Colours of Seltún

There are no skyscraper plumes of steam here, the kind that burst from cloudy blue pools lined with cameras waiting for the moment to squeal in delight. Geysir, I’m talking about you. I saw you many times before I saw you in the flesh, as it were.  I saw you on screen, on Facebook and on Instagram. Even when I waited by that roiling water I saw you being seen through many lenses. As if the enjoyment of you was something to delay the gratification of, to wrap up and take home.

Seltún is quieter, both in terms of brash geothermal activity and number of visitors. It seethes and bubbles and unlike Geysir, it never gives the grand release of vast energy all in one go. But like Elliðadalur (an account of which will be coming soon!), the smaller, more intimate scale here allows for a different experience. Less of a wow than a slow burn.

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We peer in to miniature puddles of oozing grey-blue, the colour of storm clouds, but here in a red desert. The surface tremors. It’s energy is potential, not latent. It’s a tease.

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Shifting the gaze to the wider landscape the colours sit next to each other like scraped back layers of a fresco. Though their colour comes from the minerals within; not imposed on a blank space. The red emanates and ochre is shockingly yellow.

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The boardwalk leads through the steaming streams and cautions you not to step off it – perhaps a sedate section is bearable but segues signlessly into scalding water. There’s no way of knowing. IMG_20170617_140613464

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The absence of shooting plumes invites the study of smaller movements. Water rocking back and forth sending slops up the gravelly sides of it’s little pool. Quivering surface as if tickled by a strong wind. Curls of steam marking the breeze. The boundaries between colours, each intensifying the other, vibrating red and the milky blue of some crystal.

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A world in miniature. What greenery scrapes a living nearby is also a tapestry for close inspection.

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And even the concrete reinforcements bleed with ore.

By now I hope you are itching to go to Seltún. Travellers will be pleased to know it’s just around 50 minutes drive from Reykjavík on a particularly scenic route along the lower slope of some hills and passing a wide and beautiful lake, Kleifarvatn. I give these details halfheartedly because I don’t really think this blog is a very practical source of information, and this post in particular is more of an encouragement for close looking and a love letter to landscape . But on the off-chance you stumble across it and want to make the trip; take Road 41 through Kópavogur, Garðabær and Hafnarfjöður then turn onto road 42. Put it in google maps, it has you covered. For extra credit you could extend your drive around the Reykjanes peninsula afterwards.

Curiously, I am writing this on a day when the first snow of winter blankets the ground and casts everything white. It’s falling right now. What a perfect day to remember colours.

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In between places: a journey to Lindisfarne

Before I leave Iceland, I am entrusted with a very important message for the Holy Islanders, pressed on me by my landlady. Tell them we are VERY sorry, yes, so sorry! 

Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, is a small, low slip of land barely 8 miles across off the north-east coast of England. A sacred place – an evangelical base -a monastery was founded there in the early 600s and churches proliferate to this day. It is the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, those intricately illuminated pages that leap from the dark ages and cast doubt on their era’s name. Lindisfarne was ransacked by the Vikings in 793, which Wikipedia helpfully tells me defines the very start of the Viking era: and Magnea tells me they are very sorry about it. 

I arrived on Holy Island on Sunday evening after a very indirect journey from Reykjavik starting at 4am on Saturday morning. I flew to via Gatwick airport, got the train to West Croydon (where the spirits of England’s Christian past mistake me for a raider and try to deter me with a biblical deluge just as I get off the train and hunt for the car containing my friends). We drove to Norfolk for the most magical party held by my dear accomplice Phoebe’s family in their garden of Eden in the countryside. It was a whirlwind of people very dear to me and it was extremely special to be there, a pilgrimage of sorts, to celebrate the Beatles and love and family and friends. 

My pilgrimage continued the next day, with a hangover that became a brewing cold, the kind I always get when I work without much rest for weeks and then stop and relax. End of term-itis. I got a lift to the station, took a train to Peterborough then changed to a train heading to Edinburgh. I hopped off at Berwick-upon-Tweed, hazy and sleep deprived, lulled by the old familiar English landscape. My parents were there to meet me with the dog, who was bemused but quite pleased to see me. We drove in the gloaming to the sea and then seemingly over it, down a narrow causeway that opens and closes with the tide. Dunes rose in the darkness. I was excited to see the landscape the next morning. We arrived at a little terraced cottage, home for the week, and I slept with night as dark as it should be for the first time in months.

What follows are mostly notes I made on the plane home, fresh in my mind. 

Lindisfarne is in between, sometimes open, sometimes closed to visitors, coastal, on the edge. Liminal. Rhythms of tide dictate life. Seals wailing at sunset. Crowds flooding in then out via the causeway. The island quietens when the tide is up, sighs, relaxes. It takes a deep breath and bustles with visitors when the tide reveals the road. 

Wildflowers everywhere forming natural patterns, varying heights of vetch, clover, meadowgrass making a tapestry, moving in the wind. Strength in diversity. But not a complete natural paradise especially if you are a furry little dog: the pirri-pirri burr, an invasive species (or very successful plant), clinging to poor Daphne’s fur on our dune walk. Luckily there were swathes of soothing seaweed to roll in.

