Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Homebody Travels - Iceland

Before I launch into Iceland...let me explain this "Homebody Travels" concept:

If you are among the breed of person that finds themselves with the disease known as the travel bug, sometime called wanderlust...then you know the continual distraction and temptation to always be researching and planning, longing for and day-dreaming of your next venture to explore a new place.  However, life puts limits on instant satisfaction of such musings, due to money and time and 9-to-5 job constraints. So, my flatmate hatched this plan of traveling while remaining at home, which I have christened "homebody travels."  Essentially, there are ways you can travel without leaving home by means of seeing a place through films shot there or books set there, tasting a place by trying to concoct a dish from that region, hearing the place via music that encapsulates that country, and coming to know a place by studying up on it's history and culture.

So our first embarking is to Iceland.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

A land deeply rooted in it's ancient heritage (human settlement began around 850 AD), in the sagas past down from generation to generation, Iceland is described as a land of extreme contrasts.  Characterized by volcanoes (over 130 volcanic mountains to be exact) and glaciers (over 10% of the land area), composed of seasons of eternally dark winters and the summer midnight sun, home of unspoiled nature, and venue of the ever evasive aurora borealis.  It is populated by just over 300,000 people, is the least densely populated country in Europe, with a latitude just outside the Arctic Circle.  It was once part of both the Danish and Norwegian Monarchies, became independent at the end of the First World War (1918), but has a culture defined by it's Nordic heritage.  It is a predominately Christian country, was once seen as a hermitage for Irish monks, and has had a language largely unchanged for 1,000 years.

Final fun factoid - (apparently) many Icelanders believe in elves, and have re-routed roads on occasion to avoid disturbing areas where elves are thought to dwell.  (With every image I've seen of this amazingly beautiful place, I'd find it hard to truly seems like a fairy tale land).

I remember the first time I heard Sigur Ros...I wasn't sure exactly what I was listening to, nor was I sure if I should be understanding the lyrics (where they in English?) or if I could rest in the comfort of non-comprehension (where they in a human tongue at all?): often the truest form of escapism in music, the acceptance of the impression of meaning without every being certain.  All I knew for sure is that I was being transported in sound.  In truth, I felt I was listening to some Elvish or forest nymphet siren-song symphony. I wanted and longed to dwell in that sound space forever, to float along the waves of symphonic reverberations to where ever their land of origin be. When I found out the band was Icelandic, I knew this would be a place that would hover forever at the top of my list of "must-one-day-visit"s, and it has never left the top of that list since.  And as if the music weren't transporting enough, then you see one or two of their music videos and become further obsessed with visiting the small isle far to the north. Someday I shall, but until then...I can always escape there with Sigur Ros.

Icelandic-Inspired Rice Pudding
Coming in just behind sheep's head and fermented sharp in "pinned" frequency on Pinterest for "Icelandic Food" was rice pudding.  There were a few recipes we stumbled upon, and we elected the one that seemed within our reach (others were rather Europeanized, with exact grams of ingredients listed over the generalized and Americanized version that list things in cups and teaspoons), and dove into the first of our culinary homebody travel journeys.

We differed slightly from the recipe as it was here is our version of this Icelandic dessert.

1. Start with 1/2 cup of instant white rice.  Follow the water ratio instructions on the box, and cook the rice until the water is fully absorbed.

   2. Add in 1.5 cups of almond milk, 1 Tablespoon of dark brown sugar, and 2 mini-packs of raisins (or 1/4 cup of dried fruit of choice).

3. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until desired thickness.

4. Remove from heat and spoon into individual bowls. Dust with cinnamon or brown sugar if desired and serve.  The amount in this recipe is perfect for 2 people.

Our first taste left us with a wavering verdict of our success, but the appeal of our culinary creation grew with each bite.  Our version was very mildly sweet, in an unexpected but most appealing way. The almond milk made it especially creamy.  This could easily be served for breakfast and is very reminiscent of oatmeal.  I think this will actually become an old-standby "breakfast for a snack" in my dining repertoire now - we both enjoyed it that much.

