Foraging in Iceland: The Hunger Games

An Icelandic family foraging at Hvalfjordur (left); and members of the Reyka Expedition team preparing mussel soup for lunch (below).
An Icelandic family foraging at Hvalfjordur (above); and members of the Reyka Expedition team preparing mussel soup for lunch. PHOTO: CLARA CHOW

The bus pulls up by the fjord, a finger of blue against black volcanic rock and snow-tinged mountains. It disgorges us - a dozen booze journalists on an expedition run by Reyka Vodka - under blue cloudless skies at Hvalfjordur.

Steel pails and black rubber gloves are issued. Then we are sent off like children, skittering down a gravel slope, picking our way through the rocky outcrop in search of mussels, urchins, seaweed and anything edible from the rugged land.

Let me say off the bat: Foraging in Iceland in early May is back-breaking business.

For one thing, the cold winds whip your hair into your eyes, threatening to blow your parka hood off - and your head with it. For another, bending down in winter boots and heavy jackets, with thick woollen mittens hidden in one's fisherman's gloves, to sift for mussels nestling under clumps of kelp, is unwieldy.

Stark arctic sunlight makes sunglasses necessary if you want to spot choice bivalve morsels in the shallow saltwater, but mine keep sliding down my nose, which is numb in the 5 deg C weather.

Add to that the fact we are three weeks too early for our day trip. The best time for foraging in Iceland - which has only two seasons, winter and a relatively short summer - is in late May, peaking in late July, when mushrooms, berries and wild herbs abound.

There are hundreds of different kinds of mushrooms in Iceland, says Mr Ulfar Finnbjornsson, a top Icelandic chef and the foraging expert chaperoning us.

"Maybe 10 main edible ones we pick," he adds. Blueberries and crowberries are common, growing on the ground all over the country, suitable for use in desserts and jams.

Mr Finnbjornsson, known as Ulli to friends, has a kind of David Hasselhoff thing going on, with his curly dark hair, aviator shades and baritone boom.

A former taxidermist, he began training as a chef in the 1980s.

"When I started being a cook, I brought some herbs I found outside - wild thyme, sorrel. When I came to the kitchen, the chef sent me out with them. He said they were dirty, never use anything you find outside. It was difficult to bring new ideas into the kitchen."

At the time, he recalls, the only mushrooms sold in Icelandic supermarkets were tinned ones imported from elsewhere and the only herb available was parsley.

Twice a week, he would drive 80km around the capital city Reykjavik to forage for mushrooms and greens.

"I'd asked this guy, who's an expert on Icelandic trees and herbs, 'What can be eaten?' And he wrote down two lines. And I said, 'Is that all?' And he said: 'No, this is what you can't eat.'

"If it tastes good, you have to find a way to use it," says Mr Finnbjornsson, who used to run his own restaurant, but now hosts TV food shows, writes cookbooks and guides groups foraging around Iceland. "Use it in soups or to make meat better. Be open.

An Icelandic family foraging at Hvalfjordur; and members of the Reyka Expedition team preparing mussel soup for lunch (above). PHOTO: CLARA CHOW

"Before the banking collapse in 2008, nobody went out to collect things. But after that, everybody did it," he says of the trend in Nordic cuisine that has trickled up to Iceland. He estimates that tourists interested in foraging in Iceland increase in numbers by 10 per cent each year.

Right now, he is looking on like a proud parent as we scurry around the shore, groping for things in the mud.

I hold up a bunch of seaweed-y things, with pods that pop like bubble wrap, and ask: "Is this edible?"

He holds up both hands, like he is pushing the offending plant away, and pulls a face. "It is, but we don't eat it. It doesn't taste very good."

I hold up another bunch: Bright green like a sea witch's hair, similar in my eyes to the seasoned type you find in Japanese supermarkets. "Ah, yes. This, you can dry and make into a powder. It's good for you."

Later, at an excellent restaurant in Reykjavik called Dill, I would taste a cocktail sprinkled with kelp powder, the sea's saltiness adding complexity to the sweet drink.

After an hour, we are waved back in the direction of the bus. My pail is half-filled with decent-sized mussels.

A family of Icelanders are hard at work nearby: The three blond children, who look no older than six years, have plastic spades and are digging industriously next to their parents. Their plastic pails are double the size of mine - and filling up fast. It is May 1, Labour Day holiday, and it seemed fitting that young and old should be toiling to find lunch.

Lunch turns out to be a spectacular treat.

Mr Finnbjornsson and the Reyka expedition team go ahead to set up an outdoor kitchen in a scenic spot not far from a geo-thermal power station, in the Nesjavellir area. When the press gang pull up in our bus, the mussels are boiling in a lightly creamed broth of Icelandic herbs, spiked with made-in-Iceland small-batch Reyka vodka - all in a cauldron fired by blow-torches.

As Reyka's Britain brand ambassador and bartender extraordinaire Joe Petch hands out paper cups of his delicious Bloody Mary, we sit with our feet soaking in a hot spring, cradling steaming bowls of mussel soup. The mussels taste yummier simply because we found them ourselves.

"People these days want to know where their food comes from," says Mr Ant Power, Australian chef- turned-co-founder of the Movember charity movement, sitting on a log next to me, about the increasing popularity of foraging. The food writer and co-editor of Root+Bone magazine has been on other foraging trips in the United States and says people bond over the experience of being out in the wild.

As I clutch a "take-away" bowl of fresh mussels in white wine on the bus back to Reykjavik, dozing pleasantly on a full belly, I cannot help but agree.

Foraging in the land of ice and fire is not about what you can eat. It is where, how and with whom you can eat.

The writer's trip was sponsored by Reyka Vodka.

  • A version of this story first appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Life e-magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app, with the headline "The Hunger Games".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline Foraging in Iceland: The Hunger Games. Subscribe