The Sweet Life of Icelandic Cafés

Icelandica is a blog written by Tor Bilski, an American woman who travels every summer to Iceland with a group of friends. They ride horses, chatter incessantly, and kick up dust. 

She has previously written two articles for Stuck in Iceland Travel Magazine:

Café Meski, Reykjavik

Our annual trip to Iceland always begins with Sibba. We meet up with her in a Reykjavik bakery of her choosing. She is an old friend of Kat’s, and now an old friend of ours.

This year Sibba told us to meet her at Café Meskí, which is in 108 Reykjavik. Once we’re out of our comfort zone of 101 however, we get lost easily. And Reykjavik grows and spreads out more each year. So we headed out on Saebraut, followed signs for Mosfellsbӕr, turned back on Miklabraut and somehow a quick drive to the cafe turned into 45 minute snafu. By the time we got out of the car, we were all testy with each other and needed a drink more than a cup of coffee and piece of cake.

But there is something about bakeries that soothe the soul and make you reconsider fellow humans lovingly. The air is just sweeter in a bakery; it calms you down like a pacifier. It didn’t matter that we arrived under traffic duress—we were at Café Meskí and Sibba was there to greet us.

Café Meskí is a cheery, bright white place with floor-to-ceiling windows that could trick you into thinking it was sunny outside. It wasn’t. We congregated at the counter to put in our orders as Sibba translated the menu items, like Kjúklingasúpa (chicken soup). I ordered what I thought was a shrimp salad sandwich or “Ekta skonsubrauðterta.”  Then we sat down with our coffee or tea and waited for the food.

Tor was blown away by this temptation from an Icelandic café called "Ekta skonsubrauðtertur" no less
Tor was blown away by this temptation from an Icelandic café called “Ekta skonsubrauðtertur” no less

This is usually the time when we catch up on all that has happened in the past year with Sibba. But the day before our get together, a close friend of hers died suddenly and Sibba was distraught and distracted. How did it happen? we asked. Her heart just stopped, Sibba said. No warning. No illness. She had been perfectly healthy.

When the “skonsubrauðterta” was set before me, it looked more like dessert than lunch. The sandwich was a mash up of shrimp and egg salad in creamy sauce that was served on a spongy pancake type of bread, topped with a tomato. It was all at once sweet and savory, warm and soft as baby food, providing solace, comfort, sustenance. Surely, life goes on forever and you can deny your own mortality when you eat something this satisfying.

Sibba couldn’t spend the day with us because she had to plan the music for the funeral service. She looked at the group of us and said, “But I wanted to see you all. It’s good to be with friends.” I thought of all the years we’ve been meeting Sibba in bakeries around Reykjavik and all the years we’ve taken for granted that next year too, we will all be together, and that no one’s heart will stop.

Geirabakari Kaffihus, Borgarnes

Famous now, or infamous, for being the Papa John’s in the recent film version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” starring Ben Stiller, Geirabakari has always been our first stop on the ring road. It is a bustling roadside eatery nourishing tourists and locals alike. In the early years when we stopped here though, it was hard to find someone behind the counter who spoke English. We would point to what we wanted and they would ring it up and point to the number on the cash register. We would open our wallets and spill the coins on the counter and they would pick out the correct amount of krona. This has now changed.

Though we tell ourselves it is just a pit stop and we should be brief and all business, when we walk in we spread out. We meander. I tend to gravitate to the big black pot of the soup de jour that is near the counter with the hearty rye bread and butter: might as well have my first lunch of the day. For only about $6.00 American, the typical soup and bread combos in bakeries are the best deals in Iceland. My favorite here is sveppasúpa (mushroom soup).

Geirabakarí is a nice café in Borgarnes and a nice view . Notice the cinnamon rolls in the foreground. They are to die for.
Geirabakarí is a nice café in Borgarnes and a nice view. Notice the cinnamon rolls in the foreground. They are to die for.

