Iceland is many things to many people - a large, scarcely populated Island, the country that 'stole all our money' and the home of geysers, gigantic glaciers, and the Blue Lagoon. It's also quite the foodie destination, as I discovered two weeks ago.
Now I realise that "Iceland" and "foodie destination" aren't two things you would automatically think of putting together, but I was astounded by the vibrancy and sophistication of the country's food scene, during my recent 2 day excursion.
For this revelation I must thank Easy Jet , who have just started flying to the tiny capital, Reykjavik from London Luton three times a week (Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.) To mark this new venture, a group of journalists were invited on a whistle stop tour of Iceland's best sights, including of course some time in Reykjavik and an hour at the famous Blue Lagoon.
And so off we went - other journalists, Easy Jet's CEO Carolyn McCall, the PR team and me. The first surprise of our trip, other than the fact that I managed to climb out of bed at 5am on Sunday morning to catch our flight, was catching a glimpse of McCall casually collecting rubbish down the Easy Jet aisle.
Now, that's something you don't see every day.
My second marvel, after being impressed with Iceland's dramatic landscape and its most famous spouting geyser, Strokkur, was lunch. I didn't have high hopes for a country that offers such delicacies as whale, fermented shark and puffed-up puffin, but our chef incorporated such traditional foods into several dishes that were as impressive as you'd find in any Michelin starred restaurant, yet totally Icelandic.
The country's chefs are wonderfully pragmatic and our host at the Lindin Bistro in the small lake town of Laugarvatn prided himself on only using local produce and freshly grown vegetables from his greenhouses. We ate a veritable feast of Atlantic smoked Char, preceded by Puffin and Reindeer pate followed by the best chocolate mousse I have ever tasted in my life. Not to mention that ubiquitous Icelandic underground baked bread.
During lunch I dared to suggest to head chef Halldórsson that while his restaurant was sublime, Iceland could never compete with the historical importance of French and Italian cuisine and so forth. Not so was his retort, for Halldórsson is keen to emphasise that Icelandic cuisine has a long history, dating back to the traditions of their Scandinavian ancestors, who settled Iceland in the 9th century.
For the uninitiated, Iceland's most famous dishes are Cod, naturally, Salmon and Trout, Skyr (virtually fat-free yoghurt that comes in a variety of flavours) hangikjot (smoked lamb) rugbrauo (a sweet rye bread) and bollur, which is sweet pastry dessert, not unlike profiteroles.
Dinner that evening was a similarly impressive affair; highlights included some of the sweetest and most tender lamb cutlets I have eaten in my life. The venue was pretty spectacular too; Viðey House was built in the 17th century for Treasurer Skúli Magnússon, the first building constructed of stone in Iceland, no less.
Anyway, back to the lamb. Icelandic grass fed Lamb is as close to being 'completely organic' as can be. Left to roam in large volcanic grasslands, no human inputs are allowed, least of all drugs or growth hormones. This is undoubtedly why it tasted so damn good.
The following morning allowed me some time to properly assess Reykjavik and stroll around its pleasant, yet eerily quiet streets for an hour. Home to about 200,000 of the country's 300,000 or so people, the 'city' is much more cosmopolitan that you might expect. Okay, so Reykjavik obviously isn't Paris, Rome or London but considering that it's basically a small town, the number of restaurants, bars and cultural amenities I saw during my brief tour was impressive. We ate lunch at Harpa, the city's shiny, uber -modern new concert venue, another feast of shellfish and Atlantic cod married with Couscous.
A Q and A session with the President and an hour at the Blue Lagoon (a must, but be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege) preceded our final farewell dinner at Kex, Reykjavik's latest addition to its varied restaurant scene. Little more than a youth hostel cum pub, the restaurant's industrial dining area welcomed us with plate after plate of delicious food - Icelandic coq a vin, shrimp salad, beef salad and possibly the best sauté potatoes I ever eaten. You can even get your haircut before dinner, now how many places in London can offer you that?
My experiences in Iceland can be summed up very simply and perhaps slightly banally - two packed days of surprises, some of them revolving around the quality of the local food. Reykjavik, and indeed Iceland as a whole has more than enough to keep the foodies happy while you adventure types go off skiing, snowmobiling and hiking.
My biggest surprise, though, was the Icelandic people themselves, who were generally not like I expected. My pre-conceptions were based on my experiences in Norway, where warmth and charm are seen as highly undesirable and offensive characteristics. In contrast, Icelandic people pride themselves on being helpful, friendly and often mad as hatters. Their quirkiness and wonderful sense of humour is arguably the country's biggest asset, that and the food, its awe-inspiring beauty, Reykjavik and of course, the Blue Lagoon - the only place that British men will wear a face mask in public!
So, the question is - what are you waiting for? :)