Slowing down, switching off social media, finding a presence and simplification in dealing with here and now. 

Birds flitting everywhere, lining stone walls already draped in lichen and studded with ferns, living, breathing, wing-beating stone.

We ate mackerel at the Ship Inn, smoked kipper cakes at Craster. Full flavours linked to place. Heather honey ice cream in the car in the rain. Dark chocolate ginger slice for breakfast on the last day. Cheese and ice cream from Doddington’s Dairy in their little milk bar off the road. Coffee at Pilgrim’s coffee house where unbelievably the tell tale now familiar smell of roasting coffee emanates from a yurt in their garden.

We ate also home cooked plant based delights, masala and millet, pasta puttanesca, lentil curry. 

We were on the island in the first place because my mum was volunteering on an archaeological dig in search of the original monastery, decided to make a holiday of it and invited me to join them. Dad, the dog and I walked the dunes while Mum was scraping down the trench, finds-washing white quartz pebbles, grave offerings from very long ago. 

Back on the mainland, back even further in time, far further, we traced the curves of carved cup and ring marks, softly gouged labyrinths scattering a huge, possibly erratic boulder. Was it a map? Neolithic way-finding. There is wonder that sites like these exist without fanfare, obscured by bracken off a non-descript road. Mysteries yet to be found by the hordes. 

Sniffling and morose at the airport on my return I wondered: Can I learn to swallow the sadness of leaving? To go through the tunnel, as the theory goes, feeling all the feelings until I reach the light again. The lump in my throat and the tears pricking my eyes are evidence of how good the time I had was, which is reason to be grateful.

Grateful for the time spent with family and friends, in quiet and in party time, for the time spent in nature, for the time spent reading and learning and imagining. Grateful for the one waiting for me at home in Iceland. Perhaps to focus on these means I will keep moving through the sadness without denying it’s there. Shifting attention to what I want to feel and remember. So I think back and list more:

Upturned boat hulls becoming roofs, ropes curling through daisies, buoys and lobster pots and crates and a wetsuit down to the hoots folded limply, with care. Castle bristling with scaffolding, feather light needles of it extending far beyond the stony nucleus. A walled garden full of blooms in the middle of grass, sweet peas tied in strongly against the sea breeze.

How the tide crept out so suddenly leaving loops of seaweed marking the shallows. 

Scanning for seal heads dotting up and down and settling in sandbanks to coo at the setting sun.

The paths around the Heugh and the view from the top. 

Beautiful in between land. So many good memories. Thanks Mum and Dad! 

What makes a place home?

Last Monday morning Johann went to work and I began my first week in Reykjavik. It was quiet in the house, and I faced five days on my own. Free time. I recognise my privilege, knowing that so many of my friends are perpetually busy and working, that five days in a new city with no agenda is a dream.

And yet, it felt like an uphill journey from where I sat. Because when I unpick ‘no agenda’ it turns out there is quite a pressing one: make this place home. Make friends. Find a job that will fulfill me, or at least not make me completely miserable, for a year. While on the surface, I could wake up and do exactly what I feel – stay in bed longer, have a coffee and read some blogs, whatever – it turned out this big agenda, this rather imposing to do list kept intruding. And me without a road map of how to achieve any of it.

For once my overactive mind had some positive effect, because the fear of failing dragged me out of the door in sheer desperation to be doing something proactive that might lead to success. This push led to some heartening encounters.

So it was that I came to Hlutverkasetur. Our landlady told me about a place that anyone could go to and do activities for free, from drawing to singing to knitting to just being there.  Their website describes their intended service users as ‘individuals that have lost important roles for various reasons’, and it is intended that they ‘gain or find valuable roles again by staying active’. I think this is a beautifully inclusive way to describe the need and the solution. The majority of users have a history of mental health problems, others may be unemployed. Our landlady stressed that this was not exclusive, that anyone would be welcomed.

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Art room at Hlutverkasetur

So, I turned up on Wednesday morning hoping to join a yoga class. After assuring the ladies at the door that I wasn’t looking for the language lessons downstairs and I had actually intended to be at Hlutverkasetur, I was welcomed in and shown round. Our Instagram followers have had a digested version of what happened next – sorry to repeat myself! The yoga teacher, who hadn’t had any participants for a few days, hadn’t come in that day. I was asked if I knew anything about yoga. I admitted with trepidation that I did know a little bit. Problem solved, they said, if Anna’s not in, you’re the yoga teacher!

This was not what I had in mind when I convinced myself to get out of the house and go and try a yoga class. I was feeling nervous, alone and worrying about not understanding Icelandic – not finding the building on time – any number of vague misgivings. The last thing I expected to do was waltz in to an unknown place with unknown people and teach yoga. And thankfully, this prospect did not come to pass. I was saved by the rather dubious alternative: I could instead join the sea swimming outing.

