Iceland has some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes – despite being less than 250 miles from one end to the other, the island is packed with volcanoes, mountains, glaciers, fjords, waterfalls and geysers. But one thing it’s not so well known for is its food. You might have heard of bizarre Icelandic specialities like sheep’s head and fermented shark, but what do normal Icelanders really eat? I set out on a whirlwind trip to Iceland to discover more about one of the country’s staple dishes – Thunder Bread or Rúgbrauð. This type of rye bread was the focus of the latest in a series of videos being produced by Celebrity Cruises and Waitrose to highlight food and travel stories from around Europe. I followed along as café owner and cookbook author Rosie Lovell and her film crew headed out into the island on the Thunder Bread trail.
Leaving Reykjavik behind, we headed east out of the city and into a deserted landscape of wild open plains backed with jagged mountains. The road skirted around the edge of Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake which reaches over 110 metres deep in some parts. On the north shore of the lake is Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park, the site of Iceland’s first parliament. We just had time to climb up to one of the viewpoints to see the amazing views across the park – with a pathway through a rift valley of sheer volcanic cliffs on one side and a rich green plain dotted with lakes and tiny white buildings on the other. Iceland’s landscapes are like nowhere else on earth. But we didn’t have time to get out there and explore them this time, as we had to travel on eastwards to reach our destination of Laugarvatn Fontana.
Laugarvatn Fontana is on the banks of another lake, surrounded by black volcanic sand beaches. The cloud had rolled in and it was getting chilly, but if you looked closely at the edge of the water you could see steam rising and bubbling pools, and there was a distinct whiff of sulphur in the air. Lake Laugarvatn has three thermal springs along its shore, which heat the water for the spa’s hot pools and saunas, but also kick out enough power to provide energy for the whole village. They were also going to cook our bread, but first we had to learn how to make it. We were introduced to Sigurdur Hilmarsson (aka the more easy to pronounce Siggi), manager and chef at Laugarvatn Fontana, and our guide to the world of Thunder Bread.
While the film crew set up their lights and cameras, we grabbed the chance for a quick chat with Rosie. She started her first café, Rosie’s Deli Café, in Brixton market 12 years ago and has recently opened a second branch in Peckham. Both are areas of London that Rosie loves and she’s not planning to expand much more – she still likes to be hands-on and splits her time between the two kitchens. She’s also created two cookbooks – Spooning with Rosie (with frugal, student-style recipes) and Supper with Rosie (with more grown up, internationally inspired recipes). We chatted about her travels for the videos so far – with gelato in Florence, manti (a type of pasta) in Istanbul and gin in Barcelona – and her food travel wish-list, topped by Japan and North Africa. Then with the crew set up and ready to go it was time to get cooking.
Thunder Bread has been cooked by Icelanders for generations, all across the country. And just like so many other classic dishes – think Italian tomato sauce or English Christmas pudding – each family has its own slightly different recipe, and each one thinks theirs tastes the best. Siggy’s version was a simple, purist take on Thunder Bread made with 4 cups rye, 2 cups plain flour, 2 cups sugar, 1 litre of milk and a pinch of salt. The ingredients are mixed together and then put into a buttered metal pot that’s tightly wrapped with cling film to make it watertight. Then we headed outside to the thermal springs, which add their own special Icelandic twist to the cooking process. Back home, you could use a bain-marie in the oven to get a similar effect, but that’s no where near as interesting as digging a hole on a bubbling hot beach and burying the bread underground for 24 hours to cook (not something you see on the Bake Off!).
Siggi grabbed a spade to unearth the bread he’d buried yesterday before covering up the new batch with a layer of black sand. The steaming hot pot was dipped into the lake water to cool off before it was ready to unwrap and the finished Thunder Bread was revealed. There are similar breads made across Scandinavia, but Iceland’s version is sweeter and more cake-like, with a deep golden-brown colour. The sugar caramelises with the long slow cooking and the steam gives it a light texture. Traditionally it’s served with a salty, smoked trout from a farm across Lake Laugarvatn, herring, smoked lamb or with an Icelandic fish stew. But it’s just as tasty straight out of the ground, still warm with a spread of butter. But what about the name? Rúgbrauð translates as rye bread, so where does the thunder come from? Well apparently be careful if you eat too much, it can cause gas so you might be creating your own thunder later!
Big thanks to Celebrity Cruises for inviting me along for a behind-the-scenes preview. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.