A bright blue river runs through Stuðlagil Canyon with grey clouds above.

Breaking bread: a family meal in the fjords of east Iceland

In the sparsely populated Eastern Region of Iceland, in the fjord of Berufjörður, farmer Auja Stefánsdóttir and her family serve up a traditional feast of distinctly Icelandic dishes.

Stuðlagil Canyon, in the valley of Jökuldalur, is home to Iceland's largest collection of basalt columns. 
Photograph by Greg Funnell
This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

“The testicle is as far as I’ll go," says Auja, widening her striking green-grey eyes. “It’s common for people to eat the penis of the sheep too, but we’re not quite there yet.” 

The testicle in question is sitting in the middle of my plate. It’s surprisingly large: a boiled sheeny sack, bulked out with lamb and accompanied by garden peas, potatoes, sheep kidney, a slice of bull tongue and a small piece of sheep oesophagus. Elsewhere on the table, there’s a plate of laufabrauð — thin, crispy flatbread that’s been deep-fried in sheep fat — plus a pan of floury white sauce, which I’m told pairs perfectly with the sheep’s throat. It’s unlike any lunch I’ve ever had, but I’d been warned to expect surprises in Iceland.

It’s approaching midday in Berufjörður, a fjord close to the town of Djúpivogur on Iceland’s remote east coast. Here, Auðbjörg Stefánsdóttir (Auja) and her husband Steinþór Björnsson own a farm and a three-storey house, a white speck cocooned within a vast, isolated landscape of spruce trees and fog-covered volcanic mountains.

The drive from Egilsstaðir, the largest settlement in east Iceland, takes an hour, and for most of the journey on this cold Saturday morning in late November, there isn’t another car in sight. Yet, in contrast to its remote location, the Stefánsdóttir-Björnsson home seems full of life, be it music, children playing or the smell of something cooking. 

For lunch, we’re joined by six of the couple’s eight children; Lilja (19), Anna (16), Stefán (13), Karólína (11), Gunna (7) and Gudmundur (5), as well as Auja’s father, another Stefán. Meanwhile, the farm, which was built by Steinþór’s parents in 1954, is also home to 215 cows, 54 sheep and two outdoor cats, Fluffy and Honey, who, apparently, despise each other.  

Inside, Auja has decked out the entire house in Christmas decorations; the shelves, walls and tables are dotted with Santas, reindeer and elaborate nutcracker soldiers. The youngest children are pinballing from room to room in excitement, several of them darting into the kitchen to snatch food from the table. Gudmundur calls repeatedly for his mum’s attention while Karólína traipses around with a boombox, blasting out festive favourites, none of which seem to disturb Anna, who sleeps soundly on the living room sofa. The family usually sits together to eat, Auja tells me, but as they have guests today, the kids are allowed to have lunch in front of the TV.

Stefán, a retired fisherman, slices up more bull tongue in the kitchen, while Auja tells me about the food I’m about to tuck into. “All the meat we’re eating today is from our farm,” she says. “We used to have chickens too, but nobody wanted to take out the poop because the smell was so bad.

”Self-sufficiency has long been an important part of life for this family, who have produced their own hydroelectricity since 2000. To make a living, they sell their livestock for meat (only animals that are injured are slaughtered here at the farm) and produce around 4,900 litres of milk a week to sell on. During lambing season, in May, the sheep only spend two or three days inside, after which they’re free to roam the nearby mountains for the rest of the summer. And it’s these same surrounding mountains that provide the rhubarb and berries (blackcurrants, blackberries and blueberries, to name a few) the family use to make their own juices and jams. 

While harsh weather conditions and limited daylight have historically made it difficult for Icelanders to grow their own fruits and vegetables, developments such as geothermal greenhouses have been revolutionary. As well as enabling more and more people here to grow their own produce, they’ve also allowed vegetable farmers to extend natural growing seasons and increase overall production. As much as she’d like to grow her own vegetables, Auja tells me she simply doesn’t have time; she does, however, always make sure to buy locally grown produce. 

As for meat, which has always been a key ingredient in Icelandic cuisine, lamb dominates (alongside fish). Reindeer, however, is another favourite, particularly in the east of the country — so Steinþór tells me while promising to cook it for me the next time I visit.

Back at the table, I try a little bit of everything: the tongue is soft, porous and smoky; the oesophagus slightly spongy and fatty; and the sheep testicle like a surprisingly succulent piece of offal. Just as I’m tucking in, a man walks into the kitchen and greets us in the raspiest voice I’ve ever heard. It’s Kiddi, a family friend and a fisherman of 55 years, who’s here to introduce me to hákarl (cured shark caught in Greenland’s waters). It’s made by fermenting shark meat in a box (or, traditionally, in a hole) for several months, then hanging it up to dry. The results are something of a national delicacy, one I feel duty-bound to try.

I watch Kiddi cut the joint into small cubes, which have a consistency similar to goat’s cheese. I’m encouraged by the smell, which isn’t anywhere near as overpowering as I’d expected. The taste, however, is something else. Initially, it reminds of an incredibly strong stilton, but then the ammonia in the shark meat kicks in, occupying all corners of my mouth, the very back of my nose and the deepest parts of my soul and lingering there for several minutes. 