Just to be clear, this is Iceland in April. Spring is something I experience vicariously through the Instagram accounts of people in other places. On the day in question, snow partially covered the sand on Nauthólsvík. The water was estimated to be a balmy 2 degrees. I had seen sea swimming on the activity timetable beforehand and thought, no way. But, in the moment, with the kind staff offering to drive past my flat on the way to pick up my swimming stuff, and promising that I could just stay in the hot tub if I wanted, I decided to go with the flow. Sea swimming it was.

It was quite glorious. A long soak in the hot pot which, contrary to the usual small circular ones in swimming pools, was a long, narrow trough at the top of the beach. Lined with hardy sun and sea worshipers, with unlikely tans from their every day swims all year round. A hubbub of Icelandic language which I listened to intently at first, but couldn’t hold the threads for long and drifted off into my own world, watching sea and sky. There were five of us from Hlutverkasetur, some more intrepid than others when we heaved ourselves out of the warm comfort and made a break for the sea. There’s a small, protected area of water at Nauthólsvík, geothermally heated in summer but sadly not in winter when most needed. I broke my cool and ran down the beach, arms flailing, squealing into the water. Shockingly cold, I waded as deep as my knees, whole body working to deal with the signal my lower legs were sending to the brain, roughly: ‘get out get out get out’. But it was exhilarating. I lasted less than a minute before speeding up to the hot pot once more, and steeping with relief in the heat. Then the steambath, scalding hot, one seasoned sea swimmer spraying lavender essential oil so the steam lost its sweat smell and became an aromatic cloud.

Afterwards, walking to the car, my companions asked ‘do you feel good?’, and it’s true, I did feel extremely good. Alive; brave. I tried to remember the feeling the rest of the week when my desire to stay in my little bubble was strong. The reward for leaving it is bigger.

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Jói in our room, after some dweeb did all the washing when there was no space on the drying line.

With that spirit, I applied for jobs. I will not jinx it by talking about it, but I have an interview this afternoon for one I would really like. I went back to Hlutverkasetur and did some drawing in the craft room. I roamed my new neighbourhood, walking for hours, delighting in finding botanical gardens so close. I went to draw my local farmers market and talk to the staff, rather than research something online and write from the comfort of my room. That in particular had great results, for I wrote that I’d like to visit geothermally heated greenhouses, and then next day had a lovely message from a person with a homestead growing tomatoes and keeping chickens and bees outside Reykjavik, and an invitation to visit this summer.

I will try to remember that old adage that you only regret what you don’t try. In particular, I try to keep in mind that whenever I reach out, through drawing out in the world, I make connections that are wonderful. It’s always happened that way. I find that people are happy to talk about what they love: that drawing opens a dialogue. After a week I feel like I’ve found my road map, and what I need to do is simple. Get out. Try things. Approach people and places earnestly. It takes effort and is not without worry, but connections are made, small ones, slowly, and that web is what makes a place a home.

PS. I’d love to hear from any readers, whether you’re a nomad or you’ve lived in the same place for decades – what makes where you live into your ‘home’?

PPS. If you’re reading this in the hope of practical, Iceland visiting information, fear not! Here it is, better late than never…right?

Nauthólsvík is open in winter the following hours:
Mondays 11:00 to 14:00 and 17:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Wednesdays 11:00 to 14:00 and 17:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Fridays 11:00 to 14:00
Saturdays 11:00 to 16:00
In the summer it’s open every day from 10:00 to 19:00 GMT.
Summer time is from May 15 to August 15.

In winter it costs 600 kronur I believe, in summer it’s free. The beach itself is always free and open for a walk, the opening times apply to the changing rooms, showers and hot pot.

Hlutverkasetur is at Borgatuni 1, above the language school, entrance by the sea side. The weekly timetable is posted on their facebook page.

 

Foodie Fridays – Frú Lauga, shop of dreams

We have the good fortune of living round the corner from Frú Lauga. It is described as a farmers’ market, which intrigued me as I’ve never heard the term used for a permanent shop before. But it seems to be the best word for it, or at least the most concise, otherwise you’d be calling this petite place ‘grocer – deli – bakery – butcher’, and you’d come expecting a supermarket sized affair.

It is the kind of shop that, despite it’s size, you could lose an hour in, pacing the three aisles and outer shelves, inspecting all the pots, jars, boxes, and bottles. My attention goes first to the fruit and vegetables piled in their cardboard boxes. I love snooping in grocers away from my home and seeing the difference in produce. Here there is lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, even sweet peppers from Iceland. The sweet peppers are red and small and along with the toms and cucs will have been grown in a greenhouse heated geothermally. Oh how I wish to go and visit one of them! In fact, I could gleefully visit each and every producer of the food in Frú Lauga, to observe, explore and draw. I might have to make some enquiries.

