Here is one solid question for you: How was the scenery like the last time you’ve crossed a 5000 year old lava stone field? I don’t know about you, but I never thought it would look as good as Hveragerði, a small village 45 minutes’ drive from Reykjavik, south of Iceland, and yes, I (and the car GPS too) are still trying to figure out how to pronounce that name. The village was one of the first geothermal spring site exploited in Iceland and you can pretty much witness everything that makes life possible in this incredible vast northern land.
With steam piping out at an insane 170C from the 234 meters underground with a pressure up to 14 bar, the heat and steam pretty much powers everything in town from cooking, heating, washing, electricity, and of course baking. When I learned that rye bread was being baked naturally in geothermal heated sand in nearby Laugarvatn, I was already picturing myself wearing Homer’s aluminum foil protective body armor, using a pair of long clippers, and handling sourdough bread in a Kryptonite container down in a river of melted lava! But no…
We arrived on site after an hour drive, and after a welcome as warm as the temperature on that day (10C), the staff led us to the shore of the lake where a geothermal spring was located, beautiful and sunny with very strong wind from the north blowing. I was expecting to see how the dough was kneaded, the specific ingredients used and the actual making, but all we’ve got was a recipe written like that: “4 cups rye, 2 cups flour, 2 cups sugar, 4 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt, 1 liter milk”. From a baker’s perspective, it was disappointing as it was clearly a sort of cake rather than a bread. There is no fermentation in the process since it uses baking powder, but the interesting part is the baking taking place in a metal pot with lid, wrapped in plastic film. The staff then digs a small hole in the smoking sand, the hole gets naturally filled by the water wandering inside the sand. The water boils, therefore reaching temperature approaching 100C. It is then covered by a mountain of sand topped with a stone to mark the location, and left as such for 24 hours of slow baking.
When we tried the rye “bread”, it felt very much like a ginger bread cake texture and taste.
I was really wondering where the flavor came from. Was it the magic of baking at 100C for 24 hours, sealed into a pot, creating a sort of chemistry between the low heat, the steam and the ingredients that would create these insanely caramelized and spiced tones? Or was it a secret blend of spices that were added? The question remains and our host wasn’t going to share that info. That would definitely be ground for further study. Nevertheless, the bread, piping hot, was carefully taken out from the pot and sliced for us. We were served with butter along the bread. I was expecting an Icelandic home churned butter from wild cows, but again, no, it was imported from abroad – which killed me a little more inside – that said, the bread/cake was very good, especially freshly baked. Fairly sweet, it was a good balance with butter. I tried it in sandwiches in several places and I would say that it was probably a question of habits to eat sandwiches made in sweet rye bread, and with the texture of a cake rather than a bread. In the end, baking in geothermal sand on the shore of a lake isn’t your everyday baker’s routine and if you have the chance to experiment, I really recommend it.
As a complete novice tourist to Iceland, I probably haven’t experienced Icelandic food to its full scale and I am sure there is a lot more to discover than lamb and soup. But to be honest, I loved every bits of Iceland with its fabulous glaciers, waterfalls, vast lands and the nomadic cattle scattered just about everywhere. As a matter of fact, if you planned to move to planet Mars anytime soon, don’t bother, the landscapes are as stunning in Iceland!