Land of lava fields, steaming earth
Elves with legal land rights
An unusual approach to family names
An alphabet larger than 26 letters
Vikings (Don’t believe the bad press.)
A stunning concert hall
A cuisine of fermented shark, pickled sheep’s head and heavenly yoghurt
What’s not to like?
(Should also mention the national sport - Glima - where two men try to trip each other up whilst grabbing onto his opponent’s undies. Mmmm. ( Not in the Olympics yet, then.)
First up, went ashore at Akureyri, (population 19,000) a significant town in the north where my goal was to see the blue Iclandic poppy. This is the second most northern botanical garden in the world. It's awe-inspiring, beautifully laid out. I cannot imagine what happens when it’s under snow. The poppy was on its last blush but amazing nontheless – a blue not usually assocated with any plant, let alone a flower. The garden is “worth a journey” not just a detour.
I’m nuts about Puffins. I have no trouble resisting the demeaning portrayal of them as key rings, bottle openers or fuzzy toys but I do allow us some packs of paper cocktail napkins and a very tasteful, screen-printed puffin teatowel – black on ecru linen.
This is my second time in Iceland. I've wanted to visit after reading the Icelandic-Noir crime novels of Arnaldur Indriðason. His detective, Erlanður, is introverted and depressed. His life's a mess, his adult children are broke or vagrant and sometimes all of the above. His divorce was messy and bitter. As a child he lost his younger brother in a snow-storm on a glacier, for which he blames himself. He is haunted by loss and his obsession with cold cases of missing people. Overwhelmed by work, he treats himself to an evening of clearing loads of dirty washing and a supper of cold beer and pickled sheep’s head.
I had to find out more. I wanted to see a glacier, learn how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano (good luck with that one) and go to a supermarket to check if pickled sheep's head is really "a thing".
From the sublime to the ridiculous.
Left: Wooden houses in Isafjörður - cute, beyond cute.
Right: Thai Café & Take-away in Isafjörður.
I love supermarkets. They tell us so much. I’m in the town of Isafjörður (population 2,600) on the west coast. The supermarket is part of an arcade. Arcades keep people out of the cold in winter. Naturally it has a Thai take-away restaurant.
Found the Hákarl in neat little tubs in the freezer section – a traditional dish (eaten by Vikings). It's fermented shark. Fermenting, salting, curing was a way of preserving food, and in the 21stcentury, it’s still a national and celebratory dish.
("Hákarl - This is probably the worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” said Anthony Bourdain and he was pretty open-minded.) I didn’t try it. Pickled sheep's heads were also plentiful, frozen in criovac, ready for your next party.
Keen to try Skyr (pronounced Skeer) which I’m sure will “go viral”. It’s an Icelandic milk product not unlike yoghurt, made from skim milk. It’s not as acidic, it’s rich and creamy and doesn’t drop whey when it sits for a while. It’s now sold in fruit flavours. Delicious.
More Coca-Cola is drunk per head of population that anywhere else in the world!
With long, dark winters, Icelanders love to knit. They all knit. Wool is sold on the supermarket shelves.
We were farewelled by a charming young Viking. This "check-out chappie" was fluent in two languages. (Perhaps look at our education system. For Iclanders, OK, it's a necessity, to be part of the modern world but they manage it somehow.)
Finally, we reach Reykjavik.
We go to Copenhagen to join a sub-artic cruise. (I should write København. Pretentious? Moi?) We have a nice cabin – sorry, suite - on the Zuiderdam.
Bad things about cruising-
As Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Hell is other people".
There is practically no wi-fi nor internet contact with your "other world".
You get only a snap-shot of places you visit.
It's a "cash-less economy" situation so you can easily overspend.
Being constantly asked if we are enjoying ourselves, or if everything is all right is exhausting for us and demeaning to the crew.
The selection of movies is appalling.
Good things about cruising-
You meet lots of different interesting people.
There is practically no wi-fi nor internet contact with your "other world".
You get a snap-shot of places you might like to revisit.
There is nothing you'd want to buy in the cruise shop or in the gallery of so-called art.
You come home to your cabin every night, and the housework is done for you.
You relax and have time to read lots of books.
The catering is incredible with something for every taste and occasion – formal dining, very formal dining, in-room dining, buffet dining, taco bar, hamburger bar, afternoon tea. The quality is outstanding notwithstanding the huge numbers - over 8,500 meals each day, fresh, varied and stylish for the 1,900 passengers and ship's crew. Unfortunately, the service is full-on and is not to my taste. It’s stifling, needy and wheedling.
Note: great breakfasts of omelette, hash browns and crispy bacon. (And I adore "grits".)
We met and enjoyed the company of Dutch, German, English, French, Israeli, Australian, American passengers but also saw a weird and not so wonderful array of cutlery handling. I want to investigate the origins of various methods used in the U.S. This is possibly the worst I've seen. As Pauline Hansen would say, "Please Explain."
Snapshots from our journey - Paris, as usual is soooooo beautiful but... I’ve always avoided July and I’m reminded why. The heat is debilitating. With its core of 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century buildings, how could one possibly air-condition Paris? We are on rue de Verneuil, (where lived Serge Gainsbourg, his house graffitied by fans) in a miniscule ground floor apartment, minus the graffiti.
Eclairs are the new macarons. More satisfying then macarons, less etherial than macarons, more varied than macarons, they are everywhere, sporting different colours, different flavoured crème patissière, fruit and glazes. Watch it happen here.