Borgarnes always seems to be spitting rain, but the bakery is full of long windows, which lets in any speck of light. The road that delivers you to this eatery is basically a sandbar covered with tar and Geirabakari is tucked into a corner of the fjord. When the tide is low, the mud flats stretch out far, but when the tide comes full up to the stone berm protecting the road there is a luminous metallic glint to the water.

Chocolate rolls and milk. Talk about Icelandic guilty pleasures.
Chocolate rolls and milk. Talk about Icelandic guilty pleasures.

This roadside bakery is, amazingly, conducive to staring, being quiet and pensive, even for us. And what is supposed to be a ten minute stop to refuel, transitions into a leisurely lunch at 10am: coffee, soup, a sandwich, some kleinur or astarpungar, a yogurt drink, before we hit the road again.

If you are on a low carb diet , this is the wrong place.
If you are on a low carb diet , this is the wrong place.

I have recorded “Walter Mitty” to watch whenever I want an Iceland fix. As Ben Stiller frenetically races around the country on a skateboard, a bike, a car, a boat, I pick out the landscapes I am familiar with. My favorite scene though is when he stands outside of the Geirabakari (in its Papa John’s incarnation) and he calls his wannabe love. “Guess what?” he says, “I’m in Iceland.” The camera pans to the bluish hills above the tidal flats and a solitary house I have stared at many times, and there’s a moment of stillness and awareness as he takes it in. “It’s really beautiful,” he says.

Ommukaffi, Blönduós

Up north, we save one afternoon to go into the town of Blönduós. We visit the wine store (Vínbúð) to buy beer, the supermarket (Samkaup) to stock up on AB mjólk (akin to kefir), the Textiles Museum (where they make you wear white gloves upon entering) and the Sea Ice Museum (hello, polar bear!). But these stops are really just an excuse to stop into our favorite bakery in town, which we refer to as The Blue Café, otherwise known to the locals as Við Arbakkann. This past year they tried to throw us off and painted it yellow and renamed it, Ommukaffi. But we still found it. Color and name change aside, I’m sure we will continue to refer to it as “The Blue Café, or whatever.”

Ömmukaffi Café in Blönduós in the North West of Iceland.
Ömmukaffi Café in Blönduós in the North West of Iceland.

Set in an old fashioned-styled house with walls painted a calming green, the view from the sheer, white curtained windows is the river catchment of Blanda. This bakery is, for us, strictly for horse talk, because that’s why we’re here in Iceland – for the horses. That’s what brings us back every summer as a group: trekking out to the Greenland Sea, crossing Lake Hop, cantering through fields of Arctic lupine, fording the Vatnsdalsa river. We talk horses like a bunch of old cowgirls, putting our dusty boots up on an empty chair, as we pick up dainty tea cups.

Now that is what I call chocolate cake!
Temptation.

Last year at The Blue Café, or whatever, we ordered a piece of cheesecake to share. As a former New Yorker, I pride myself on being a picky judge of cheesecake. It should have a certain heft, and it should leave you regretting the gleeful moment you said, “what-the-hell, I’ll have the cheesecake.”

But Icelandic cheesecake (ostakaka) has nothing to do with the Carnegie Deli creation, since it’s not made with cream cheese and a graham cracker crust. It’s made with sweetened skyr and a minimum of flour. It’s topped with high butterfat whipped cream and a thin chocolate crust. Because we were sharing it, the waitress brought us a slice that was equal to a quarter of the entire cake. As we each took a bite, a hush came over the table. We paused to consider it. We glanced up at each other, forks at the ready. This is the best cheesecake I’ve ever eaten, Kat said. The best cake ever, of any kind, anywhere, I said.

We fell into a sweet coma of happiness from this shared delight, as the river Blanda sparkled outside from the bright sun, which always seems to shine when we’re in Blönduós.

 

I must give an honorable mention to Café Haíti, a really nice café by Reykjavik harbor. 

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The Sweet Life of Icelandic Cafés

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