We also found a few recipes for Icelandic yogurt, but also joyfully discovered that Icelandic-style yogurt was available in grocery stores.  Siggi's yogurt is sold in many grocery stores locally, even at Target, at least where we live.  I was slightly disillusioned when I read the label and discovered it was made in New York...but I suppose it was unreasonable to assume that local stores imported yogurt form Iceland and then sold it for a only a few dollars a pop.  Anyways, it was made in the Icelandic that is all that matters for our purposes.

Peel off the paper label adhered to your yogurt pot and discover the tale of Icelandic yogurt.  According to it, skyr (strained yogurt made from cow's milk) has been a stable of the Icelandic diet for over 1,000 years and is "as traditional as apple pie is in the States."  It is made from skim milk after the cream has been floated off for butter production, but while regular yogurt is mostly water, the water is trained away in the making of skyr, which means that one cup of skyr requires three times more milk than a regular cup of yogurt.  Siggi's yogurt specifically is protein rich (14g per pot), sweetened lightly with agave nectar, produced from milk sourced from family farms in New York State from grass-fed/free grazing cows, and made with live active cultures.  They don't joke about the thickness: much thicker than Greek yogurt, very tart (good to add some fresh fruit too actually), and while delicious it is almost too richly dense to finish in a sitting (although we managed just fine).  Even so, we each agreed it preferable to Greek yogurt (which we both enjoy immensely) in the end.

There are a handful of science-fiction/fantasy films and TV shows filmed in Iceland...the one of our choice to view as our visual journey into Iceland was Game of Thrones.  No plot spoilers, but for fans...just know that to go to Iceland is to "go beyond The Wall."  This video gives you a little taste of the show and of the Ice-land that it was filmed in.  Bundle up before you watch though, with the knowledge that 'winter is coming.' 

Although not technically set there, the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones (mentioned above), was partially filmed there.  So reading of that which lies beyond The Wall is, in a way, reading of the land of Iceland.  I've been obsessed with the book series for the past two years and have infected my flatmate an growing addiction to them, so it was an easily reading venue to transport us to Iceland while still at home.

I also stumbled across a tumblr of Icelandic poetry which led me to researching Jonas Hallgrimsson (1807-1845).  Hallgrimsson is one of Iceland's most well known poets, thought of as a founder of Icelandic romanticism, and was also a naturalist. I enjoy his works especially for their emphasis on the landscape, and found I could truly travel through Iceland through his stanzas.  The gem below can be found on a site dedicated to his poems and biography:
Iceland, fortunate isle! Our beautiful, bountiful mother!
Where are your fortune and fame, freedom and virtue of old?
All things on earth are transient: the days of your greatness and glory
flicker like flames in the night, far in the depths of the past.
Comely and fair was the country, crested with snow-covered glaciers,
azure and empty the sky, ocean resplendently bright.
Here came our famous forebears, the freedom-worshipping heroes,
over the sea from the east, eager to settle the land.
Raising their families on farms in the flowering laps of the valleys,
hearty and happy they lived, hugely content with their lot.
Up on the outcrops of lava where Axe River plummets forever
into the Almanna Gorge, Althing convened every year.
There lay old Þorgeir, thoughtfully charting our change of religion.
There strode Gissur and Geir, Gunnar and Héðinn and Njáll.
Heroes rode through the regions, and under the crags on the coastline
floated their fabulous ships, ferrying wealth from abroad.
O it is bitter to stand here stalled and penned in the present!
Men full of sloth and asleep simply drop out of the race!
How have we treated our treasure during these six hundred summers?
Have we trod promising paths, progress and virtue our goal?
Comely and fair is the country, crested with snow-covered glaciers,
azure and empty the sky, ocean resplendently bright.
Ah! but up on the lava where Axe River plummets forever
into the Almanna Gorge, Althing is vanished and gone.
Snorri's old site is a sheep-pen; the Law Rock is hidden in heather,
blue with the berries that make boys — and the ravens — a feast.
Oh you children of Iceland, old and young men together!
See how your forefathers' fame faltered — and passed from the earth!

Perhaps while reading some of Hallgrimsson's work you can complete your immersion in all-that-is-Iceland by returning to Sigur Ros.  In an interview, bass player Georg Holm said, "Our album is like a little book and it should be listened to as a whole." So, with whatever research you do of the country online and with any Icelandic literature you read, put on some Sigur Ros in the background, and your homebody travel to the Iceland will be complete.

*factoids gathered from:!/?id=a0jC0000001ungrIAA

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