Iceland may not have much industry, but it does have tourism. Pre-Covid, the country had 2.2 million visitors and this year it expects 1.5 million. Remember: this is a country with a population of only 370,000. At least by my restaurant experiences, many of those serving all those tourists come from eastern Europe. I met people from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Poland, and Ukraine. Many planned to be in the country only for a season, but some had been in Iceland for years. This may be changing Iceland. The first settlers came to the island in 874 (there were no indigenous peoples), and Celts and Scandinavians populated the land. Iceland’s isolation led to a homogeneous population where almost any two Icelanders going back several generations could find that they had common ancestors. That might now change. Two decades ago, only two percent of the country were not “Icelanders.” Now it is up to fifteen percent.
Before tourism, the main drivers of the Icelandic economy were fishing and sheep, with a few cattle thrown in. Fishing, of course, has been a treacherous life, and most of the Icelandic books I have read record deaths of fisherman. It has also been an economically precarious life as fishing stocks have waned or moved and as factory ships have taken over. World War II, however, was good for Icelandic fishing. Most of the British fishing fleet was converted to military uses, and Icelandic fisherman supplied the UK with fish during the war.
WWII was good for Iceland in other ways. At the beginning of the war, Iceland, while having some autonomy, was under Danish rule, but when Germany occupied Denmark, the British, concerned about Iceland’s strategic position in the North Atlantic and worried it would fall under Axis domination, “invaded” the island. (Iceland did not have a military and did nothing to resist the British occupation.) After a year, the American military replaced the Brits in occupying the county. The Americans constructed bases, airfields, and housing and paid local workers in dollars. The American military built new roads that helped unify the island and made the transport of goods for locals easier than it had ever been. Perhaps taking advantage of Denmark’s travails during the war, Iceland wrested complete independence in 1944. As Mark Kurlansky writes in Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), Iceland, as a result of World War II, moved from a fifteenth century colonial society to a modern country. Today, even though it still does not have a military, Iceland is a member of NATO, which means that other NATO countries take turns defending the island. Iceland is not a member of the EU, and several conversations with Icelanders indicated that the populace is sharply divided on whether it should be.
I got an idea of the primitive Icelandic life in the twentieth century from Glaumber, a museum preserving a farmhouse mostly made of turf and driftwood. It is a complex of separate one-room buildings united by a central passageway, and the museum’s brochure says that “this style of turf construction was universal in rural areas of Iceland up until 1910-1930.” Even on a sunny day with long daylight, the rooms were dank and dark, and when inhabited, probably smoky. The house we visited was upscale for the time with multiple rooms for various daily activities. A more typical picture of Icelandic crofter homes is presented in Halldór Laxness’s Independent People.
After WWII other nations resumed fishing near Iceland, and the country realized that fish supplies were dwindling. In 1822, international law proclaimed that a country’s boundaries extended three miles into the seas bordering the country. However, in 1945, the United States proclaimed it had exclusive rights to the minerals in the continental shelf off its shores. A few years later, Iceland extended the three-mile territorial limit to four miles. In 1958, the country extended it to twelve miles and then to fifty in 1972. and then three years later to two hundred miles, a territorial limit most countries now maintain.
A man who owned several fishing boats told me that the supply of cod off Iceland’s shores is now bountiful both because of the 200-mile limit and because of quotas enforced by the country. He said that poaching was not a severe problem because drones had made it much easier to spot any law breakers.
We visited this man’s salt cod operation, which he proudly told us was the only such cod plant left in Iceland using traditional hand methods. The cod are dried and preserved with Portuguese sea salt. Most of the finished product is exported as bacalao back to Portugal and other Mediterranean countries. The heads are shipped to Nigeria for use in a local soup. The guts are ground up and used as fertilizer. The salt is used twice, and then transformed into salt licks for grazing sheep and cattle. Nothing is thrown away.
At this place I got to try one of Iceland’s (in)famous foods. On occasion, the cod fishermen catch one of the huge sharks that live in the deep waters around Iceland. The fish cannot survive being brought to the surface, and the law requires that the sharks be used and not thrown back to die. Without going into the unseemly details of why, the shark meat is, in essence, fermented. What we were offered looked like little cubes of tofu. To say that it did not taste appetizing would be an understatement; to say that it was awful would also be an understatement. However, the owner passed out cards with his signature to those who stomached it, and I am now a member of The Rotten Shark Club.
Liquor has an illogical history in Iceland: Although hard stuff was readily available, beer was banned in Iceland until 1986. (The guide opined, “Many Icelandic rules make no sense.”) She claimed that Icelanders are now sophisticated drinkers, apparently because they drink wine. We also learned about Brennivin, an aquavit, another famous Icelandic foodstuff. The name translates to burnt or burning wine. Some said it was flavored with cumin, but I think it has caraway. Just as I met no Icelander who confessed to eating the shark, none said that they drank or even liked Brennevin. I tried it. The first time, the restaurant server said that the bartender expressed admiration for my courage in ordering it. The server remained to watch incredulously as our party drank it. Perhaps it says something about me that I should not reveal, but it was far from the worst thing I have ever drunk—grappas are way worse. My usual tourist practice is to buy a local alcohol at the duty-free store on the way home. This invariably makes its way to the back of the liquor cabinet after one drink has been consumed. This time, however, an unopened bottle of Brennivin has taken residence in the freezer. Will we ever drink it???