Left: Salt crystals (proud, pure, natural, organic, macrobiotic) and from our own River Murray. Salt is certainly the new collectable. There were ridiculous raspberry-flavoured salts, ranging from pretty pink in colour to strident puce, mushroom-flavoured salts (a grubby beige), smoky salts (for when you're too lazy to fire up the barbie). The Oz salt was delicate and in good taste, of course.
Right: Alluring displays of spices and dried herbs, arranged to make you want to cook.
Both from the Fine Food department of Galleries Lafayette. (Don't pronounce the S.)
I adore supermarkets. Monoprix is a great attraction and it’s FREE entertainment. The yoghurt section is my particular favourite with many brands still coming in tiny glass or earthenware pots, all of which, when empty, I have to then cram into my suitcase to bring home.
These are two “must-eat” places every time - the casual Comptoir du Relais (place de l’Odéon) and the very special Le Grand Véfour (le Palais Royal, my spiritual home - the apartment above, once the home of Colette).
Le Comptoir – No tablecloth and a table the size of a darts board, they bustled, we hustled. I indulged in my personal weakness, the funny bits. Started with a grilled terrine of boudin noir, followed by crumbed, boned pigs’ trotters. Promised myself I’ll do these at home on return.
Le Grand Véfour – Perfection. Sat down (this time in the seat reserved in the past for Colette) to a beautiful plate by Bernadaud, Limoges, in the centre of which was a folded napkin. The quality of the napery made me tremble. No-one flicked open the napkin to invade my space by flapping it on my lap.
And, as we were enjoying the relaxing atmosphere, we realised there was no music! Absolute bliss.
Half way through the meal, the immaculate maître d’ approached our table, raised one hand in a questioning gesture and asked simply, “Tout... ça va?” No-one asked me how my day had been. We were not asked at every bite whether we were enjoying our meal.
Why is this appalling Americanised (sorry, dear American friends) behavior seen as good service?
Left: Le Grand Véfour - Elegance and comfort - and note a choice of salted or unsalted butter. What more could you ask for?
Right: Le Comptoir du Relais - a bit squashy but...
Le Tour de France finished in Paris on the Sunday. The city was packed with people and tour busses. Roads were roped off, access everywhere was difficult. We hid out in the gorgeous museum of decorative arts (le Musée des Arts Décoratifs), at the end wing of the Louvre - quiet, unhurried and safe - my second spiritual home - plates, cups and saucers, soupières everywhere.
I could fill this blog with images but let this one suffice - a cup in milk glass with ormolu mounts - late Napoleonic Empire. If I had this for my SFTGFOP Darjeeling, (Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe), I swear I could give up alcohol.
Also did some damage at Laure Bassal (shoes, 3 rue de Grenelle, 75006) and at Issey Miyake (with a "onesie" that could make me look like a "teletubby" in black unless I lose the holiday kilos).
"Spap-shots - the cruise", coming up.
Comment /questions below...
Last week, I was watching a programme on the state of agriculture in Oz and heard that 25% of all potatoes harvested are discarded because they are the wrong shape. The wrong shape? Are we absolutely stark raving mad?
I was reminded of an article - https://straight cucumbers - from Atlas Obscura sent to me from the indomitable BM. For afternoon tea (never "High Tea", please) cucumber sandwiches needed straight cucumbers and this is how they did it.
They might have been absolutely barking mad but do we need uniformly shaped potatoes? It must break a farmer's heart.
This has to be the best mash in the world.
Joël Robuchon died 6th August this year from pancreatic cancer. His name is not as well known around the world as say, Bocuse, Ducasse, Blumenthal or Gordon Ramsay (who was a protagé) despite being idolised by his peers. The food magazine, Gault & Millau, named him chef of the century in 1989. In 1995 he retired from the pressured world of Michelin stars and fine dining having at that stage opened and operated over a dozen restaurants around the world. Articles refer to his "relentless perfectionism".
He simply turned his back on three star cuisine to live better and to have a family life. Later he did re-invent himself - simpler food, simpler presentation and simpler settings, with dishes using just three to four basic elements. By this time, nonetheless, he had accumulated 32 Michelin stars, the most of any other chef in the world.
Left: Joël Robuchon - the chef's chef
Right: a "three star cuisine" presentation of eye-watering precision - caviar on lobster aspic, topped with gold leaf and enhanced by tiny cushions of crème fraîche mounted by individual petit pois.
But I do make his mashed potato...
Purée de Pommes de Terre (World’s Best Mashed Potato)
Follow this to the letter the first time. You can loosen up on the effort once you’ve got the hang of it and know what you’re aiming for.
1K potatoes (starchy rather than waxy)
(Choose potatoes of similar size for even cooking.)
up to 250 ml (1 cup) real milk (i.e. not low-fat)
200 – 250 gm unsalted butter, cubed and chilled.
The original Jöel recipe from his book Simply French (written by Patricia Wells) suggests “For exceptionally rich potatoes, the quantity of butter may be doubled”. Now, that’s my kind of recipe!
His mash became "iconic" with grand restaurants and hipster bistros following his lead.
Left: Mash, exquisitely served at the Grand Véfour, Paris, individually portioned, sitting in a jus, fragrant with truffle. (More on that later.)
Right: Mash served at Le Comptoir du Relais, Paris, to support a crisply bread-crumbed, boned pig's trotter - simple bistro that belies a menu of heavenly dishes. (More on that later.)
Tell me how you get on...