Iceland is noted for its cuisine for all the wrong reasons. Traditional dishes are poverty foods like putrefied shark meat, which is supposed to be eaten with a kind of Icelandic schnapps designed to numb the senses. Other dishes include sheep’s head jelly (brains on toast), sour ram’s testicles and rotted stingray. Don’t expect this to be coming to a high street near you, no matter how bad their economy gets, courtesy of newly exiled Icelandic chefs. It will never take off.
Icelanders don’t appear to eat much of this stuff themselves, traditional restaurants are a rarity. They are far more likely to be seen feasting on a bucket from KFC then crunching on a puffin’s beak. Almost everything in Iceland is imported and from the Second World War to the mid-1950s Iceland more of less went without fruit. Oranges were available only on prescription from doctors. They were occupied by the British during that conflict and, as well as arranging their independence in 1944 from Nazi occupied Denmark, we introduced them to fish and chips. They’ve not looked back.
Now Icelanders are reported to be stockpiling olive oil and pasta and bemoaning an impending shortage of caviar, brut champagne, Kobe beef and foie gras. Quite a shopping list for those looking to set up soup kitchens for the newly unemployed.
As that mention of foie gras reveals, Iceland still isn’t very veggie friendly, which makes Á næstu grösum, or First Vegetarian, such a find. It’s like someone’s taken the cafe at Manchester’s Buddhist Centre and replaced the smoothies with beer (i.e. a little bit of heaven).
For those unfamiliar with Mancunian Buddhists, that means a canteen style food offering that invites you to pick and mix lots of different things (we visited First Vegetarian thrice and it was different every time). Here the dining area is more restaurant that café, better suited to evening rather than lunchtime dining. But beware, they close at 10pm which is very early in Reykjavík where the action doesn’t start much before midnight.
There’s little point in me suggesting what you might pay in a Reykjavík restaurant today given the volatility of the market, but we paid about £20 for two here. This is much, much cheaper than anywhere else; Iceland is usually a little more expensive than home, but has no tipping culture which evens things out. This is a good thing; restaurateurs generally use tips as an excuse not to pay staff properly, which makes tipping an obligation elsewhere in the world and makes waiting staff’s earnings volatile. Long may Á næstu grösum prosper.