Happy Birthday to me

This year’s attempts to celebrate my birthday with a party or gathering of more than one other person failed miserably after my ability to chose where in the world I’d be was taken from me. Air Iceland and Icelandair seemed to gang up and make sure my birthday plans couldn’t be made until hours before my actual birthday, when I finally landed back in Reykjavik after being stuck in Greenland for five extra days.

I’ll have my cakes and eat them too

We only planned to go to Greenland for three days, so we nearly tripled our holiday. I was there as part of a birthday celebration precursor, since Steve and I had bought the trips as birthday gifts for each other. After the fourth flight was cancelled, it meant I had missed my onward flight to Denver, where I was meant to celebrate my birthday with a Canadian friend for the first few hours, and then fly to LA for a red-carpet movie premier and meet Oprah. It’s hard to replace Clio, or Oprah, but we started planning a birthday party with the other stranded passengers in Ilulissat since we’d slowly started to accept we were never getting home.

cocktails at Sushi Samba

After I finally landed in Reykjavik a few hours before the 26th, I learned the Denver flight had been cancelled, and I was rebooked two days later. This now meant I had all 24 hours of my birthday in Reykjavik, but it was a Monday and noone even knew I was in town. Even with last minute notice, I still got taken out and treated like a princess Sunday night, to dinner at Sushi Samba and a suite downtown, complete with a bubble bath full of bath salts and a bottle of cava at midnight.

At Sumac, post-birthday

I spent February 26th at home with my father, who is more often a resident at the hospital, so that was the best birthday present in itself. I went thru some memory lane moments, eating lunch and dinner at restaurants my parents had owned when I was a child in Iceland. Katrin’s culinary birthday saga went from Italia to Austur India Felagid, the East-Indian company, and ended at the Grill Market for a desert only kings and queens deserve – I’ve never had a more beautiful or complicated birthday cake! Before finally flying out the 27th to Denver, I ate lunch at Reykjavik’s best new restaurant, Sumac Grill + Drinks, with a couple of friends from New York, making it the second smallest birthday event I’ve ever planned.

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Newbury & London

I finished my time in Oxford with one day off for sightseeing, and treated myself to a concert in the Sheldonian Theatre. The student orchestra was playing Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and the second movement is amazing live, especially in an English Grade I listed building where the only way to be invited in is for a graduation ceremony. I was on my way to London to study wine, with a slight detour to Newbury.

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inside the Sheldonian theatre

Newbury is kind of a out-of-the-way place, where few stop, but most have heard of. There’s a surprising little ex-pat community there, and I managed to find one Portugese couchsurfer to host me. I met a wine dealer in Oxford from Majestic cellars in Newbury who was registered in the same wine program; I was going to London to cram years of sommelier knowledge into five days. There would be a two-and-a-half hour exam at the end of the week and I hadn’t started studying, so we planned to share our knowledge and complete a few mock exams.

My Portugese couchsurfer was an excellent partner for drinking wine, and whiskies, and I learned plenty about wine and wine hangovers. Newbury itself was a small, quaint little town on a river, with more second-hand shops than cafes and restaurants combined; you only had to chose if you wanted to support the Red Cross, helicopters for kids, or OXFAM in your shop choice. I noticed more teenage mothers than I’ve noticed anywhere else; most had bad teeth and were slightly overweight, but they all got on very well.

The West London Wine School in Fulham offers WSET Level 1, 2 and 3 courses, and usually the Level 3 is taken over six or twelve weeks of evening courses. They also offer Level 3 in five, eight hour days, if you can commit to forty or sixty hours of pre-course study. They send you a text and work book that would take at least that long to finish – which I only received in time to read the first three chapters – and then a wine specialist speaks at you, reciting textbook knowledge like it was his childhood memories.

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tasting the best of Italy & Chile, and comparing Bordeaux reds

Our teacher was Jimmy, a young, VW van traveler, who had personally been to most of Europe’s best wine regions and vineyards. He knew the soil types and wine makers names of each little French appellation, and made all the students feel as unprepared as we were. The exam included two blind tastings, which I think I passed, but the essay-written part of the exam wasn’t even as difficult as the multiple choice questions. One question gave the name Graciano, and asked if it was a Spanish white, Spanish red, or Portugese red or white wine grape – it wasn’t even like you could deduce from process of linguistic elimination (it’s a Spanish red grape FYI).

