Over the years I have been most fortunate to travel to some seventy countries. I have visited a few countries that far exceed the realm of the exotic. However, when it comes to Iceland, this lovely little country is absolutely out of this world.
Back in my military days, I worked as a Marine Security Guard, and because of my language skills, I often traveled from embassy to embassy as a courier. I was also very close to one ambassador in particular. He would often ask me to escort single young ladies to diplomatic functions. The ambassador would tease me because I would typically wear a tuxedo rather than my Marine Corps Dress Blues. This had to do more with diplomatic etiquette rather than my ardent fantasy to play 007. The ambassador would jokingly remind me, that if I acted in a manner unbecoming of a official representative of the United States Diplomatic Mission, he would personally see to it that I was sent to the furthest reaches of the “Western World,” our embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Earlier this year I decided to vacation in Iceland. I had a fantastic adventure and made some wonderful new friends. During this trip, I met an excellent sommelier by the name of, Frida Drabjartdotti, who shared with me some of the finer restaurants and wine bars in Reykjavik.
From Grand Hotel’s panoramic view of Reykjavik, Frida and I gazed complacently at our beautiful surroundings. The Grand is Reykjavik’s premier hotel. The Grand can also boast that it is the world’s first hotel to undertake extensive works to eliminate electro-magnetic pollution. From inception, the Grand Hotel was designed and built with a system to control pollution from the electrical supply.
Frida had gone to great lengths to ensure our table in the Brasserie Grand, was impeccably set with assortment of Iceland’s most interesting appetizers. These included, pink-footed goose, puffin, ptamigan, arctic char, a cousin of salmon and trout, with a milder flavor, lamb, of which I would add is the best I have ever tasted. The meat is very pure and non fatty. Our dishes also included potatoes with truffles, an assortment of local cheeses. The Icelandic delicacy, hakarl, or fermented shark. I must admit that due to the fetid odor of ammonia, I instantly rejected the putrefied shark steak. Last, and quite to my surprise, minke whale sashimi with wasabi. Icelanders boast that their diet is healthy and the primary factor to their longevity. The average life span is 81 years.
“Frida,” I smiled reassuringly. “What interesting spirits have you selected for our tasting?”
“Brennivin?” I queried.
“Precisely,” Frida’s eyes crinkled into a smile. “The film’s character, Budd, drinks Brennivin, svarti dauoi.”
“It means, Black Death,” she smiled with amusement.
Brennivin is a type of schnapps that is considered to be Iceland’s signature liquor. It is made from fermented potato mash and is flavored with caraway seeds. The steeping of herbs in alcohol is a long held folk tradition in all Scandinavian countries. Despite its status as the national beverage, and despite its being the traditional drink for the mid-winter feast of Porrablot, many Icelanders do not regularly drink Brennivin. It has a strong taste, with an alcohol content of 37.5%, and a dubious reputation. Brennivin is often associated with alcoholism.
“Black Death?” I queried.
“Brennivin translates literally as ‘burning wine’ or as you would say in English, brandy,” Frida paused momentarily to fill our glasses. “are you ready to drink?”
“Skal,” I toasted her.
“The flavor of Brennivin definitely lingers,” I chuckled under my breath. “It is has a most overpowering flavor of rye. It is so strong that I felt like I had just swallowed an entire loaf of rye bread.”
“It is definitely an acquired taste,” Frida flashed me a quick smile. We typically drink Brennivin while eating hakari.”
“I would guess that Brennivin is about the only drink to over come the scent and flavor of putrified shark steak,” I said in conclusion.
Our next selection was Fajallagrasa. This drink has only become popular since 1993. It is a type of Icelandic Schnapps with a surprisingly good after taste, and an alcohol content of 38%. Milled Iceland Moss is soaked for a long time in a special alcohol solution. This dissolves and extracts the biologically active compounds, which also give the color and the unique taste of the Fajallagrasa. Icelandic Fajallagrasa is a pure and natural product. Each bottle of Fallagrasa includes some whole Icelandic moss thalli, both for decoration and increased potency and taste.
“Fajallagrasa has very good after taste,” smacking my lips into an eventual smile. “I was pleasantly surprised.”
“On a different note, we Icelanders have used Icelandic moss as a food supplement and herbal medicine for centuries,” Frida’s tone was matter of fact. “We use it as a prevention against coughs and sore throat, as well as stomach problems and dry skin.”
Our last selection was not only my personal favorite, it is a vodka that I enjoy regularly. Reyka (Ray-kuh) Iceland’s first vodka that wholly takes advantage of the country’s pristine resources. The result is a super clean premium vodka that has an environmental conscience. Reyka is distilled from organic wheat and barley producing an extraordinary small batch vodka.
Amidst the clean air of the village of Bourganes in western Iceland sits the distillery where Master Distiller, Kristman Olaffsson, has made his uniquely Icelandic vodka a reality. The entire operation is run by the abundant geothermal heat of the land. In turn, this led to naming the spirit, Reyka. This is an ancient Icelandic word for steam or smoke. Small batches of only 235 cases per distillation contain glacial water from Grabok Spring, which runs through a 4,000 year old lava field. Researchers have tested these waters and found there to be zero impurities.
“When I first tasted Reyka, I was pleasantly surprised,” I paused to reflect fondly. “I couldn’t quite place the unique flavoring.”
“All I can say is that this flavorful spirit is by far the most unique vodka being produced today,” I gave a nod of approval. “I would also add that since Reyka is so clean, it is the perfect base for any cocktail.”
“On that note of approval,” Frida paused to create a sense of anticipation. “Shall we make a move to the Blue Lagoon?”
“Reykjavik’s most popular thermal baths, but that my friends, is a different story …”