There are yellow tulips just opening, nestled in a bucket between pots of mint and basil-purple, green and greek it looked like! – and the crates of carrots. Purple-tinged fat bulbs of garlic. Compact hands of ginger from Peru that make your average piece look like it’s on steroids. Handwritten cardboard labels standing everywhere. It’s no surprise that the prices are more expensive here than in my usual supermarket. I don’t begrudge them that. You pay to know where your food has come from, to know in some cases that it hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, that it has supported local people with jobs, and kept local crafts and traditions alive. I am so happy that these shops exist, I only wish more people could access their offerings. But I am fairly sure the small enterprise shopkeeper can’t shoulder the burden of lowering their prices to meet the behemoth supermarkets. Whose shoulders, then, does the responsibility of increasing access to quality food fall on? I have no answers but this question is on my mind a lot.

I’d feel confident saying that generally, the kind of high quality produce on offer at Frú Lauga costs more to produce than mass market fare. There is less economy of scale, the ingredients are higher quality,  the staff must be more skilled -and most definitely higher paid if it’s made in Iceland! – to produce it. I feel a bit embarrassed to admit this, in this post about the world’s dreamiest deli, but as an illustration, I bought honey yesterday in Bonus for 298 kr (£2.15). It’s labelled ‘a blend of EU and non-EU honey’. My mind boggles at that indication of the scale of production. In contrast, I remembered tasting a honey made in Iceland at the Harpa food fair a few weeks ago. It was creamy, strong and delicious, and Johann pointed out that it reminded him of the honey we ate in Shropshire over winter staying at Pam’s Pools, a wonderful permaculture site. Fierce tastes, particular to place. There were only a few jars left of a small yield, the maker (whose name I woefully forget) said. Winters are long in Iceland and the summers not so hot, affecting the hives. It is a challenging place to keep bees, but also a rewarding one, because of diverse wild flora and lack of disease. The bees that made my Bonus honey were more than likely plied with copious antibiotics. You can read a bit more about beekeeping in Iceland here, but I’ve digressed. I could talk about bees a lot but that will be another day. What I mean to say is; food has a real cost, and I respect the small makers needing to support themselves. At this stage in our travels -for which read, trying to save as much money as possible so that we can travel and learn for a significant time without working – we have to be content with looking and perhaps  treating ourselves occasionally.

Stacks and stacks of jams, chutneys, sauces, preserves of all kinds line the shelves around the edges of the shop. I notice several brands I tasted at the Harpa food fair, so if you’re visiting and it’s not on, here is great place to come to explore artisan, local food. Sadly you can’t taste everything! There’s also a surprising range of foods from around Europe, that look like the best version of each thing. Italian flour in beautiful bags. Sicilian olive oil in a metal urn, I guess you can fill your own bottle, wonderful. Even if you aren’t that bothered about your food, you could merrily spend time admiring the packaging designs from all over. There’s bread, a large fridge of meat and fish, dairy products…the list goes on.

The shop is still owned by the same owners as before, but since one month ago is now being run by some friendly new people, who were happy to let me draw and have a chat. Thanks, Guðny! Frú Lauga is really close to the Laugardalur pool, so if you’re on holiday in Reykjavik and going for a swim and steam, you should pop in after and buy some treats for your friends and family and yourself. For remote admirers of nice food shops, you can have a taste of their vibe at the website frulaugu.is, and for regular updates with sweet pictures of produce follow them on facebook.

PS. I’ve just noticed it looks like there’s a cow through the window in my drawing. It is, in fact, a vinyl illustration looking out onto a car park.

 

 

 

First month of living in Iceland

I have reached a small milestone today, four weeks exactly since I boarded the plane swallowing my nerves. I would like to hold a small review, more so I can look back and see how my perceptions change over the year than for anything these.

I have moved from a mildly northern European country to a very northern European country, and as such the culture is not vastly different. It’s not a big deal. I tell myself this in attempts to shake myself out of wallowing in embarrassment when I get something ‘wrong’. Not knowing I have to take a ticket with a number at the post office, so cutting the queue inadvertently (cheap to revert to national stereotypes, but surely this is every British person’s nightmare). Focusing so hard on trying to decipher a question in Icelandic that I miss the fact that I’m being spoken to in English. Getting into the hottest hot tub at the swimming pool by mistake and slowly boiling for a noble two minutes rather than losing face in an instant retreat. These are small things.

Over time, you get used to how things work around you, wherever you are. Thinking is not necessary. A visit to the post office is a chore, not an experiment. I am far from attaining this stage here, and everything takes up space in my brain. It’s a very interesting state to be in, most of the time fascinating, but sometimes tiring. I go between these states.

I have felt so alive when walking along the cliffs in Keflavik, poring over porous rocks, studying how the plants of last season straggle on as skeletons. Sitting in bubbling, warm water with snow falling on my face. Tasting smoked lamb in the Harpa centre. Eating skyr and berries for pink princess breakfast. Going on evening walks with Johann and seeing the pale green wisps of Northern Lights dance briefly over the sea. Swimming outdoors, in wind, rain and sun.