I stayed with my Lawyer friend Becky, who worked ridiculous hours but managed to wine test in the evenings with me. We had some Picpoul de Pinet white wine, Bordeaux reds, Rioja rose, and sparkling cava, improving our ability to taste and discuss the effects of wine. After forty hours of tasting dozens of wines and learning the minute details of over a hundred of grape varietals, vineyard management, wine making, tasting and food pairing, I wasn’t ever quite sober enough to analyse my own progress… but I hope I passed.

The 26 days of Christmas

Christmas in Iceland is special for a lot of reasons, like the food, weird yule lads, short days and northern lights nights, but nothing beats Christmas in Iceland because we have 26 days of it.

Christmas starts 13 days before Christmas eve, when the first yule lad comes down from the mountains. After all 13 have come down, one by one per day, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve evening, usually around 6pm. We have smoked and boiled lamb with green beans and red cabbage, and open all our gifts that night, and Christmas day is spent at home with friends and family doing very little except eating the leftovers and cooking and baking more Christmas food.

Christmas Eve was spent eating smoked lamb with these two handsome men

The smelliest night of Christmas is arguably December 23rd, what we call Thorlaksmessa, when people boil pots of fermented stingray for hours without ever adding water, so the ever-increasing, pungent smell of ammonia quickly absorbs into your hair and clothes (and takes a couple of washes to get out).

The loudest day of Christmas is New Years Eve, which Icelanders more appropriately call Old Years night. Iceland is the only country in the world where you can actually hear the New Year arrive, since the intensity of fireworks climaxes at midnight like an out-of-tune percussion symphony. It’s also a pretty smelly night if there’s no wind, since all that smoke from a million kronur of explosives creates a fair bit of pollution.

The last of the fireworks

The hottest day of Christmas are the “brenna” or bonfires. On New Year’s Eve and the last day of Christmas, various neighborhoods around Reykjavík collect huge piles of inflammable junk – furniture, pallets, Christmas trees and even mattresses – and create fires as big as houses. It’s a way to clean out your closets, literally and figuratively, and burn away all the baggage from last year to start clean.

The last day of Christmas is the “Thirteenth” (þrettándinn), January 6 when the last of the 13 yule lads has returned back to the mountains. As I write this, Reykjavik has started to light up again, as everyone finishes the last of their fireworks. It’s only legal to fire fireworks during Christmas, so after midnight tonight you could technically be fined. The city will be even darker tomorrow since Christmas lights and decorations will also get put away. The sidewalks of Reykjavík have already started filling up with Christmas trees that won’t be needed to be cut down again til next year. The radio will stop playing Christmas music, and the harsh reality that the last day of Christmas does not mean the last day of winter will start to sink in. A couple of days ago, the street lights never shut off automatically because the cloudy skies and lack of snow meant the daylight never became bright enough to convince the sensors that it was day time.

the first Saturday ride of the year for these horses and horsepeople

For most, this is a time to buckle down the budget, face impossible new years resolutions, and start the year fresh and optimistic. We do have the assurance that days are getting longer, already for 2 weeks now, and we finally start to notice the difference. For the horse people in Reykjavik, its time to bring the riding horses into the stables and start training. For me, its a time to hole up and write a book, and book the cheapest one way ticket out of here until summer.

Sumac Grill + Drinks

There´s a new restaurant in town, and its officially opened as of today. Its in downtown Reykjavik, in the middle of everything 101, on Laugavegur 28, where the old Bunk Bar and hostel was. The entire interior has been torn apart and redone, designed by non other than Halfdán Petersen, the designer of the oh-so-popular Kex hostel and Iceland´s first Michelin star restaurant Dill. A selection of plates and pots are individually hand made by potter and ceramic artist Hanna Gréta in Hafnafjörður, such that no two are stained the same way or have the same pattern.

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Sumac Grill + Drinks, bar side

The owner and master mind behind the concept and menu is Þráinn Freyr Vigfússon, arguably Iceland´s best chef (okay, I´m a little biased), and has competed, placed, and won in enough cooking competitions and shows around the world that he´s definitely one of the world´s top chefs. The head chef is his friend and prized chef Hafsteinn Ólafsson, and a few other industry-recognized names fill the bar and wait staff. Me, myself, and I, are the hostess and rose and tree keeper.

