There’s no Iceland without sheep. We are sure that every Icelander would agree with that.
Did you know that while travelling in Iceland, sometimes it’s not so easy to meet an Icelander, but you can’t keep off sheep? In this fascinating country, there are more sheep than people, far more. To be exact – three times more! We can guarantee that sheep concentration per square meter here is one of the largest in the world. In the summer time they seem to be everywhere.
For ages sheep have been the most important animals in Iceland. An evident sign of their importance is the fact that old Icelandic word fé (sheep) was also used for money. What’s more, an old-fashioned word féhirðir (a shepherd) nowadays also means a treasurer. To have a huge herd – it was a common dream for hundreds of years. If someone had a huge herd of sheep, it simply meant that he was wealthy, happy, and always pleasantly full. In many regions, life revolved only around a farm until the last days of the 20th century. No wonder that sheep were for Icelanders almost like a holiness. Besides, they proudly represented a traditional lifestyle. If you want to get to know more about this kind of special relation between sheep and Icelanders, watch an excellent Icelandic movie called ‘Rams’. We wrote about it a few months ago.
It might surprise you that Icelanders didn’t fish for a really long time. In this field, they had a lengthy break. With every century they were becoming far different from the first settlers, fearless Vikings, who weren’t scared by storms and ocean abyss at all. They started to fish regularly again only in the nineteenth century, and up to this point sheep had been the main source of their food.
During our long stay on the island (as for today we’ve been here for 18 months), we’ve had an opportunity to observe many local food habits. We have to admit that in the beginning they really surprised us. Many Icelanders love to eat fish, but the most beloved meal of the majority of them is definitely lamb. We are sure that when a buffet bends under the weight of delicacies from around the world, lamb will be the most popular among Icelanders. They are traditionalists when it comes to food, and rather don’t like to experiment in the kitchen. In short, at the moment when lamb lands on the table, every Icelander will be happy and satisfied. ‘A plate full of lamb, a few potatoes and what else would you need?’, most of them would say.
If you are visiting Iceland, you definitely should try the local lamb, unless you are a vegetarian. It said to be one of the best in the world. Icelandic sheep spend the whole summer pasturing freely wherever they want, breathing unbelievably fresh air and drinking so pure water. They eat the delicacies of the arctic tundra all the time – among other things angelica and arctic thyme. They are herded on the farms at the beginning of autumn and sheep round-up is quite an event in itself. It’s one of the most important days of the year for farmers.
Almost every Icelander who thinks about a Sunday dinner, will see a sizeable, well roasted, but still juicy piece of lamb, usually with sugar-glazed potatoes. Read on, and we will tell you how to prepare such a feast. Some of you may think that it’s a rather tough task, but none of these things. You just have to get a nice leg of lamb. It’s fairly easy to prepare, and the effect is really exquisite. We decided to enrich this dish with some truly Icelandic ingredients, which aren’t used traditionally.
Last summer we went crazy about berry picking. Tundra has to offer a lot of treats, so apart from berries our baskets quickly got filled with arctic thyme as well. This interesting plant has not much in common with thyme commonly known in Europe. Arctic thyme has different, but so pleasant aroma and beautiful purple hue. The second component, which gave our lamb an amazing flavour was Icelandic crowberry sea salt. It has an unusual purple colour, so when you add a bit to any dish it will present really extraordinary.
If you would like to try a traditional version, then all you need is a thick and rich gravy and Icelandic sugar-glazed potatoes. It goes well with sweet-sour red cabbage. And if you are in the mood for something more modern, it tastes great with mint pesto.
Food photography – Adam Biernat
Roast leg of lamb with arctic thyme
- leg of lamb with the bone
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tsp. dried arctic thyme (you can use normal thyme or rosemary instead)
- 5 cloves garlic
- freshly ground black pepper
- crowberry sea salt (or plain sea salt)
- 2 tbsp. flour
- gravy browning (or soy sauce)
Take the lamb out of the refrigerator one hour before cooking.
Rub the lamb with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Put it on a rack of a roasting pan and broil it until it looks a little browned (around 5 minutes for each side).
Take the lamb out of the oven and rub it with arctic thyme and minced garlic.
Cover it loosely with aluminum foil and cook it for around an hour and a half at 160°C (325°F).
Remove the foil and continue to cook the lamb for around half an hour (a little longer if you prefer well-done lamb).
Allow the lamb to rest for about a quarter before serving.
In the meantime prepare the gravy.
Carve the lamb and prepare for the feast!
Skim the fat from the roasting pan, pour it through a sieve into a saucepan and bring it to boil.
Mix the flour with a little cold water until you get a smooth paste and then stir it into the fat. Add a little salt and pepper. Simmer for around 5 minutes. Add more water if needed. You can add some gravy browning or soy sauce to get a darker sauce.
Food photography – Adam Biernat
If you wonder what else to try while travelling around Iceland, check out this Guide to Icelandic food by Kavey (Kavey Eats).