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10/05/2006

Eggs in socks in hot springs

Wolfram Siebeck rounds off his Iceland trip with a few miniature lobster tails and massive geyers

This is the last of a three-part culinary adventure. In part one Wolfram Siebeck struggles to distinguish between dream and reality on the black and icy isle. And in part two he dines on whale meat and wonders who ate the eyes in his head of lamb.

The weekend is the time, says the foreign visitor, to take to the countryside in Iceland, where it ought to be pleasantly empty. (An error that can have dramatic consequences during the summer.) And now the foreign visitor is sitting high in a carriage atop four powerful tires, charging through the lava fields in the rain. Sometimes the rain turns to sunshine or storm or drizzle with fog but whatever the weather, Iceland is permanently damp.

This stems in part from the hot springs. And every holiday cottage owner has at least one of these, just as every retired ex-pat in Tuscany has an open fireplace. Here the hot spring is used for cooking eggs. The children hang the eggs in socks from sticks into the boiling spring water. And due to the varying degrees of its sulphurous flavour, this cooking method is recommended only for dishes that are cooked in a water bath. The springs are not used as washing machines for the same reason, especially as Icelanders to my knowledge don't wear oversized socks.



The butter churn


While out on an excursion, one continually comes across steam billowing out of the black earth like in Recklinghausen in its industrial past. Geysers also shoot substantial amounts of moisture into the air; the more famous ones like "The butter churn" drawing dense circles of camera-bearing crowds, the like of which Recklinghausen never witnessed, even during the Ruhr festival.

Travellers bent on finding other similarities with tourist attractions from back home will find them on the coast of southern Iceland, in Stokkseyri. There, just behind a small embankment is a vastly popular restaurant in a wooden hut where... yes, the Sansibar on the island of Sylt instantly springs to mind: another hugely popular hut restaurant which can feed 200 guests in one sitting. And here, as there, sea animals are the speciality of the house.

Here, in Fjörubordid, it's the lobster. The second speciality is the colour black, in the form of a black beach at the back of the black hut which is filled with black table cloths. The lobster never comes whole and is almost exclusively prepared in one way. The proprietors serve only the tails, in a buttery garlic bouillon with little potatoes. It might be said of these lobsters that they are relatives of the giant Canadian lobster, but in fact they are the smallest lobsters I have ever seen on a plate. They weigh in at mere 400 grammes a piece and their tails are no bigger and no different in taste from those of prawns.



Lobster tails


But this does nothing to prevent them from being consumed by the ton at the black clothed tables. The daily procurement of uniformly small lobster tails in such vast amounts smacks of a nearby lobster farm. And the price tells the same story: 37 euros for 300 grammes of tail - which you eat with your fingers, as befits the setting.

Before that, you can eat a thickened lobster soup (10 euros) and an additional side dish of salads and couscous for 5 euros. But the comparison with the Sansibar ends at the wine menu. Not only because of the lack of a good international mid range, but because here, as on all Icelandic menus, there is not a trace of a German wine.

But this does nothing to stop Fjörubordid from being Iceland's most popular countryside eatery, according to the oaths of all Vikings.

The Stokkseyri hinterland has a particularly high density of hot springs, which have attracted many an entrepreneurial investor. They grow flowers and tropical plants in greenhouses. The bananas they produce there are much like the lobster tails: unnaturally small but no less spectacular than ice flowers in Nigeria.

Long drives across the empty countryside illustrate the advantages of the treeless wilderness: thoughts of waldsterben simply do not occur, there is no such thing as a power cut due to hurricanes because the power lines are not endangered by falling trees. And although cars might be blown off the road, they'll never be crushed by a fallen tree. And although it is said of the Icelanders that they make peaceful neighbours, this is certainly due in part to the lack of trees whose leaves might fall on the wrong side of the fence.



Fjörubordid


And naturally, local timber plays no role in construction; the new little houses are delivered ready-made from Norway, in their colourful metal cladding. Which is why some villages look North American, whereas the lonely farms and huts in the almost impassable landscape look eerily like the set of a Beckett play.

We were accompanied on the excursion by an expert (the Arthur Björgvin Bollason I mentioned in part 1) who had committed the early sagas to memory. After all that mutual slaughtering of men and women however, I began to pine for a cosy country inn.

This can be the moment when panic sets in. Because cosy country inns are something of a rarity between the Vatnajökull glacier and the fjords of the north coast. Suddenly the country becomes too big, too sinister, too wild and too bleak. Waterfalls plummet into the depths, volcanoes rumble, glaciers drift towards the valleys, and from nearby Greenland, a low sweeps in, an Icelandair Boeing approaches from the other side bringing new trekkers to the island, the clouds hang from the washing lines of the trolls and the battle of the gods and Aesirs enters its final round.

A spectacular sunset augurs not only downfall but also Arctic nightfall. Our Viking sets the horse power in motion, and off we fly over stick and stone, reaching town in the nick of time. In vain. The Hotel Borg is shut for renovation.

Hotel Borg












Hotel Borg


This building from Reykjavík's glory days would have been just what the doctor ordered. Johannes Josefsson (book), a wrestler who made his fortune in the USA, built the hotel in 1930. It became a landmark of Icelandic modernism in a city with no architectural tradition, and all prominent visitors to the country would stay there. "The Borg reassured them that they were not in a village", commented a local lady smugly on the popularity of the hotel.

And indeed it is the only building in the capital to even halfway suggest the aura of the grand hotel. Something like Berlin's Adlon before the war. Actually it more closely resembles the head office of the Prussian postal service. After our excursion I would have only too gladly sought refuge in its old walls and partaken of the local cod inside its golden ballroom.

Fjörubordid
Eyrarbraut 3A, IS-825 Stokkseyri Tel. 00354-483 15 45, www.fjorubordid.is
closed Mo. and Tu., Wed - Fri only open evenings

Hotel Borg
Posthusstræti 11, IS-101 Reykjavík Tel. 00354-551 14 40, www.hotelborg.is

*

The article was orginially published in German in Die Zeit on April 12, 2006.Wolfram Siebeck, born in 1928 in Duisburg, is one of Germany's most famous chefs and restaurant critics. He writes a regular column for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp
.

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