Like most islands, Iceland has relied heavily on the sea throughout its history for its supply of food. Just as Japan has sushi and Sri Lanka has prawn curry, Iceland has a cuisine that reflects its rich fishing tradition. Haddock, plaice and halibut are popular on the menus here; so too are herring and shrimp. Hákarl, or putrescent shark meat, may not sound too appealing to the uninitiated but it’s a delicious traditional seasonal food in Iceland, and is often accompanied by a shot of local schnapps.
Put simply, the Icelanders like their fish. In fact, until around 1990, locals here ate more seafood per capita than anywhere else in Europe. Iceland now consumes more fish than any other country save for the Maldives.
It goes without saying, then, that visitors would be remiss not to sample the local fare, and what better place to do so than at one of the festivals which revolve specifically around the catch of the day. Dotted around the country, they can be easily reached with a hire car from Iceland’s capital Reykjavík.
On the first or second Saturday in August, fish distributors and others associated with the industry host the mother of all seafood buffets. It begins just before lunch and ends in the early evening, bearing the fitting title, The Great Fish Day. Taking place annually in Dalvíkurbyggð in the north-east, The Great Fish Day been running for a little over a decade, and a total of 220,000 people have attended to enjoy complimentary fresh fish, most from off the shores of Iceland but some of which is from further afield. Succulent shrimps from Japan have been available in previous years, while other courses include herring with homemade whole-wheat bread and dried fish with Icelandic butter. Its hefty barbecue is the longest in the country, and it soon takes the form of an assembly line, with 12 stations offering grilled fish including haddock, cod, salmon, redfish and catfish, all of which are marinated in various ingredients.
Expect diverse entertainment each year, such as a fish exhibition, art shows, street theatre and even a short cruise off the shore. There are also fashion shows, in which the outfits are made out fish skin. Each year the entertainment changes, so no matter when you go to the festival, it’ll always be a unique event.
“Unique” might also be the word you would use to describe the annual Lobster Festival hosted in Höfn, a small coastal town in the south-east. You’ll need to hire a car in Iceland to go to the event, which usually runs in late June or early July and honours the crustacean that almost everyone agrees is delicious. Technically speaking, it isn’t truly a lobster; rather it’s a langoustine. But even those eating in restaurants often fail to notice the difference because of the similarity in taste. And there are plenty of others who say that the langoustine, with its fresh, sweet flavour, is superior to its larger cousin. Luckily for those who attend the Lobster Festival, the langoustine is hauled ashore in staggering volume by the local fishing fleet. And for anyone who doesn’t have a taste for it, there’s also dancing, music and quite a bit of alcohol.
Seaman’s Sunday is less about food, and more about those who brave the waters to fetch it. After all, without them, there would be no haddock, no plaice, no halibut and no hákarl. Since 1987, a day celebrating the hard work of Iceland’s rugged fishermen and women has been a legal holiday, and each fishing town celebrates the event in its own way. There is usually an abundance of nautical-related entertainment suitable for the whole family, but for those who want the fullest experience, head to the capital, where The Festival of the Sea is held in the old harbour area. There’s sailing and swimming, face-painting, pier-fishing and, of course, plenty of food.
Though many Icelanders enjoy a drink with their meal, its seafood festivals welcome visitors of any ages. They are ideally suited for visiting families with young children, who perhaps wish to steer clear of more adventurous activities like glacier hiking, snorkelling, white water rafting or ice climbing. What’s more, visitors will have the opportunity to attend a truly original and uniquely Icelandic event, one which has at its centre something of far-reaching historical, cultural and gastronomical importance.