On the other hand.

firstmonthtopI have felt fatigue when sitting for hours scrolling ‘housing to rent’ facebook groups in a tongue I barely know, keeping a lookout for the few words I know to signal that it’s worth running the whole thing through Google Translate. The same experience, looking for jobs. Sometimes the uncertainty that makes things so exciting becomes too much and bursts its shell, becoming fear. I worry endlessly that we won’t find either of the above, but we have. Well, we have a place to live, and I just mangled my first job application, so it is a work in progress.

Yesterday I was feeling a bit anxious, waking up in our new place, not having met anyone else who lived there, feeling hungry, Johann at work. I got up the courage and set off for the shops. I walked a mile from our new home to Bonus, the cheapest supermarket. The way there required some effort, hood pulled close to my face against the cold, wet, windy weather, checking Google maps repeatedly to find the way, even though it was mostly main roads. Trying not to let too much rain get into the phone. I found it okay and enjoyed pushing my trolley round the supermarket putting in all the basics we wanted for the store cupboard. Choosing a trolley, not a basket, is a rookie mistake when you’re carrying the stuff home yourself. No surprise, my eyes were bigger than my muscles, and the journey back was a small farce. Walking into the wind, a rucksack full of tins and bulk quantities of things, two bags for life threatening to split with the weight of the shopping. Rain becoming sleet and I suspect hail. Soaked to the skin, though still warm in my coat; in fact, extremely warm. Too warm! Glasses showing not much through them, falling down my wet nose. Walking down the main road half fearing, half praying that a car would stop and offer me a lift, thinking – at what age does ‘don’t get into cars with strangers’ expire? Is it ever? This conundrum occupied my brain so much I failed to stick to the inner edge of the pavement and was a few times splashed with gritty water as cars passed. But at least I wasn’t forced to make a moral judgment on whether I should get in any of them.

This experience, though it wouldn’t kill me, is on paper vaguely miserable. But for some reason – perhaps the norse gods shone above the hail – at the time, it was okay. Funny, even. Infinitely better to be battling the elements on a busy road with my shopping perilously close to falling through the bottom of the bag, than to be curled up in my bedroom, worrying about what happens next. And it felt kind of like a small victory, and a sign that everything will be fine.

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I shivered my key into the lock on our front door, shuffling in and shrugging off my sodden coat into a puddle on the floor, greeted by the raucous sounds of bingo. Our landlady had a friend and their grandchildren over, and she was instantly friendly and welcoming. We chatted over some white wine, in English and some attempts at the odd Icelandic phrase from me, she handed over the kitchen to us as she doesn’t cook (hooray! a kitchen!). When Johann got home from work it was quickly discovered that she is friends with one of his uncles, producing a model boat he made from tin. This kind of thing happens all the time. So often, there are reminders of how small Iceland’s population is (roughly the same size as that of Croydon). We made afghan eggs – I think I’m going to write a whole post about afghan eggs, but suffice to say it’s a warming, comforting food perfect for sharing with new friends in new places.

So, in conclusion, though I’m just living in another affluent Western country, and as such the culture shock is minimal, there’s so many little different things to take in every day that I feel like an explorer still. And there’s the knowing that we’re here for a relatively long time, after moving around a lot the past 7 months, that tinges everything with a weight. The desire to make connections, to work out how to be happy here, to learn. It’s exciting, daunting, interesting, and it’s fine. After moving around France, Wales, England; caravans, parents’ places, farms, friends: we have a place to settle for a while. I hope I can keep the spirit of exploring with me over the next few months.

Foodie Fridays – the goat, the whole goat, and nothing but the goat

Today is the first in what I hope will be an interesting series on local food. While we’re in Iceland, we will be looking at Icelandic food and drink, from traditional, artisan, niche tastes to contemporary food culture. When we set off on the next chapter of our travels across Europe, it will be nice for the focus to shift to wherever we are that week.

We’re starting with the humble goat. Háafell Goat Farm had a stand at the food market we went to a couple of weeks ago in Harpa, and wrote about in this post. We wander up to their stand, beady eyes looking for bits to taste, and are introduced to their stock, which starts with boiled goat and gets progressively more interesting. I feign interest in the boiled goat because my English sensibilities forbid me from ever being honest and saying: hmm, i don’t really fancy that. It was ok, surprisingly tender. Next up, goat salami. Full of flavour, now I’m intrigued.  Beyond the meats are two types of cheese made from goats’ milk, one is feta swimming in oil, herbs and tomatoes. There is even ice cream, vanilla and chocolate, made from goats’ milk too, with none of the harshness I expect. There are lotions and hand creams made from tallow. Many yields from one source.

It feels to me that there is a respect for the animal when all parts are used, not just the most profitable cuts extracted and the rest dumped. It seems far from factory farming. I was surprised to read on the Grapevine that most meat produced in Iceland is produced under factory conditions. My surprise is, I think, due to two things. First, my rosy tinted new-country glasses, through which everything is wonderful. Second, Johann’s stories. His memories of sheep farming and horse-training tell of rugged animals, tough enough to survive the winter in the mountain. Of sheep that lamb without help. I think I will have to quiz him further on the matter. I guess things have changed.

