Ground-Baking in Iceland
Iceland is otherworldly. The vast mystical landscape feels like you’re in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. Especially when coming from New York City, where the mountains are made of concrete, glass, and cement.
The culture in Iceland, culinary and otherwise, is based on one principle: respect. The people of Iceland understand what Mother Earth gives them, and they use it with a ‘do no harm’ attitude.
The island’s formed by jet-black volcanic rock. Under that molten black rock is a perpetual supply of extremely hot, volatile, and sulphur rich geothermal activity.
Pure, wonderful, earth cooking.
This activity is harnessed and used as a clean energy source for all electricity, heating, and the most exciting of all — cooking. Pure, wonderful, earth cooking.
Throughout all of Iceland there are spots of geothermal activity that are a bit ‘livelier’ than others. An hour and a half to the North East of Reykjavik is a town called Laugarvatn, which rests on the shore of a massive hot spring at the base of a mountain range.
The hot spring — 100°C or 212°F — has steam rising off of its waves as it meets the shoreline. At Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal bakery and spa, they harness the energy to make their traditional, moist but dense Rye Bread.
I walked with one of the house bakers, Linda, shovel in hand, to the ‘ovens.’
To the un-trained eye, the area just looked like an ordinary patch of dirt. It wasn’t until Linda told me where the bread actually was that it made sense. Underneath tiny piles of earth — marked only by a stake for the bakers — was a hidden hotbed of activity.
Finding our specific loaf of rúgbrauð, or Rye Bread, was very important. It takes 24 hours for the bread to bake — unearth the wrong one and you’re in trouble. Thankfully our bread was ready.
“I prefer to make my food at home in my front yard.”
While we were eating, Linda explained more about Icelandic food philosophies, and her respect for food and the land that grows it: “I prefer to make my food at home in my front yard out of materials that can be recycled, such as milk cartons, so I do not waste any plastic,” she said.
The next day after drinking multiple cups of coffee I headed back outside of Reykjavik. This time to Hveragerði, a tiny town about 45 minutes east. Nestled inside the mountains, Hveragerði is home to Kjöt og Kúnst, a restaurant that cooks with the 170°C and 14 kilobar volcanic energy.
To each side of the restaurant was a stove that Ólafur had built specifically to capitalize on the enormous amounts of geothermal energy billowing out of the ground. The stoves four ‘burners’ were just a few holes that allowed the steam to pass through in the middle of volcanic rocks. Unlike stovetops that use a hot, dry heat, these natural elements use the wet, hot steam that surrounds the pan. The result: Incredible moist and tender foods.
The meals Ólafur prepares depend on the season and what fruits and vegetables are available. Since the island’s ground is mainly rock and the weather is cold for a lot of the year, growing produce in the ground is difficult.
“In order to cook with the volcano you have to be artful.”
Translated, ‘Kjöt og Kúnst’ means ‘meat and art’. Chef and owner Ólafur, explained the namesake: “In order to cook with the volcano you have to be artful.”
Scattered around the island are geothermal greenhouses that combine natural sunlight with steam heat. Kjöt og Kúnst gets their fresh vegetables primarily from these greenhouses. The entrees to choose from include many traditional Icelandic delicacies — horse, sheep meat and testicles, beef, chicken, and a wide variety of seafood.
I left Kjöt og Kúnst and headed back to Reykjavik as the sun was setting. Every few minutes I would see a monsterous stack of steam from the geothermal heat puffing out from under the snow — inspired by nature’s immense power.
Originally published for www.dirt.online.
Zakas Photography is a Brooklyn based Intimate Wedding photographer for complete bad-ass couples world-wide who’s wanderlusting heart also takes her on other fun shoots around the globe.