Don’t die at Reynisfjara.

Posted on 11. Feb, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

16468680832_3243b4221f_k

Reynisfjara beach by sergejv at Flickr.

At the south point of Iceland, at the little town of Vík í Mýrdal, spreads Reynisfjara, an amazing black sand beach that includes the famous Reynisdrangar stone pillars and a huge basalt column cliff Garðar. It’s easy to reach, just a few hours drive south from Reykjavík along Ring Road 1, and one of the most popular and well-known Icelandic natural sites that sees thousands of tourists each year

Basalt formations are found in many areas in south Iceland, but the cliffs of Reynisfjara are no doubt some of the most legendary ones that you’ll see in photo collections of Iceland. Likewise the Reynisdrangar columns sticking out of the sea are equally often seen in advertisements, blog entries about Iceland and so forth. They’re practically the landmark of Vík and bear a local legend that they were originally two trolls trying to hoist a three-mast ship up from the sea but were caught in daylight and turned to stone. Naturally an entirely black lava sand beach is already quite an unusual sight all on its own! Yet, despite the wonderfulness that is Reynisfjara it has recently been in the news for the worst possible reasons after several tourists have been nearly swept out to sea and one, alas, drowned earlier this week.

21882243128_8459b04fb8_k

Iceland by Moyan Brenn at Flickr.

Reynisfjara beach, harmless as it seems, is actually far more dangerous than meets the eye. Hiding in even the calmest weather is an undertow so strong it’ll pull you out into the sea in a moment if it catches you. It’s one of the strongest ones in the world, possibly the strongest undertow found in such close proximity to inhabited areas. To add to the danger rogue waves can suddenly reach a long way into the beach without a warning, catch you unawares and pull you into the sea and the next moment you know you’re hundreds of metres away from land. The locals are very aware of this and the place has warning signs notifying people of the danger but it would seem that either people don’t stop to read them or they just plain don’t care. The people of Vík have to save tourists a little too often here, and sadly at the most recent call help came too late.

This did not come as a surprise to anyone however, least of all the locals who have been complaining all year long that tourists go there to play with their lives and have called in measures, something, anything, before the worst should happen… and now that it did it’s more pressing than ever that something is done before the next person is lost here. The problem remains what could be done though.

Perhaps the most confusing are the tourists who get told to not go near the water and the danger explained to them that are then immediately found not only walking too near the water or turning their backs to the sea for an awesome selfie, but deliberately frolicking in the waves. Currently the police have taken watch at Reynisfjara but of course that’s not a permanent solution. There are other plans to install a watch system of some kind here because although Iceland tends to leave a lot to people’s own responsibility this problem has become too big to ignore and we’re only in the early part of the year… later on we’re expecting a record amount of tourists which means this problem will only get so much worse if nothing’s done.

4795186319_d497704bcc_o

Reynisfjara by JasonParis at Flickr. This sign greets you at the parking area.

It’s not all the tourists’ fault either. Those that visit the place with a guide get better advice than independent travelers and fact is that there’s nothing aside of the warning signs that would serve as a warning of something dangerous being up ahead. The same people who understand that falling into a waterfall or a boiling hot geyser will kill you will look at the playful surf along Reynisfjara and think it safe because it seems safe enough, the rogue waves hit only occasionally and always by surprise and the undertow hides sneakily below the surface. For example the day when the most recent accident took place was beautiful, the weather was lovely, seas were calm, there was almost no wind.

Perhaps the answer would be to mark a path to walk, or a level below which it’s dangerous to walk? Maybe a viewing platform like the one at Gullfoss? Nobody wants to close the beach off entirely but deaths are even worse than that. If you have ideas on what could be done, leave a comment in the comment field!

21202625670_815d75590c_k

Iceland by Moyan Brenn at Flickr.

More news (and some chilling pictures of people caught in the surf) on the topic in English:

Tourist Wades Into Reynisfjara for Better Pictures

Tourists in Danger on Reynisfjara Beach

Tourists Keep Tempting Fate at Reynisfjara

Safety Watch Needed on Reynisfjara Beach

Reynisfjara to Get Extra Safety Supervision?

Iceland’s Most Dangerous Beach Claims Another Life

Death at Reynisfjara

Celebrating bolla-pastries.

