In search of the Icelandic strawberry

I recently returned from a whirlwind trip to Iceland to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. Much has been said about the trip from my esteemed colleagues: the coffee cult and cod's head being of particular note. I though about telling you stories of dining out with Ruth Reichl or talking small-town upbringings with Barbara Kingsolver, but that ran the risk of sounding a little star-struck. So instead I bring you the tale of my search for the mysterious Icelandic strawberry. 

Iceland is, in many ways, aptly named. I remember learning in third grade that youthful geographic joke that Iceland is really green while Greenland is covered in ice. And it’s true, to some degree. However, it did blizzard for three days in April and the stretch from the airport into town is a barren moss-covered lava field. Not the sort of green my 9-year-old self had in mind.

And it’s certainly not a landscape that conjures to mind a farming culture or rich food history. So imagine my surprise to be served one of the finest meals I’ve ever eaten in my life (at new-Nordic hot-spot DILL) and to learn that this country, whose median summer temperature hovers around cool 60 degrees, is home to a year-round strawberry industry. 

On my final day in Iceland, I set out in a rental car (an industry the otherwise-efficient country has yet to master) to explore the western fjords of the island and find proof of the elusive summer fruit that claims to grow in this inhospitable environment. I followed a route suggested by Barbara and her husband Steven. Icelanders are bridge and tunnel people - if not for these feats of engineering, the country would be all but impassable and any journey quadrupled in time by the necessity of traveling inland the length of each fjord in order to reach the next point that hovers less than a mile away as the crow flies. And yet despite the presence of a miraculously constructed tunnel, I chose to head inland along the fjord anyway, in an attempt to elevate the journey above the destination. 

The landscape, while not terribly green, is stunning. Towering mountains and prolific waterfalls spill into the rugged coast. Of the country’s 320,000 residents, over two-thirds live in the capital city so these country back-roads are solitary and quiet. I drove inland along the coast, stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures and turn off the persistent GPS voice. Once you get outside the city, there are no instructions needed. Just drive. 

Much has been said about the contrast of fire and ice in this improbable country. The inland glaciers, year-round winter weather, and northern latitude are counter-balanced by the country’s turbulent and primal geothermal activity, like the whole landmass serves as the earth’s pressure relief valve. 

Midway up the western coast, I turned into a valley and headed toward the inland glaciers. The side of the road was littered with small steam vents, sending up puffs of hot air into freezing surface temperatures. I passed the world’s largest hot-spring (whose name starts with an Icelandic version of ‘dildo’, Steven had warned me…), the tiny town of Reykholt, and endless vistas of snow-covered hills. And then there it was: A road-side farm stand with a giant picture of a strawberry.

I pulled off the road and walked back to find a massive set of glowing greenhouses. In this inhospitable landscape, steam from geothermic vents is pumped in to provide warm, moist growing environments. Hanging from the rafters were rows and rows of potted strawberry plants, their little red berries like beacons of summer in the midst of a blizzard. “We can grow almost year round, with these lights on,” the owner told me. “They’re not a special kind, just regular strawberry plants that we ship in.” The region grows not only strawberries but also tomatoes, cucumbers, and even bananas. Look out, Costa Rica, here comes the Icelandic banana! I bought a clamshell full of ripe strawberries to sample. They were ripe and juicy, reminders of long, lazy summer days on the island where I grew up. 

Each bite was enticing, seemingly incongruous to the snow lining the roadside. Much like sharing caraway bread and salted cod with my culinary hero or talking garlic planting with a NYT best-seller, devouring a pack of strawberries in the middle of a snowy, barren field was an unexpected pleasure, a finding of familiar comfort in surprising places.