But in other ways, they haven’t. Iceland has just one breed of each farm animal, directly descended from those the Vikings brought over on ships at the time of Settlement. One cow, smaller than usual, with much lower production of milk than British cows. One sheep; and of course one horse, the iconic, petite but strong Icelandic horse. The Icelandic goat is an endangered breed, the smallest in Europe. It’s very rare outside of Iceland, and pretty rare in Iceland too: it’s the only farm animal sponsored by the government to ensure its survival ($36 a goat as of 2014). When we were wwoofing in West Sussex, we walked past a neighbour’s smallholding. What are they? asks Johann, looking at the scattered animals grazing. Goats, obviously, I laugh. They are the most enormous goats I’ve ever seen! he says. To me, they just looked like your average goat. I hope I get a chance to go and visit Háafell sometime, to see what he means.

You can visit Háafell Goat Farm year round by agreement; though it’s main opening hours are in the tourist season, June 1st – August 31st, 1pm to 6pm. They say that most of their products are seasonal, handmade in small amounts and with no guarantee they’re always in stock. Háafell Goat Farm (Geitfjársetur Íslands, Háafelli) is north-east of Reykjavik: Háafell, 311 Borgarbyggð. You can follow their facebook page (in Icelandic, but cute pictures of goats that transcend language barriers). Website is geitur.is . There’s also a great, more-in detail, history of the goat farm here, which tells the story of their near collapse, and being saved by a crowdfunding campaign and a little help from Game of Thrones.

There we go, short and sweet like the goats themselves, our first Foodie Friday. I’d love to hear about any food tips for Iceland that I should investigate. What have you eaten here that’s special, or different to anywhere else? I’m thinking both traditional delicacies, and food you can get elsewhere that has its own particular customs here: ice cream, I’m looking at you.

 

drawing the coast

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I like to walk down to the small boat harbour here in Keflavik. It reminds me of family holidays in Cornwall, Wales, Scotland. Always visiting harbours though we never had an interest in sailing. Perhaps walking round a harbour is the land lubber’s way of sailing vicariously, peering through dark portholes, craning necks up to flags whipping in the wind and turning the names of boats on your tongue.

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It’s a small harbour for small boats; a whale-watching hut stands nearby, with few signs of life this time of year. It’s a quiet place and when the wind drops I have enjoyed going to draw there. One side runs into the town, and the other becomes a small cliff marking the coastline for a long while. There’s a hotel going up just above it, which will produce a small swarm of tourists, I imagine, on sunny summer days. They will outnumber the boats.

There’s a tide line on the rock piles guarding the harbour, below which the rocks are covered with beautifully draped seaweed. I find this hard to draw.

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East of the harbour, along the coast are car washes, warehouses, offices. Behind them I found this little rocky outcrop to perch on and draw. It was so incredibly windy that day.img_20170328_152703.jpg

In the other direction, a path runs along the cliff edge, a safe distance away should there be gusts. But yesterday there were none, and I could sit down in comfort to study the rocks and creeping plants that clung to them.

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Over the sea is the city, and a string of mountains on a clear day. There are birds to learn the name of. There is peace to find.

first steps in food cultures

img_20170319_134252578.jpgThere have been many little moments where Johann and I realise our food backgrounds are quite different. We’d be in a supermarket buying potatoes and I’m looking for the variety best suited to what we’re making: a waxy small one, perhaps a Charlotte, for a mediterranean vegetable roast, new potatoes for boiling with lamb, maybe a Maris Piper for roasting with a chicken and getting that crackled, flaking, rich skin. I look for a second opinion and get a blank look. In Iceland there are two kinds of potatoes, he says. Red  ones, and white ones.

Then we move to the fruit aisle and I’m scanning for cooking apples. I’m after Bramleys, but I will settle for Granny Smiths. I want acid bright ones so big they barely fit in my palm. These okay? Another look. In Iceland, there are two kinds of apple, he says. Red ones, and green ones.

These episodes gave me a feeling of trepidation about moving to Iceland. I have been into growing food for two years now. I like to sit down with a seed catalogue and read about different varieties of crops, their needs, tastes and characteristics. And although I eat meat, I am used to cooking meals where vegetables are the largest component.

Thankfully things have changed in Iceland since Johann grew up here. My first trip to Bonus, a budget supermarket here, revealed that you can now choose Pink Ladies, or Cox, or Braeburn, or Jazz apples. Red, green and in-between. So there’s variety, but where’s it all come from?

I am by no means an expert in knowing what is best to eat, for people, and planet. I’m at the beginning of the ladder, with a lot to learn. But in the UK, I felt like I knew where to start. I would be conscious of food miles and try to buy British produce where there was an easy choice to. I thought of what was in season and generally avoided the most outlandish of purchases – asparagus in October, for example. Strawberries in December. I tried to eat less meat and more vegetables.

