Food and Drink in the Land of Fire and Ice
Convenience Store Products checks out the Iceland c-store scene
OAKBROOK, TERRACE, Ill. -- Iceland is a place of overwhelming beauty. It’s at once desolately remote--NASA astronauts trained for landing on the moon here in the 1960s--and truly alive, as the ground steams, boils and bubbles, waterfalls roar at frightening speeds, and volcanoes sit ominously under their icecaps, decades overdue to erupt.
It’s also a place of 320,000 inhabitants and 800,000 annual visitors—all who need to fill up their gas tanks and load up on road trip food while traveling from one geyser to the next. That’s what my family and I did at the end of June during a weeklong stay, snapping some pictures along the way.
Overall, Iceland’s convenience stores aren’t much different from ours—particularly in more rural areas. They carry a very similar assortment of categories and products, and are laid out quite the same. Big differences appear as you visit urban stores—which take a much more prominent role as neighborhood superettes—and roadside travel centers. Like the rest of Europe, these highway stops have robust foodservice offerings with national brands such as Saffran--Iceland's homegrown fast-casual concept that even had a location in Orlando for a while--as well as a few familiar faces.
Flavor nuances also appear as you begin to sample the options. Some everyday Icelandic snacks include skyr (a rich, protein-heavy yogurt that puts Greek yogurt to shame), wind-dried fish (Icelander’s beef jerky, which they like to spread with butter) and hot dogs (more on that below).
Continue on for some c-store product highlights from the land of fire and ice.
Icelanders’ love for black licorice is evident in nearly every candy wrapper you open. It’s a bit of a surprise when you think you’re eating a simple chocolate bar—though chocolate and black licorice is an unexpectedly great flavor pairing.
The plain black licorice found in Iceland has a saltier note to it than American varieties. Meanwhile, few Iceland-only flavors of global brands were found, save for a few European specialties such as Kit Kat Chunky Bars.
What American chain has the biggest presence in Iceland? Not McDonald’s, which, according to locals, left the island after the country’s big economic crash. Rather, it’s Subway, whose stores can be found everywhere from roadside petrol stations to Reykjavik’s chic shopping district. Some unexpected menu items include the Reggae Reggae: chicken strips in a Caribbean sauce topped with veggies and ham. The other American chain with a notable presence: fellow sandwich shop Quiznos.
Better-for-you bars have permeated the Icelandic snack-food landscape, primarily through exports from Canada (such as Taste of Nature) and Europe (nakd, a British brand). Note the rhubarb—an ingredient as omnipresent as black licorice and troll figurines.
Tubes of caviar are certainly not American c-store staples. But even more abundant in Icelandic c-stores is Harðfiskur, wind-dried fish. Icelanders munch on this fish jerky—often spread with butter—on road trips and beyond. Many locals will attribute their generally tall statures to all the omega-3s, particularly Harðfiskur, they and their ancestors have consumed.
After growing up in Wisconsin, living in Chicago for nearly 10 years and claiming ancestry roots from Germany, I thought I knew hot dogs. But my first taste of pylsur, Icelandic hot dogs, was a game changer. They are made with lamb, pork and beef and have a nice snap, and are topped with both raw and crunchy fried onions, mustard, ketchup and a tangy, sweet remoulade. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is the place to go when you’re in Reykjavik. Also, note the clever hot-dog holder built into the picnic table.
The other notable chain with no presence in Iceland is Starbucks, which would likely have a tough time competing with Iceland’s deeply entrenched coffee culture. But it has found its ways onto c-store shelves. Unlike the RTD Starbucks drinks stateside, this one looked just like a hot cup of Starbucks coffee, complete with lid and iconic green straw.
Perhaps to make up for the often-sad state of the produce aisle, Iceland has a bevy of fruit juices with unique packaging, branding and flavor profiles. Brands to check out include Froosh and Saffran--which is an offshoot of a popular fast-casual chain found in many highway travel centers.
Think energy and protein drinks are American fads? Think again. Iceland c-store shelves were filled with such products, both familiar and unknown brands.
Iceland’s relative remoteness hasn’t kept it from quickly picking up on new flavor trends, such as potato-chip alternatives such as Popcorners. Meanwhile, Doritos’ translation of Cool Ranch to Cool American is surely a compliment.