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The Icelandic bread that’s baked in the ground
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(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)
To understand how Icelanders have lived with the formidable elements of their island, you need only look at a rather unsuspecting source: their bread.
(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

Traversing Iceland’s terrain provides a glimpse into the sublime: jagged stone formations rise up swathed in creeping mist; hunks of fragmented glaciers drift silently in a blue lagoon; and bubbling hot springs break through rifts in the earth. It seems improbable that people can live alongside such titanic natural forces, yet Icelanders have long proved that they are capable of doing just that.

Their relationship with the natural world goes beyond mere resilience, however, and reaches into the realm of harmony. To understand how Icelanders have lived with the formidable elements of their island, you need only look at a rather unsuspecting source: their bread.

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

In the small lakeside town of Laugavautn, proprietor of Laugavatn Fontana geothermal baths Sigurður Rafn Hilmarsson has become something of a national icon for his Icelandic rye bread, or rúgbrauð. He has prepared loaves for countless visitors, including Iceland’s current president, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson. When I asked Hilmarsson what makes his bread so special, his reply was unexpectedly modest.

“It has a bit more sugar in it than most,” he said. 

While it’s true that the sugar content results in a taste and consistency more akin to that of cake, most would argue that the most remarkable element of Hilmarsson’s rúgbrauð is not so much in its recipe as in its traditional preparation. Unlike most breads, Hilmarsson’s is baked underground, buried in a bubbling geothermal pit.

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

Brandishing a sturdy, iron-tipped shovel in one hand and a small metal pot tucked under his arm, Hilmarsson took me out to his baking area to provide a first-hand demonstration of his unique method. Once on the pebble-ridden lakeshore, he set the pot of dough down on the ground and began to dig a hole. Within seconds the hole had filled with a roiling froth of water.

Hilmarsson continued to dig until the hole was about 30cm deep, at which point he hoisted the pot of dough with his shovel and gently placed it upright in the sputtering pit. He then set to the task of covering the pot, patting the earth into a small mound, which he topped with a single stone.

Bubbling earth

Bubbling earth

A lot of people still bake this way in Laugavautn. It’s a tradition that we put a stone on top to let the other locals know that we are baking here.

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

This is a daily practice for Hilmarsson. Once the pot is buried, he waits about 24 hours before returning to dig it out. After cooling it with water from the lake, Hilmarsson opens the vessel to reveal a fully cooked loaf of rúgbrauð. When cooked in this particular way, rúgbrauð is sometimes referred to as hverabrauð, which aptly translates to ‘hot spring bread’. Though rúgbrauð remains a staple of Icelandic cuisine, many now use the simpler and more convenient modern oven. Hilmarsson, on the other hand, remains true to his roots.

“This method was passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me,” he explained. “That’s the one we are using here.”

The bread baked by bubbling geysers
(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

Despite its unspoiled natural beauty, only 25% of Iceland is vegetated; an almost equal amount is covered by glaciers and lava fields. Though farming has prevailed in the lowlands, Iceland’s chief export has always been fish and fish-based products. As such, much of Iceland’s grains came to the country through trade.

From 1380 until 1918, the territory of Iceland remained under the rule of Denmark. In 1602, the Danish crown instituted a monopoly on trade with Iceland lasting until 1786, which severely limited the country’s versatility in imports. Icelanders had no choice but to work with their own natural resources and imports from Denmark, which happens to be one of Europe’s most prominent producers of rye. 

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

Throughout history, Icelanders have used their country’s abundant hot springs for numerous purposes, mostly cooking and washing clothes. But over time, the renewable energy resource has endured and been used in more modern applications. 

According to Iceland’s National Energy Authority, geothermal power currently accounts for 66% of the country’s primary energy usage and 25% of its electricity production. Almost all the country’s pools and greenhouses are heated with geothermal power, as well as nine out of every 10 households. Rather than balk at these scalding geothermal springs, Icelanders have built entire towns and cities adjacent to them to harness the energy offered.

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

One such place is Hveragerði, a small town 50km southeast of Reykjavik, which has been referred to as the hot spring capital of the world, as it sits in one of Iceland’s more active geothermal regions. Standing in the centre, one can see plumes of steam rising gently in the hillsides.

Rúgbrauð can be found here too, at restaurant Kjöt and Kúnst. However, rather than burying the bread in the earth, head chef Ólafur Reynisson uses geothermal steam to power the restaurant’s ovens to cook it, along with other foods.

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

“We have this beautiful power coming from earth and we have learned to live with it and to use it,” Reynisson said, “In the old days, people used rye because it’s what they had. Now we’re using this same steam to bake apple-and-banana bread, and even our meat.”

Although the availability of a free natural energy source is a substantial perk, Reynisson remains candid about the high level of risk that comes with it. Because of the level of seismic activity, hot springs sometimes pop up in unexpected places, including the living rooms of unsuspecting residents.

“If you asked people outside if they wanted to live here, they would say no because it’s so dangerous,” Reynisson said. “But we have learned to live with the danger.”

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

(Credit: Quinn Hargitai)

The reason for this high concentration of geothermal activity lies in Iceland’s unique geographical position. Not only does it rest directly atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a rift between the tectonic plates of the American and European continents, but Iceland is also situated above one of the world’s major hotspots, an area of the Earth’s mantle that is disproportionately high in temperature. Combined, these two features create the perfect conditions for Iceland’s abundant volcanic and seismic activity.

The volcanic landscape might seem formidable for some, but it’s the very thing that has kept Hilmarsson drawn to his homeland.

DSC 4434

DSC 4434

I’m really fortunate to live here in Iceland... We have spectacular nature. We have our volcanoes all over, our glaciers, our mountains, our hot springs. There are so many things to see here.

Baker Shot 2

Baker Shot 2

For Hilmarrson, the wonderment of Iceland’s nature offers an unyielding reverence. “From generation to generation, we have learned to respect this energy and to handle it with care,” he said.

Still, with more and more people baking their bread in ovens, one question remains: just how long will Hilmarsson keep the tradition going? Fortunately, when I asked if he had any intention of changing his rúgbrauð, he had this to say:

“It’s hard to describe a taste, but the hot-spring bread has its own. The oven-baked bread doesn’t even come close. There’s nothing like it.”

Baker Shot 2

Baker Shot 2

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel that explores culturally significant foods and how they become woven into a place’s heritage.

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