Posted on 04. Feb, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

3301023673_08d6999764_o

Cream Puffs for Bolludagur by Barbara Olson at Flickr.

BOLLA BOLLA BOLLA BOLLA!

This is what many parents of small children will shortly hear screamed happily at them while they get beaten up with colourful, decorative wands. Bolludagur, the Day of Bolla (bolla = Icelandic version of choux pastries) is almost here. This year it will be celebrated on the 8th February and the bakeries are already getting ready for it. There may not yet be the amazing selection of flavours and fillings as there’ll be on the day but the classics are already available, especially the simple yet delicious whipped cream & jam filled ones with dark chocolate melted on top. Yes, I have already been sampling some and no doubt by the end of this week I’ll probably be a few kilos heavier than before but no regrets. It’s so worth it.

Like I wrote two years ago, the actual Bolludagur is bordering insanity and will see crowds like you wouldn’t believe in all the local bakeries. People will go through an amazing ordeal just to gain themselves a nice selection of puff pastries, and then afterwards you’ll see them outside balancing huge boxes carefully as they walk, looking suddenly really happy and relaxed. It’s a big change from a moment before when they still were fighting for their turn to buy them, the difference is so obvious that I’ve began to suspect they may in fact enjoy the whole process somehow.

bolla020

There is however no need to brave the milling crowds at bakeries if you want your profiteroles: you can also bake them yourself! Here’s Hulda’s recipe for them.

Vatnsdeigsbollur (ca 12 st.)

2 dl vatn
80 gr smjör
125 gr hveiti
2-3 egg

Water Dough Pastries (ca 12 pieces)

2 dl water
80 g butter
125 g wheat flour
2-3 eggs

1. Smjör og vatn er sett saman í potti og soðið. Takið pottinn af hellunni og bætið hveitinu saman við og hrærið þar til deigið losnar frá köntunum. Látið kólna.

Butter and water are set into a pot and brought to boil. Take the pot off the stove, add wheat flour and mix until the dough separates from the sides of the bowl. Let cool down.

2. Eggjunum eru bætt út í einu í einu og hrært vel á milli. Ég nota helst handþeytara þó ef þú ert sterk/ur þá getur þú líka hrært sjálf/ur.

Eggs are added one by one and mixed well. I prefer to use a hand mixer but if you’re strong enough you can also mix it by hand.

3. Setjið á bökunarpappír með tveimur skeiðum.

Set blobs of dough on baking sheet with two spoons.

4. Ofninn stilltur á 220° og bollurnar settar í heitan ofn.

Oven is set to 220°C, the pastries should be put in an already heated oven.

5. Ekki má opna ofninn á meðan á bakstri stendur, þá falla bollurnar!

Do not open the oven while baking or the pastries will flatten!

6. Bakið í 15 mín. Þá er hitinn lækkaður í 150° og bakað áfram í 10 mín.

Bake the pastries for 15 min. Then the temperature is set to 150°C and the pastries can bake 10 min more.

bolla025

After this you cut the pastries open carefully with a sharp knife. The bolla shells can at this point be f.ex. frozen if you don’t plan on eating them right away, but if you (like me) can’t wait it’s time to stuff the bolla with anything and everything you might like. Whipped cream, jam, chocolate, caramel sauce, berries, fruit, jelly, even ice cream, anything you like is the correct filling for a bolla. Bakeries even try to create their own selections nowadays to better stand out: just look at these amazing ones by 17 Sortir here!  Don’t forget to click to see all the photos, they look heavenly.

3302727908_ff99b832bc_o

Bolludagur Wand by Barbara Olson at Flickr.

…wait, did I forget to explain why children try to beat up their parents with the Bolludagur wands? My apologies: they do it to get these pastries. For every successful hit the child gets a bolla so you can imagine they’re quite eager to ambush the grown-ups. 😀

Icelandic midwinter feast, Þorrablót.

Posted on 28. Jan, 2016 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs

15292153347_b39df9b77f_k

Þorramatur by Stefán Birgir Stefáns at Flickr. These are svið, boiled sheep heads!

In the deepest winter Icelanders celebrate Þorri, the personification of winter: that’s when traditional foods are served along with strong liquor, preferably Brennivín.The celebration bears the name Þorrablót, a clear reminder of its Pagan roots – a blót is a ritual sacrifice or a feast held to honour a god or gods.

