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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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.

 

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!