Salt in Iceland: From scarcity to specialty

Culture and Culinary Tours

salt

When you visit Iceland – what you’ll find a lot of now in the local gift stores and gourmet shops are salts of all kinds, blueberry, arctic herbs, smoked, rhubarb and black sand salt to name just a few.  So what’s with the salt, is it a local speciality and is the Icelandic salt particularly good?  Well, let me tell you a little bit about our history of salt….

For centuries life in Iceland was a struggle.

With the cold climate and barren soil, there was precious little that we could grow here so the focus was necessarily on livestock and fish.  Contrary to our neighbours in Europe we rarely ate bread as wheat couldn’t be grown, so by necessity our diet was very low carb … ahhh how the times have changed.  We also had to find ways of preserving the food through the 9 months of winter that we have here, so we pickled meat in sour whey, dried fish and smoked fish and lamb.

However, for the longest time we did not use salt as a preservation method and one has to wonder why, with the sea surrounding us on all sides! But strangely enough, salt was quite difficult to come by here.  We couldn‘t use evaporation methods to harvest salt from the sea, as that requires sun and dry weather, both of which are sorely lacking in Iceland. 

With the arrival of man on the island and the cooling of the climate that continued from the 13th to the 19th century – commonly known as the Little Ice Age -  Iceland’s vast forests began to disappear from the island and with them, so did the firewood which might be used for the evaporation process essential to salt extraction.  

All that said, we did use various types of seaweed for salt by drying and burning them, and using the salty ashes for food preservation.  This was called black salt and was frankly not a favourite, as it’s never very appetizing to sprinkle ash on your food – we had enough ash to last a lifetime from the regular volcanic eruptions.

So, salt was dire and little used here until the 19th century.  So what changed? Some very smart folks got the great idea to harvest salt by using the steam from hot springs to dry the salt out of the seawater. This first salt processing venture in Iceland only lasted about 20 years before dying down, but it was recently resurrected in the same area as the original, in the Westfjords of Iceland under the name Saltverk. This delicious sea salt is produced as it was before using naturally occurring, environmentally friendly geothermal heat.  

And they’re not the only ones now producing gourmet sea salt from the pure Icelandic sea.  Norður & Co., also located in the West fjords, use the same method, producing salt that conserves the unique qualities from the sea and with very little environmental impact.  The little family company Urta Islandica, that use Icelandic healing plants to make wonderful jams, teas and syrups, use the salt to make their delicious herbal salts such as the Arctic Herbal Salt, which is enriched with Arctic Thyme and Icelandic moss and goes perfectly with lamb, game, soups and salads.  

popcorn

One of my favourites is the Black Lava Salt, which is enriched with activated charcoal which gives it a rich  black colour and which incidentally is also great for stomach upsets and trapping toxins and harmful chemicals in the body.  The Volcano Salt is also amazing, with added chili flakes for an additional kick. 

volcano salt

So how would I use one of these speciality salts? I recommend baking a loaf of your favourite bread and while it’s in the oven, whip up some “beurre noisette” or browned butter and mix the browned butter with an equal part of regular butter.  When the bread is warm from the oven just spread the delicious butter mixture on top and sprinkle with Black Lava Salt or another favourite—it’s pure heaven! This little recipe is a sure winner for your dinner party and the salts also make for great conversation!

And for a lazy but classy night at home, try a bowl of popcorn with your favourite Icelandic salt and perhaps a glass of red wine. Gerið þið svo vel!

For a closer look at the URTA salts and the Flaky Sea Salt from Norður & Co. see here: https://yourperfectday.myshopify.com/collections/icelandic-goodies

 

 Solla author