But how do I eat best in Iceland? It’s an island. It’s rather north, rather cold, and rather dark most of the year. I guess a lot of food is flown in. Is it better to eat local meat here than air-freighted vegetables and grains? That feels like an academic question because meat is very expensive, and we are on a budget, so I expect we could only afford frozen, flown in, low welfare meat, too. Are apples now in the same guilt category as bananas were, when I was in the UK? And of course there’s the big question of whether it is ethical eating meat and dairy at all, which I haven’t resolved for myself. I have so much research to do, and I hope to learn a lot over the next few months. I want to make educated choices. Any recommendations for books/blogs/sites, send them this way.

img_20170319_141803028.jpgSunday before last, I was lucky enough to catch Iceland’s biggest ‘artisanal food fayre’, as it so quaintly calls itself. It was held at Harpa, that glittering honeycomb on the waterfront in Reykjavik. I was curious as to what products we’d find there, and suspected there wouldn’t be so many vegetables and fruit as I’d find in a farmer’s market in the UK. I was excited to be able to taste some high quality Icelandic food, because there’s no way we can afford to go to any fancy restaurants while we’re here, so I had thought I might not have the opportunity to taste anything beyond what’s cheap in the supermarkets. It was absolutely brilliant and we spent a couple of hours wandering around tasting everything we could.

As I thought, there was an emphasis on secondary products, rather than raw produce. There was a lot of cured meat. Hangikjot (smoked lamb) and smoked veal. Sausages made from horse meat, goat salami. Smoked mackerel. There were jars of preserves galore, from the few fruits Iceland grows – blueberry, crowberry, rhubarb with angelica, all to be tasted on crackers from rye and herbs. Fruit as juice, jam, chutney. There was coffee and chocolate, ingredients obviously not produced here, but items highly prized by Icelanders.There was seaweed, different varieties, baked to a crisp, or dried out. There was a mustard stall that was fantastic.

img_20170319_135953661.jpgThrough all ran the sharp, strong flavours of fermentation, and preservation: salt, smoke, sweet. Present even in such tiny titbits put out for tasting, spiked on the end of a cocktail stick. Though it was by far the smartest food fair I’ve ever been to – minimalist black shelving, exquisitely simple but cool branding at every stall, being in a blooming world class concert hall, it was not style over substance, but amazing tastes being honoured with thoughtful presentation. I left thinking about how the land shapes the taste – the French concept of ‘terroir’ as the combination of soil, weather, local culture that gives rise to a certain delicacy that would be different anywhere else.

Historically, there were a number of constraints to Iceland’s food culture. Super cool awesome food writer Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir calls it ‘ a cuisine of wants’ for almost a thousand years. A want of grain – after the ‘Little Ice Age’ in the 14th century no grain would grow in Iceland, and imports were few in the middle ages. A want of fresh produce – along with grain, very little fruit and vegetables could grow here. Dark, cold, windy land. A want even of salt, because the climate is too cold and wet for it to evaporate naturally from the sea, and the lack of firewood meant it was prohibitively expensive to boil seawater to get salt. Yes – there were so few trees in Iceland, that most cooking used dried sheep manure as a fuel. Ovens were not present until the 20th century. Lastly, there was a want of cooking vessels and utensils, as there are no metals naturally found in Iceland, and no clay suitable for pottery. She gleefully recounts: ‘In AD 1345, the bishop of Skálholt found it necessary to issue a ban on using baptismal fonts and bowls for non-sacramental use, presumably meaning to cook soups and stews.’.

Things changed in the 20th century, with influence from Denmark, greater imports and heating and electricity. But I have been musing that those wants, embedded in traditional cuisine, are still discernible in the tastes of today. I am so excited to be taking my first steps in learning about the food culture of my new home and feel I’ve barely touched the surface. For those who are interested (and you probably wouldn’t have got to the end of this lengthy diatribe if you weren’t, right?), I urge you to visit Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir’s blog where you can read a really interesting summary of her food history of Iceland.

It looks like the market I went to is sadly only on once a year! But I’m going to write about some of the makers in more detail in later posts, maybe a series. If you’ve been to Iceland, or you are from Iceland, and have a tip for a place I should know about, please let me know! The link to comment is at the top of each post. Thanks for reading my foodie rambles!

 

first impressions

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The drive to Reykjavik is different every time: though it’s mostly one long road, and on a clear day you can see your destination across the water even before you’ve left. We are staying in Keflavik , where Johann is from, where the airport is, a sprawling village in the Reykjanes peninsula. There is exploring to do here, but I have also been going in to the city quite a bit, meeting new friends and family, accompanying them on errands and doing some wandering by myself, which means a 45 minute drive (or 80 minute bus).

The day after we arrived, we got in the car and drove to the city. The road runs along the coast through the lava fields. A vast expanse of pockmarked rock, fairly flat, but when the late evening sun falls across the tiny hummocks of pale grass and small undulations it seems a mountainscape in miniature. That first drive, the plains were covered in snow, just a week after Reykjavik experienced more snow in one night than ever before. We pulled off the road onto a small roundabout where the road becomes a track and heads for the hills.

img_20170308_161028396.jpgI crouched down on the black rock, pressed my hands into the crunchy snow when I thought no one was looking. You could look for hours at this tiny world of moss and stone, snow shrinking from their forms, grass waving in the wind. That is, if it wasn’t so cold.