The tradition died out once already but was then revived by Icelandic students in Copenhagen in 1873 and today it’s an important holiday, often celebrated with family or friend groups. Sounds good? Well… just wait until you see the foods. Iceland has always been a harsh country and surviving a winter took some serious effort, especially food-wise. As very few things can grow in the Icelandic soil and climate the diet was heavily meat and fish based, but these came with a problem of their own, they spoiled easily. To help preserve meat and fish they were often either dried or lactose-cured, which means they’re soured and have a very distinctive sour milk taste to them.

Hákarl

This might be Iceland’s most famous traditional snack, the rotten/fermented, shark. Many have tried it, many have failed to keep it down. The taste is quite overpowering and is has a slightly rubbery mouth feel, but my least favourite part would still be the ammonia smell. Why would people decide to eat this in the first place? Possibly because it was really so difficult to find food for the winter in Iceland that anything and everything counted, among them shark meat that was poisonous… the fermenting process is there to make the shark edible.

3739254_9fd275901a_o

Photo by Salvor at Flickr, slátur being made.

Súrhvalur

I have nothing good to say about this one. Fermented whale blubber, looks like snot, has slimy-ish, stringy and chewy mouth feel and tastes… well, gross. Worse than hákarl in my opinion. I can only fight this one down with brennivín, else it swims right back up.

Harðfiskur

“Hard fish”, in other words dry fish, is actually not that bad! It does have a strong fish-smell and the taste is stronger than in non-dry fish, so if you don’t like fish I can guarantee you’ll hate this one. Often eaten with a bit of butter spread on top or just as it is, harðfiskur is a healthy option for a snack.

15292147007_781952a5bb_k

Þorramatur – hangikjöt by Stefán Birgir Stefáns at Flickr.

Hangikjöt

Smoked lamb meat, delicious! The taste of smoke is quite strong, and if you can find home-smoked hangikjöt all the better! This is really one of the foods that tastes heavenly when home-made although the store bought version isn’t that bad either.

Lifrarpylsa

Liver sausage. A bit dull-tasting on its own, so some people like to fry the slices with butter and sprinkle a little bit of sugar on top to better bring out the taste of liver. Some of course prefer theirs just as it is.

Blóðmör/slátur

Blood pudding made of sheep blood, suet, oats and rye flour, sewn into a sheep stomach and boiled. It’s good if you like blood pudding, but it could be a little bit on the acquired taste -area.

800px-Thorramatur

Thorramatur by The blanz at Wikimedia Commons. The bread plate has flatbrauð and rúgbrauð, the main plate from the top has hangikjöt, hrútspungar, lifrarpylsa, slátur, hákarl and of course svið.

Flatbrauð

“Flat bread”, the name is very apt. Yes, it’s flat. It’s very flat. It’s quite mild but has a strong smoky taste, making it a perfect base for hangikjöt.

Rúgbrauð

Sweet, dark bread. Don’t let the look of the bread scare you away, this is probably the safest item on your Þorri-plate!

278289632_2a05ea8cf1_b

Harðfiskur by Richard Eriksson at Flickr.

Svið

A boiled sheep’s head. Looks scary but tastes actually really, really good (as long as you like sheep that is)! Traditionally everything on it would be eaten but nowadays it’s recommended people don’t eat the brain for health reasons. Some people eat the eyes, some people don’t, some only eat the muscles around the eyes. Suggesting eating the eye is a common dare for tourists.

Selshreifar

Another gross one, fermented seal flipper. Even stringier and slimier than the sour whale and just… no. NONONO. I’ve tried this once and now, many years after, I still regret having ever tried it.

15292027468_2c28d69867_k

Þorramatur by Stefán Birgir Stefáns at Flickr.

Hrútspungar

Ram testicles. I’m not kidding, pressed, sour ram testicles. The best I can say of this dish is that it’s truly unforgettable; sour with strong yeast flavour, the mouth feel itself is bad enough (and the knowledge of what part of the animal you’re eating) but the taste alone would need a shot of brennivín per mouthful…

So there you have the menu. It may not have all the above items and it may have items not mentioned in this blog post, but you’ll no doubt meet a few of these anyway. Don’t worry too much though, no one expects you to like them all because as so often is with traditional food, not even the locals all like all of them. Trying them will get you some serious Icelandic points though, so – bon appetit! 😀