A trip to the little-visited Westfjords, whose remote fingers of land grasp the icy waters of the Denmark Strait towards Greenland, reveals a grassroots culinary movement that’s firing on all cylinders
By day, guests of this impossibly cosy guesthouse head into the valley on horseback or kayak, past black-sand beaches and lofty waterfalls trickling like threads of white silk down looming bluffs. By night, punters hunker down in this guesthouse’s restaurant to enjoy farm-to-fork dishes. I fell in love with thick slices of smoked trout with a mustard skyr (low-fat yoghurt); meltingly soft, locally reared lamb fillet with a wild mushroom sauce; and lobster soup with homemade bread… All are guaranteed to warm the cockles. I rounded off the evening with a few cold beers and a dunk in the natural hot pools – the temperature may have been hovering around freezing and I was dressed in just a bikini, but I was toasty as anything.
Swing by this timber-frame fixture beside the harbour – all wooden beams, twinkling fairy lights, steamed up windows and low lighting – and tuck into its faultless menu of fantastically fresh fish dishes. On arrival, the owner, with a red wine-stained smile, slammed down several bottles of water and wine and pointed me to the hot stove where casserole pots were brimming with tempting fish dishes. After devouring my second bowl of fish soup – thick with hunks of fillet, tomatoes and garlic – I stacked my plate with cod cheeks in sweet chilli, garlicky bouillabaisse, buttery langoustine with lemon, and monkfish in a rich mushroom sauce.
Hungry hipsters head here from morning till night — it serves the best coffee in town, according to locals, while wedges of sourdough bread with Parma ham, Parmesan and pesto are top-notch. The headquarters of Borea Adventures — hiking, skiing and kayaking tours — it’s a heartwarming spot to dose up on soups, sandwiches and sweet pastries while catching up on local gossip. I spent a couple of hours kayaking with Borea Tours, skirting Isafjordur’s coast in the shadow of towering mountains, their peaks submerged in thick cloud. My kayaking guide, Gunnlaugur was the type of outdoorsy bloke to glance at the sky as though clouds are signposts, and to smooth his beard, plucking out imaginary icicles. As we chatted, he explained with a grin: “You have to be odd to live here – we’re all eccentrics.”
Make a beeline for this cafe-bar at nightfall. The food ticks all the boxes (the lamb and soups, in particular), but it’s the late-night antics that aren’t to be missed, when the whole bar croons along to Icelandic bands and DJs. T: 00 354 456 5555.
Back in cosmopolitan Reykjavik, I went for a final meal at the upmarket Sjavargrillid (Seafood Grill), surrounded by plush boutiques, design-heavy interior stores and souvenir shops. Here, chef Gustav Axel Gunnlaugsson crafts spectacular dishes using locally sourced produce. I greedily opted for the tasting menu – grilled langoustine with lobster hollandaise, cured salmon with buttermilk, European shag (seabird) and an exceptional beef loin. Sophisticated, inventive, but down to earth and more than a little quirky – just like the island itself.
One to miss: according to wildlife charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, up to 40% of the meat from Icelandic minke whales is eaten by tourists. uk.whales.org
This has been adapted from my original piece published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)