure, but did you bring any brennevín?” one of my classmates laughed. “Oh yes,” said my teacher very seriously, placing a full bottle of the “black death” on a desk and asking the student sitting there to start pouring shots.

Which is certainly one way to get students to participate a little more freely. Fun discovery, though: I suddenly didn’t hate brennevín. I’ve had it before and it made me want to die, but third time ’round, standing in class, munching on rotten shark? Yeah, it was pretty good.

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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.)

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A Size Small, or a Small Sip?

Here’s a useful little tidbit I picked up from a friend the other day when we went to see a movie at Bíó Paradís: When you’re ordering a small size of something, say, a small drink, you should use the word “litill” instead of the word “smár.” They both mean small, or little, but apparently, if you use “smár,” it sounds to the person you are talking to as though you want just a little sip of a drink, or one single piece of popcorn, instead of a small sized, but nevertheless full, cup or bag.

You see, when I had walked up the counter, I couldn’t remember how to decline “litill” correctly on the fly. (I also wasn’t sure of the word for popcorn, so I asked for a “small bag.” For reference, popcorn is “popp.”) But I could remember how to decline “smár.” The guy gave me a bit of a funny look, but I plowed ahead, and did end up with what I was trying to order. So win there. But it makes more sense now.

This puts me in mind of a fun little phrase you can use when asking for a top up on your cup of coffee, for instance. When you want just a smidgen more, not a full cup, you can ask for “bara tíu dropar,” or just ten drops of coffee.

Oh, and allow me to take this opportunity to recommend the new Icelandic film we went to see: “Málmhaus,” or Metalhead, which is circulating at festivals and will likely get a strong international release. It’s by no means a super happy movie, and there are some very dark elements to it, but it was periodically very funny, beautifully shot, and extremely well acted. There’s a preview with English subtitles now:

Books and Bacon

Chelsea and Darren were lovely guests this weekend and we did a lot of fun, albeit mostly low-key, things. These included sweater-hunting in thrift stores (per Mark and my’s usual, perhaps embarrassing, tradition, we took other people shopping and found something for ourselves—in this case, a delightfully ugly-but-awesome sweater with a mama polar bear and a baby polar bear which had been marked way down because apparently, no one else gets what Awesome is…), wandering around the Kolaportið, getting late night hot dogs, looking at the organ in Hallgrímskirka (I really need to go back and hear it being played finally), cooking a nice fish dinner, and watching movies. There are very few people with whom a first-weekend-back-in-town would go over well, particularly given that Mark and I had to spend a fair amount of time on Sunday doing work. But Chelsea and Darren are the Chill Visit All-Stars and I very much hope that they will come back for a longer visit in the future. We had a great time, you guys!

But on to the B&B… On our “town day” on Saturday, we all stopped by Little Free Library Reykjavík, since I hadn’t actually seen it since I arrived. This was extremely satisfying! Not only was the library still there and in good shape (no graffiti or vandalism to speak of, knock wood, and it appears to still be watertight after the rainy summer…knock wood x2), but it still had books in it. Books which I didn’t recognize and definitely did not put in there or collect myself. Which is really heartening–it looks like people are really using it! At this point, I am unconvinced that anyone has brought the books back after reading them, but baby steps. I am  glad that it is getting off to a strong start.

After visiting the library and adding a few more books to the box we had lunch (a waitress mistook my Icelandic accent for Faroese which was certainly a first and somehow heartening), and then…drum roll…went to the Bacon Festival!

Darren in particular was a very good sport about Bacon Fest, for which I thank him here on the Interweb. Chelsea and Mark chose not to partake, both for very good reasons (too full/legitimately a little grossed out by the grease-drowned bacon/not a bacon-eater), but it would have been, well, super sad for me to be eating free bacon all by myself.

Bacon Fest, for the uninitiated, is basically just an excuse to close down a major street for uber-specific gluttony. There was country band playing Icelandic covers of American honky tonk (“Stand by Your Man” is perfect bacon music, bt-dubs), an abundance of bouncy-castles for kids (like, three or four at least), and about seven stands and tents where bacon and sausage were being given out by the Ali Bacon company. Someone was even handing out flyers for a Bacon After Party, which was hilarious, but might have been pushing it.

I didn’t realize it when we arrived, but it would have technically been possible to start at the church and wend our way down toward the city center, eating bacon every few feet. I can’t say that I regret not doing this, because, you know, I want to live to see my golden years, but somehow, I was pleased with the option—and the fact that having so many stands spread out the crowd a little.

It’s Baaacon!

My heart is bursting with joy. I made it through my first week of school and new job, I have two lovely friends flying into Reykjavík for a couple days tonight (on their way to Amsterdam–I’m only a teeny bit jealous), and Iceland has now bestowed me with an ideal opportunity to post the video for a commercial which, I’m only kinda-sorta ashamed to say, is very near and dear to my heart.

Right, Larissa. That is a totally awesome and hi-larious commercial. But what does it have to do with Iceland?

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