Foodies' paradise

Whale sashimi. A treat for the tastebuds. PHOTOS: ROY SINCLAIR
Whale sashimi. A treat for the tastebuds. PHOTOS: ROY SINCLAIR
Iceland has many things in common with New Zealand, which is amazing, considering in many aspects Iceland is New Zealand’s opposite, finds Roy Sinclair.

When I visited the mid-Atlantic island in September last year the time difference was exactly 12 hours. Iceland's population stood at 350,000. This compared with 388,000 in Christchurch. Iceland's land area is 103,000sq km. Iceland is therefore similar in size to the North Island. Circumnavigating Iceland is an 1100km road trip.

Iceland is popular for its spectacular natural features - volcanoes, waterfalls and even active geysers (geysir is the Icelandic word).

I ask myself: why go to the other side of the world to see the "same as?" Well, I do enjoy spectacular natural landscapes and I'm not really a city person.

So Iceland was definitely my cup of tea as a travel destination. Mention of a cup of tea reminds of the first question asked of unusual holiday destinations.

"What was the food like?"

Seafood and lobster pizza at Laki Cafe. It went well with a pint.
Seafood and lobster pizza at Laki Cafe. It went well with a pint.
Iceland is an unsung foodies' paradise. It is the unusual, bizarre even, that frequently makes it interesting. I refused to eat puffin bird dishes offered at Reykjavik's downtown Geysir restaurant but I did agree to a whale sashimi entree. It was my Japanese companion's choice. Haruko is an employee in a sushi shop in Christchurch. Hence her curiosity. Sashimi is typically expertly cut raw fish. In this case, the whale meat was lightly grilled. It was garnished with the usual sashimi trimmings of wasabi, ginger and soy sauce. I admit it was very good or as my companion said, "Roy-san, oishi desu."

As elsewhere where whales are hunted, whaling in Iceland is controversial. Whale is not part of the Icelandic diet. Tourists, arguably unfairly, cop the blame from the International Whaling Commission for Iceland continuing to hunt minke whales. Tourist demand for whale is, however, declining.

Viking beer, great to drink but it drains the pocket.
Viking beer, great to drink but it drains the pocket.
We spent a couple of excellent days in Grundarfjorour (pop. 850), a delightful fishing village on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The village was founded in 1786 by the Danish king. It soon became popular with French fishermen (1800-60), who profited from the excellent harbour. The French arrivals established their fishing operation and built a church and hospital. When they eventually departed, the French dismantled their buildings and even exhumed their dead, taking their remains back to France.

We discovered a lobster and seafood pizza to die for in Laki cafe near the fishing port. Curiously, the woman proprietor chatting to other staff near our table did not appear to converse in Icelandic. She also sensed something different about me.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Christchurch, New Zealand," I replied.

"Me too," she said, smiling. "I lived in Riccarton. When travelling in Europe I met an Iceland guy and have been in Grundarfjorour for 30 years."

Our well-appointed International Hostelling apartments were overlooked by one of Iceland's most photographed mountains. Kirkjufell (Church Mountain). Merely 463m high and rising from the fiord it is certainly distinctive. Kirkjufell identifies Grundarfjorour village. It is so named owing to its steeple appearance, a sharpened top and curved sides. But, depending on the angle viewed, it is also called a witch's hat or scoop of ice cream.

Close by we dined at Bjargarsteinn House of Food Mathas restaurant in a quaint, old building on the waterfront. It is claimed as one of the best dining experiences in Iceland. The century-old very Scandinavian building was relocated 70km to its present location. The restaurant opened in 2005. We experienced excellent service in a cosy environment with a magnificent view of Mt Kirkjufell and the beautiful fiord of Grundarfjorour. The restaurant is a family-run business led by professional chef Gunnar Gardarson. The menu changes according to the season and the chef's choice. My companion chose fish of the day, while I went for a lamb dish, lamb being essential to the customary Icelandic diet. Wine was either French or Italian.

Entree of smoked lamb, dried cod and fermented shark. The yellow cubes are the shark. The serving...
Entree of smoked lamb, dried cod and fermented shark. The yellow cubes are the shark. The serving plate is a flat beach stone.
The standout was the entree, an interesting assembly of smoked lamb, dried cod and small cubes appearing like cheese. It definitely was not cheese. It was fermented shark, a traditional Iceland dish. It is Greenland or other sleeper shark that has been hung out to dry for some months. Its ammonia aroma gives rise to the unfortunate myth it has been buried and urinated on.

Fermented shark is an acquired taste, more likely to be savoured by devotees of strong cheese. While challenging my tastebuds, my eyes were attracted to the magnificent mountain framed by the window. The sun was setting and red streaks flowed above Kirkjufell. We have wonderful mountains in New Zealand, but I had never seen anything quite like this. Grabbing my camera I excused myself in the hope of the perfect image.

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