“I eat it every morning when I wake up; it’s the best thing for stomach pain,” Kiddi tells me, before bidding us an abrupt farewell and swiftly heading back out. Auja explains that the dishes I’ve eaten so far represent a fairly typical Þorramatur — a buffet of traditional meats and fish commonly consumed in winter, particularly during the midwinter festival of Þorrablót. It’s a “very traditional thing when we eat the dishes our great-great-grandparents used to eat,” she adds.

Coffee break

After lunch, before we layer up for a quick tour of the farm and garden, Auja makes me down a spoonful of Lýsi, an Icelandic fish liver oil popular for helping to alleviate vitamin D deficiency. On the way out, I stop to take in the view — the placid lake shimmers against the backdrop of jagged mountains layered with volcanic rock, which reminds me of a fresh-out-the-box Wall’s Vienetta ice cream. It’s all so beautifully still.

It’s around 4C and the skies are laden with heavy, dramatic clouds. Behind the main house, we cross a small stream via a makeshift bridge and walk towards a wooden shed, which the family uses to smoke meat. Auja points to one of the mountains ahead. “Our water comes from up there and flows straight into the house,” she tells me, proudly claiming it to be among the purest water in the world. 

I ask her what she ate growing up. “Icelandic meat soup was my favourite,” she replies, pausing to comfort Gunna, or ‘The Rusty One’ as she’s known, a nod to her flaming red hair. Auja tells me she still makes the soup, known locally as kjötsúpa, using lamb, carrots, swede, onion and parsley — in fact, she often cooks 20 litres of it in a big pot, which lasts the family two days.

After a quick tour of the farm, including the cow shed, sheep barn, smokehouse and several ample storage spaces used to keep things such as bottled milk and cuts of meat, the light begins to fade and the temperature starts to fall, so we go back inside for some mid-afternoon coffee and pancakes.

“Icelandic kids love pancakes,” Auja says as she starts mixing the batter using a 57-year-old whisking machine that once belonged to her mother-in-law. “Before milking the cows in the afternoon, we sit together and have coffee time so we can talk about the day.”

Using a shallow pan, she speedily churns out pancake after pancake, which we’ll soon have with homemade rhubarb jam and whipped cream. Gunna, who’s always by her mum’s side, literally licks her lips with excitement. The warming smell of sugar and batter quickly fills the kitchen.

Auja’s kitchen worktop is blanketed in multiple towers of flatbreads, festive biscuits and stacks of Icelandic cookbooks, most of which seem to focus on baking. As I browse, I catch a whiff of the two lamb thighs roasting in the oven for our dinner later. In preparation, Auja has covered them in a mixed seasoning of countless herbs and spices, including paprika, basil, thyme, mustard seeds, garlic, coriander, rosemary and tarragon. 

Then it’s time to tuck into those pancakes, each one slathered in obscene amounts of whipped cream, and sip a cup of strong, black coffee. It feels like the perfect way to spend a very cold afternoon. 

As Auja works on the rest of the dinner, conversation flows from subject to subject, from Icelandic politics to which child is most likely to take over the family farm. Lilja lays the table with wicker placemats and two white candlesticks, then makes the salad, tossing together a combination of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and a local goat’s cheese preserved in a delightfully garlicky oil. Auja starts stirring the sauce for the brúnaðar kartöflur, a side dish of boiled potatoes cooked in a caramelly sauce of sugar, water and butter, traditionally served alongside roasted meat.

The younger children are nestled on the sofa in the living room watching Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which was filmed in the northern Icelandic fishing town of Húsavík. Before long, the lamb thighs are ready and the rest of the dishes start coming out one by one, as do the kids.  

First up is the crispy, coated lamb; accompanied by a generous dollop of rhubarb sauce, it’s placed on a wooden board at the centre of the table. Next comes the bowl of potatoes swimming in caramel sauce, then a gravy boat filled with a creamy mushroom sauce and, finally, the goat’s cheese salad. 

Isaac, a family friend who works with Auja’s brother-in-law, joins us for dinner. Steinþór places two crates of beer on the table: one Stella Artois, the other Gull, a popular local beer made with Icelandic barley. Everybody takes their seat, and, naturally, the younger children argue over who deserves to sit where. In Iceland, it’s tradition for men to cut the meat, Auja tells me, so her husband does the honours as 10 ravenous diners patiently watch on. 

The next few minutes are beautifully loud and chaotic. Knives and forks clink against plates as everyone chats in both English and Icelandic. Arms crisscross, passing bowls and pans from one end of the table to the other, and the children occasionally erupt into fits of raucous laughter that fill the room. 

I take a bite of the lamb, which is tasty and tender, its skin deliciously crispy. Just then, there’s another outburst of laughter, so I ask Lilja what’s so funny. She tells me they’re reminiscing about the time her grandfather, Stefán, mistook the family cat for a fox and shot it. “I don’t believe him,” cackles Auja. “He doesn’t like cats!”

Stefán doesn’t speak any English, so he just looks at me and throws his hands in the air. I take a sip of Gull and thank the family for the wonderful meal. “You’re welcome,” says Auja. “This is typically what we make when we have friends visiting — and you’re a friend now.”  

Published in the Spring 2023 issue of Food by National Geographic Traveller

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