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sumac infused gin and ginger beer in a copper cup

The menu is inspired by Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine, using influences, flavours and spices from the Mediterranean coast and middle east – not only in the food, but also in cocktails and deserts. Sumac, popularly used in Turkish cuisine, is a deep red, sun-dried berry, giving a little spicy kick and citrus hint to their signature cocktail, Sumac, and their made-from-scratch yogurt ice cream which tastes like roses.

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cauliflower, baby potatoes and salmon in their various clay plates and steel pans

The best sellers (so far) are definitely the grilled cauliflower head and za´atar flat bread with hummus and almond red pepper dip. The can´t miss items include the Berber chicken liver mousse, grilled octopus legs, and 100% vegan pistachio ice cream with chick-pea meringue. My personal favourites are the kumquat salmon drizzled with fennel froth, the crispy baby potatoes with Icelandic chorizo sausage, the pork belly tagine (actually cooked and served in a Moroccan clay tagine pot), and the Hilo cocktail, topped off with an organic Icelandic red-rose petal.

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Sumac Grill + Drinks, kitchen side

Find Sumac on facebook, follow them on instagram @sumacgrilldrinks, or feel free to leave their first review on trip advisor. The official website (including the menu and wine list) can be found at Sumac.is, where you can make a dinner reservation. Otherwise just give us a call, +354 537 9900! I may even answer the phone personally 😉

 

Adventures in South Africa

I kind of ended up accidentally in South Africa. After my 30th birthday in Mauritius, country #201, I had only a few one-way options out. London, Dubai, Johannesburg, or one of the Indian Ocean islands I had already been to. It wasn’t nearly time to go home, so South Africa was an obvious choice, even though I’ve already been there twice.

up close and personal with a Kruger elephant

I flew into Johannesburg, where I had a couchsurfing friend I met 6 years ago in Rwanda to stay with. Thru the wonderful world of facebook, I realized two Latvian friends, who I know from Iceland, had also just arrived in Johannesburg. They had rented a bright yellow VW we nicknamed ‘Lil’ Miss Sunshine’ and spontaneously left for Kruger the very next morning. There we spent 2 days on a self-drive safari, saw 4 of the Big 5, and nearly got trampled by an angry elephant bull three times the size of our Lil Miss Sunshine (I don’t think they like yellow).

me and the Latvians at Berlin Falls

On the way, we stopped in Nelspruit, where we couchsurfed with a woman, all her cats and one Jack Russell Terrier I had to share my couch with. Her boyfriend is part of the band Minanzi Mbira, and we watched one of their rehearsals in a storage garage late at night, joining in for the precussion bits with drums, triangles and shakers.

the orphanage

We roadtripped past waterfalls, swimming holes, the Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and thru the Blyde River Canyon, taking countless selfies from all the panoramic views along the way. Later we went to Durban, visiting the valley of 1000 hills. We visited an orphanage, ate Indian food that tasted even better than food in India, and then went our separate ways, I, to Lesotho.

the chain ladder up to Tugela

Later I roadtripped with my South African host to Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg, where we frolicked inbetween and ontop of mountains, with stunning views down to the Irish-green valleys. The chain ladder up to Tugela Falls nearly gave me vertigo, but it was all worth it once we got to the top and went skinny dipping in one of the frigid pools above the falls – the world’s second highest.

On top of Lion’s Head, with Table Mountain in the background

I spent a week in Cape Town, including a day of wine tasting in Stellenbosch. I stayed in SeaPoint, and one of the roomates there had a horse we could giddyup. We spent our days beaching, or hiking at Newlands Forest and Kirstenbosch Garden. There was a swing dance festival kicking off my last night there, and lots of great coffee, wine, and food everyday.

My base for all these adventures was Johannesburg, which I had never really thought of as more than just a base. Its reputation for being a big, sprawling, dangerous city really changed when I got to spend a few weekends tieh locals, exploring the restaurant and nightlife scene. Neighbourgoods Market was a major highlight, a Saturday food and beverage festival where an old fried from UBC randomly sat across the picnic table from me. After giving eachother long, awkward glances (neither of use could remember eachothers names or just where exactly we knew eachother from – or if we were just doppelgangers), I finally asked where he was from, and answered ‘Vancouver’ in a perfect Canadian accent. Then our worlds collided as we remembered all the stories, friends, and parties from Totem, our residence dorm, 10 years ago. Small world, eh?