Aug 1, 2016


Can an entire country have a flavor? 

Or maybe a constellation of flavors, combined with colors, sounds and textures? 

For a week this past July, in celebration of my dad's 70th birthday, my husband and I drove around Iceland with my folks. We listened to ethereal Icelandic music while tasting 1,000 year-old ice and trying to remember the things we all learned in Geology 101. If you aren't familiar with Sigor Rós (an Icelandic artist) and/or if U.S. politics are making you crazy, I highly recommend the Sigor Rós Mystery Film Experiment (it's only 6 minutes). Accompanied by Sigor Rós' voice, Iceland feels a bit like you've landed on a different planet. 

A plant that perfectly captures Iceland's flavor profile is what's called "oyster plant" or Mertensia maritima, a plant from the borage family. Its succulent-like leaves have a slippery texture and a briny, mollusk-y flavor, hence its name. Plus the blue flowers are charming. We found a great swath of oyster plant on the shores of a fjord in East Iceland. 

Short of having you taste oyster plant, if I could send a flavored mist through the computer, it would smell like the ocean infused with parsley, arctic thyme and wet rocks. Plants from the parsley family (Apiaceae) dominate the wild edibles. Locals collect wild caraway and angelica, as well as sweet cicely - a plant whose seeds taste like candy. Thyme, while not an Apiaceae, grows everywhere; the herb makes its way into local sea salt blends and beer. 

Arctic thyme blooming alongside Equisetum arvense

While not a culinary aficionado's dream destination - there just aren't a great density of restaurants or even grocery stores - the country is fascinating in the sparseness of its ingredients. We ate simply, enjoying lamb and langoustine, tomato and cheese sandwiches, and delicate sea salt that dissolves instantly on your tongue like snowflakes. 

The feast is more for your eyes and your spirit - the big skies, the blue-gray glaciers, the tumbling waterfalls surrounded by wildflowers who know only that the all-night sun will quickly shift to winter darkness accented by the colorful curtains of Aurora Borealis. 

In some ways, the humble offerings of this volcanic island were a much needed break from my spice cupboard and insane to-do list. While some dedicated folks never travel anywhere without their favorite spices (or hot sauces!), I chose to come empty spice-handed. I enjoy discovering new flavors and foraging in the wild for familiar plants in unfamiliar contexts, trying to understand how such a small planet can contain so much beauty.


Brennivin Herbal Collins

Brennivin is Iceland's most iconic spirit, flavored with caraway seed. I made a version of this with Sweet cicily we picked on the side of the road in Iceland, but since it's harder to find here, I suggest parsley and thyme. Brennivin (which is similar to aquavit) can be found in many liquor stores - check out this listing for locations near you.

a few sprigs of parsley and thyme
1/4 oz lemon juice
1 teaspoon powdered sugar
2 shots Brennivin
ice (from a glacier if available)
soda water

Combine herbs, lemon juice, sugar, Brennivin and a big handful of ice in a cocktail shaker and shake for as long as you can stand it. Pour the contents into a collins glass and top with soda water.


For other Icelandic inspirations, check out:

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