Where our food comes from is one of the most important things you should know. And not only the where, but also who is producing the food and are they pouring their heart and soul into that production. I have traveled from Kansas to Belize learning about farmers and food production and recently returned from Iceland. I spent a few days learning about meat, fish, produce, alcohol, skyr and more. But it is the Icelandic lamb I have to share first. Being on a farm in Iceland is a highly recommended experience!
During my trip, I had the privilege of sitting next to the Managing Director of Icelandic Lamb and the Icelandic Culinary Team, Chef Haflidi Halldorsson, at dinner at OX. I listened to him speak about the high standards and requirements farmers and the government put on Icelandic Lamb production. Their goal is to maintain economic and environmental sustainability as well as the highest respect for the animals.
I traveled about an hour outside of Reykjavik to Hvalfjaroarsveit to the Bjarteyjarsandur farm. I cannot say enough about the people, the views, the food and sheep! But I will…
I am not sure how else to explain the location other than magical! I would pick up and move there in a heartbeat. The family home, restaurant, farm, smoke house and all sit on a piece of land surrounded by every type of landscape there is in Iceland. Out the front door is the Fjord which has the salt water inlet that leads to the Greenland Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The Fjord is so deep that minke, humpback and sometimes other whales are often visitors.
The beach is also home to a natural hot pot for both bathing and cooking. To the north, south and west are valleys that lead to mountains. This is where the sheep and their newborn lambs are set out to graze for the season. Looking out the back of the home to the north is a river that leads to the water filled with trout. There is not a bad view anywhere and I am not sure if I will ever have words to describe it since magical and breathtaking do not do it justice.
This is not just generations of a family living and working on the farm, but it is families that have been brought together by marriage and in-laws living and working on the property together. The farm has been in the family since 1887. Each member has a specialty and maintain the traditions that are passed down including the high level of love and care that go into making sure the animals are maintained with respect and sustainability. It is not just generation to generation doing the same thing, but each generation bringing something new to the table. A few new projects include bringing in local craftsmen’s goods to the shop for visitors to buy, school trips to visit the farm for fun and education, and guest rooms for people to stay a couple of days.
We need also to mention that the family could not do what they do without their community. In the area of this farm, there are about eight farms that set their sheep and lambs out to graze for the season together. The families in the community work together to check on their herds as well as at the end of the season when they work together to bring the sheep and lambs home. The love, respect, and passion of the people literally made me cry.
These are happy sheep. I stood in a barn where the sheep spend their winter. There were over 700 head and they were happy, calm, eating, interacting with each other, teasing the dogs, and just hanging out. Once the sheep, rams, and lambs are called back home, the lamb go to market and the sheep and ram are kept at the farm. Depending on the weather, they are either inside or out, biding time until the new season rolls around to head out again.
While home, they are sheered and their wool is processed. The two things that stood out to me were the sheering and food for the winter. I happened to visit the barn right when one of the sheep was coming out to be sheered. I saw this strap and thought they must put the sheep in there to hold them. But, I was wrong…the farmer leaned through it. The sheep was free to roam the area but it did not. In fact, she seemed to lay back and enjoy loosing the pounds and pounds of wool it had grown during the year. When the sheep was finished, the farmer just stood up and the sheep wandered back to the area she was in.
The second thing that amazed me was the food for the herd for the winter. In the United States, I am not sure if you have seen how we dry out and store the hay animals use when not in the fields off-season. We roll it up or make bails, it dries out, and we feed it to the animals. I have heard of farmers storing it other ways, but I personally have not seen it. In Iceland, the feed is grown, harvested and when just harvested, wrapped up in a green film. This keeps it moist and the nutrients in the hay. It was a much different feel from that in the States.
Let us just declare these the happiest and most free-range lambs ever. We are not talking about free-range on a farm or in a field. We are talking about you are born, enjoy your mother’s milk for a few days, and when you are strong enough, you get to wander in the fields around the farm with the other newborns, your siblings, and your mother and father. You are set free to roam the mountains to spend the summer.
These lambs graze on only the finest wild moss and superfoods naturally sourced in the valleys, mountains, and rocky sides. The food that the lambs eat are microgreens filled with only the finest and richest in nutrients. It is said they grow so fast because of this nutrient rich food. Once these lambs are walking and have spent a couple of days close by making sure they are healthy, they are truly Free Range Icelandic Lambs; in the real range with no fences.
We would be remiss if we did not mention the sheep dogs of Iceland. I will say these in all likelihood, the least worked dogs in the industry. Think about it. The sheep are home in the barn in the winter to stay away from the elements and sent to the mountains to roam free all spring and summer. Thus the “working” dogs work just a couple a of weeks during the year. But they are the friendliest, happiest and beloved by their herd. When we were in the barn, the dogs just hung out with the sheep as if they were one of them.
Icelandic Lamb is a true delight when you can find it. I highly suggest being sure to have your name on a list when it comes to your local market, because the season is short and the amount is limited. At the Bjarteyjarandur Farm, they sell much of their lamb at the end of the season, but they do keep some to process themselves. They have a smoke house on property where they prepare meats, make their own sausage, and more. They also sell many of their products in their shop.
When I was there, the owner prepared a “Taste of the Neighborhood” for us. They included smoked trout from their river that they smoked, a kleina which is a favorite Icelandic pastry much like a doughnut, and hangikjot. Hangikjot is a traditional smoked lamb that can be served many ways. We enjoyed it cubed and served on an opened face sandwich.
You can visit Bjarteujarandur by checking them on Facebook.
Have you ever had Icelandic Lamb?
I am a home cook that does things my way. In my kitchen, I make breakfast, pack lunches, prepare snacks, and cook dinner. During the week, we eat real food that is homemade, organic, and local. On the weekends we do explore more of our local restaurants. I bake my own bread, juice fresh oranges every other day, and make my own kombucha and other weekly favorites.