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Land of fire and ice

The wind whistles past my ears as I scramble to stop the car door blowing off its hinges. It’s October in Iceland and the first “real” wintry days have hit the island, as the last of the sheep are mustered from the highlands before the snow sets in.

You could be mistaken for thinking this is Mars with its dramatic landscape of volcanoes and lava fields, few trees, green fireworks dancing across the night sky and complete vastness (“people only live on the crust of the pizza”), except for the many waterfalls that give the Iceland game away. There is more water than the locals know what to do with. Geothermal spas are among the main attractions for the two million tourists coming to Iceland each year, who drink the mineral-rich water perhaps unaware that it has just come up from the ground in which it has been for over 16 million years.

And that’s where the dairy love affair comes in. Water is a plenty and the island’s 700 dairy farmers are well looked after in a country that consumes the most dairy per capita in the world. In fact I am told that there is more demand for milk than farmers can produce. This may partly be due to the fact that it is only in the last 100 years that farmers have started planting crops despite Norwegian settlement 1,000 years prior. The results are pasture and a minimal amount of barley. Consequently, grain has to be shipped to the island at twice the cost of other EU countries. The climate tends to limit grazing from May to September, causing the import of feedstuffs to be unavoidable. In addition, the difficult landscape often keeps both farms and required services many miles apart. With little possibility to share means, each farm – which averages about 30 cows – must own all of their own equipment. As if these circumstances were not arduous enough, I am told the infrequent volcanic eruptions have claimed a few cows and farmers in the course of history. Iceland can be a tough place to live. To farm may be a testament of will. There is only one dairy breed on the island: the Icelandic cow. She is relatively small and compact. She might not be pretty, but she is tough. Due to the nation’s quota system, even if the landscape allowed it, Icelandic dairy farmers have little opportunity to expand. Their profit margin is dependent on being as efficient as possible under generally inefficient conditions. A socialist country means that all the milk is collected and processed at the one plant in Selfoss. The government heavily subsides the industry to ensure that consumers pay “only 200ISK for a litre” (2.30AUD). If only they knew our supermarkets offered 1AUD a litre.

The Icelandic cow is just one of 20 mammals that reside in the country. The island was completely uninhabited when the first settlers arrived, bringing with them horses, sheep, cats, dogs, “Viking chickens”, “Viking goats” (there’s only 1,000 left on the island apparently) and the artic fox. It’s not uncommon to see “pet” ravens (once introduced) whose eggs, I am told, are “stolen” from nests in the highlands so that the babies are reared to live in the family home. Another Icelandic tradition.

Aside from milk, Icelanders are known to grow delicious lamb and potatoes in the food bowl of Hella (nicknamed “the wild west” as there’s no police station in town), and of course fish. And that’s about it. Good luck trying to grow fruit and vegetables in this climate. There are a few greenhouses emerging (why not when you can get free electricity, hot water and power from hot springs popping up on your property thanks to earthquakes – it does happen apparently), but the produce is expensive and locals can’t afford the grocery bills in a time where wages are dropping and the cost of living is rising, by up to 50 per cent I hear. Even the price of the much-loved hotdog has risen from 200ISK before the 2008 financial crisis to 700ISK.

As I sit around the dinner table with a local family eating pickled herring and poached cod, I’m told that from the 1970’s the Icelandic population started to gain weight, literally. The candy aisles in the supermarkets started getting heavily discounted, rather than the “on the verge of spoiling” fruit and vegetables that were instead thrown out with only the odd bruise or blemish. Unfortunately food education, food waste and food miles haven’t been a high priority in the country as Icelander’s diets are consumed with takeaway options, predominantly KFC, which are far cheaper and more convenient than seeking and buying the fresh and perishable imported foods. Besides the weather calls for another hot chocolate rather than a glass of water! Beer was illegal until 1989 and there are no pubs in sight, so that isn’t an option either. The desire to become self-sustainable is evident, more now than ever.

For those keen fishers out there, if you’re tempted to throw a line into the Norwegian Sea, think again. According to those who live on Iceland’s largest island called Heimaey, the waters are owned by the “wealthy and influential” only allowing a select commercial few to catch fish. These fish are then processed on the boats and taken directly to the UK to be sold – Iceland’s main export. Back at home, Icelanders either pay a fortune for the best fish or settle for the seconds.

Iceland is where the Nordic and Celtic genes collide and where Iceland became Greenland and Greenland became Iceland in an attempt by Norwegian Vikings to send their pursuants on a wild goose chase, as legend has it. And so that is why the green island became Iceland, and the icy island became Greenland. I write this though while watching the sun set over the icy lagoon of Jökulsárlón, which is right next to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. There’s some ice.

This country with a population of 300,000 people has the oldest democratic parliament in the world and in recent news I think it worthy to mention that the Pirate Party could soon be at the helm. A protest party that campaigns against copyright laws and hangs a skull-and-crossbones flag at its headquarters is on course to form Iceland’s next government when the election takes place later this month, after Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign in April when it was revealed that he and his family had sheltered money in offshore accounts. Watch this space.

In such a short time in Iceland I have learnt and experienced so much. Iceland is naturally beautiful, experiences 300 micro earthquakes a day (and my friend Uxi tells me a big one is due any moment!), has unlimited water resources, smelters Australian aluminum, has no mosquitos and offers free schooling. I wonder if ‘from paddock to plate’ is in the curriculum? In saying that, studying a Bachelor degree at university will set you back “150 pints” and a Masters potentially “1000 pints” in local speak. I think I’m starting to settle in as I drink a nip of Blueberry schnapps and put on my newly purchased lamb wool mittens before heading back out into the gale-force winds.

For a true Icelandic meal, why not create this delicious herring and potato salad recipe.

“Tak” (thank you) Iceland for the unforgettable memories. I will return!

Louise FitzRoy
Founder & Director | From Paddock to Plate

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