Every time we drive the land is different. When the snow has faded almost everywhere else, it lingers on in the far mountains to the right, making them bright. In the foreground there are a few pockets of it in the shadow of rocks, and these glow blue when all around is brown. One morning we are dazzled by sun shining straight at us, shades down, sunglasses on, but by evening the sky has come down close and it’s sleeting.

Flurries on and off this past fortnight speckle the ground now and again. The skeletons of low bushes show themselves, and I’m told if I’m here in autumn we can come and pick crowberries. Moss replaces snow as the oozing substance icing the rock. More colours appear: the pale, straw-coloured longer grass, the grey-green of the moss. All is golden brown in the sunset.

There is more space between everything here. Houses stand alone in aprons of goose-nibbled grass, they seem part of the landscape, not so much castles shutting it out. Fences are often low, gardens visible from the street. Echoes of Dungeness, in the UK: anchors and stone for garden ornament, if anything, with no boundary between house, land, sea. Maybe high fences blow down. It is extremely windy here. Maybe, probably, the Icelandic weather prevents the mollycoddling of an outdoor space, in the way we British tend to tend our gardens. The seafront has been extended so the waves no longer crash up to the buildings but rush to a halt out of sight. Even the mountains on the city-bound road are set back behind the wide lava fields, flattened into a paper cut out with no way to gauge scale. It struck me this morning that my memories of mountains are always of being amidst them, in the Scottish highlands, or the Swiss alps, and it feels strange and unfamiliar to view them at a remove. I expect there are answers to be found in the geology of this volcanic land, but I confess I am short of attention span for researching the science and prefer to look and wonder, content in not knowing how and why the landscape is, and enjoying only that it ‘is’. Drawing the shapes without knowing their past.

My first two weeks in Iceland are characterised by how I am taken up by small things. The difference in the everyday. The things I notice on walks – that scaffolding is made of wood! Yes, it’s more long-lasting. The ice cream shop is a drive through! Yes, ice cream is very popular here. These rocks look airy, and full of holes! Yes, they are made from lava. Always patient answers and explanations from my trusty local Johann. When we walk around the town I notice the subtle difference of things one takes for granted. The grass, pale ochre tinged, close cropped and having survived 20 hours of darkness a day over winter. Despite my pencil case full of greens for colouring garden designs, I can’t get anywhere near recording it faithfully. The walls of buildings being corrugated metal, an unfamiliar texture. In the harbour the wind pulls groans from the platforms the boats are moored to, a sound that won’t be caught in any holiday photograph but is so irrepressibly now and of this place. img_20170309_121035.jpg

I listen through swathes of language for the few words I recognise, hold them close, repeat them often. I get joy in being able to describe what I see, clumsily, with many mistakes, in Icelandic and now in long-form English on this blog.

I have been glad to stay in Keflavik and dip my toes in the city. It’s given me the opportunity to observe and savour the small, everyday new things, at a slow pace, unobscured by attractions on a checklist. I know we’ll be here for a good while so I have no rush to chain-visit waterfalls. Grand sights can be familiar through others’ photographs, guidebooks and film, and I sometimes find it hard to connect. Big Ben leaves me cold, the Eiffel Tower wasn’t as spectacular as the waffle we ate nearby. But when I kneel down on the stony verge of the lava field to survey snow, moss, stone and grass in miniature, the feeling of wonder bubbles up inside me and I see what is in front of me for the first time.

Welcome

Welcome to being and seeing. This blog will be a place to share travel tales, food stories, and the record of a journey trying to live in a way that’s good for ourselves, for other people and for the planet. There will be words, drawings, photographs. I hope there will also be recipes, discussions, and maybe even advice and how to’s, learnt from mistakes I’m sure we’ll make along the way. I would like to develop an honest and thoughtful space here, that documents exploring and sometimes falling, but always carrying on.

For those who don’t know us already, I’m Hannah, I’m 26, I’m an artist/gardener/wanderer from the outskirts of London and as of March 2017 I live in Iceland with my boyfriend Johann. You can read a bit more about us and our plan in the ‘about’ section, but here’s a taster.

We start in Iceland. On April 1st, we move to Reykjavik. Over the next six months, we will work and save whilst I explore and get to know this elven land for the first time. After that, we hope to buy a van and convert it to a home so we can travel across Europe. We want to volunteer and learn at different farms in the hope that we can, one day soon, set up our own place. So while the content of this blog over the next few months will lean heavily on topics such as cold, mountains, cold, pastries, and the cold, hopefully it should grow to encompass nerdy van build and tech, food growing techniques in different places, and travel adventures.

Thanks for reading. Follow along if you’d like, and please share your thoughts and any questions in the comments below. Do leave links to your blog to if you have one, I’d like to read!