Cowgirls in Camargue

In Iceland, I have mostly German, British, and Scandinavian riders who come on horse tour, but the few Frenchies that drop in are usually the most memorable. Either they don’t speak a word of English, have no idea to ride or ride better than everyone else, and often drink wine like water. I met a Mr. Berquin this summer, one of the founding creators of the Henson horse breed – a cross between a French riding horse and Norwegian fjord horse. He invited me to ride at his farm, their origin in the Baie de Somme, but as fate would have it, I couldn’t make the trip dates.

the Pont du Gard near Nimes

Instead, I had the weekend before free, and thought I should go riding in France anyway, and after finding a Wow Air return flight for barely more than 100 euros to Paris and a bus ticket from there to Lyon for 9 euros each way, I just went. The south of France sounded much warmer anyway, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend such little money in Reykjavik.

Alicia and I on the beach in the south of France

I have this other fun French friend I met last year on the Golden Circle, Alicia who also rode with me earlier this year in Kyrgyzstan. She lives in Lyon and decided we should go to Camargue and ride their big white beach horses. After a night in Paris (you always have to stay the night in Paris when you get the chance!) and a few hours in the bus, we were in Lyon drinking wine.

wine tasting at Chateau La Borie

The journey from Lyon to Camargue takes you through the heart of Côtes du Rhône, home to some of the best red wines in France. We stopped at a few vineyards (, and one in Chateuneuf-du-Pape, and ended our day trip at the Pont du Gard, that bridge and ancient Roman aqueduct that you’ve seen a hundred times in videos but never realized how to get there. That night we had dinner at the beach town Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer (why is the town name so long and how many St. Mary’s are there?), which, very appropriately, was a huge portion of moules et frites with white wine from the region.

horses on the ferry -transporting our transport across the little Rhone

We rode Camargue horses for the weekend, and thought we were special, but there were 5 others riding with us the first day (all but 1 were beginners).We galloped on the beach and rode past herds of flamingos, and had picnic lunches that always included rosé wine. I had a cool Camargue cowboy hat and traditional Camargue saddle, which turned out to be terribly uncomfortable, but at least I looked and felt like a real French cowgirl.

approaching another group of Camargue horses

We were one group of many, and only by the end of the weekend did we realize just how many other Camargue horse farms there were in the area. One one random trail crossing in the wetlands, there were 4 groups that actually intersected, causing enough of a traffic jam that maybe yield signs or traffic lights might need to be put up there one day. We had to cross one river, an offshoot of the Rhone, on a barge, and we took our horses on board just as easily as the cars were allowed to be ferried across. Its the first, and probably the last time, I´ve ever ridden a horse on a boat.

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Iceland wins Bocuse de Bronze 2017

Iceland has been competing in the prestigious cooking competition Bocuse d’or since 1999. For chefs, this is like making it to the culinary Olympics. Iceland has always qualified in the regional Bocuse d’or Europe to compete in the worldwide Bocuse d’or, and never placed lower than the top 9 countries in each competition. In 2001, chef Hakon Mar was the first to land on the podium, with a third place Bronze, an extraordinary accomplishment for a tiny nation, often overlooked as a foody place, like Iceland.

Bocuse de Bronze winners!!

Bocuse de Bronze winners!!

Since then, a lot has changed. Scandinavian countries have become fashionable leaders in Europe’s culinary scene, and Iceland has finally become a world-renowned tourist destination, not only for nature tourism, but for also for gourmandes. The competition has also changed, becoming much bigger, better and far more complicated to win each year. The level of cooking in 2017 would have shunned the first podium winners with their abilities in 1987.

Bocuse d'or Team Iceland setting up their box

Bocuse d’or Team Iceland setting up their box

It takes one year to prepare for the regional competition (there are 3 regions: Latin America, Europe, and Asia), and another year for the top qualifiers (plus a few additional wild card countries) to compete at the biennial Bocuse d’or Concours Mondial in Lyon. Its named after Paul Bocuse, one of France’s most famous chefs and a leader in fine dining history.

The French commis looking back

The French commis looking back

This year, Iceland had over 150 supporters follow the candidat Viktor Orn to Lyon. After winning 5th place in the Bocuse Europe competition, and having 4 other previous candidates supporting and trainng him, he also had an amazing coach, Sigurdur Helgason, and a commis that would have definitely won Best Commis if they hadn’t landed on the podium.

Selfies with all the famous chefs (clockwise from top left: Bocuse d'or Gold 2015 Norwegian Orjan; Bocuse Europe 2016 winner Hungarian Tomas; 3 time Bocuse podium placer Danish Rasmus, and the USA Bocuse team coach Thomas Keller

Selfies with all the famous chefs (clockwise from top left: Bocuse d’or Gold 2015 Norwegian Orjan; Bocuse Europe 2016 winner Hungarian Tomas; 3 time Bocuse podium placer Danish Rasmus, and the USA Bocuse team coach Thomas Keller

The French team had the best commis, and European winner Hungary placed 4th just after Iceland. In second place was Norway, and for the first time ever, the USA won gold. All the winners went to Paul Bocuse’s restaurant for breakfast after the competition and met the now 91 year old legend himself. Viktor’s name has been permanently engraved in a shiny plaque, a walk of fame for all the winners of Bocuse d’or since 1987. Now with 2 Icelanders having mastered the competition, its only up from here. Despite being a nation of only 300,000 with a handful of good restaurants, its amazing to think that we could easily be shaping the next silver or gold Bocuse d’or candidate. Stay tuned til 2019!

Iceland places 5th in the Bocuse d’Or European Selection

If you’re into food and cooking and restauranteering, you’ve probably heard of the competition Bocuse d’Or. It’s namesake, Paul Bocuse, is a super famous and savvy French chef who’s had 3 Michelin stars at his restaurant just outside of Lyon for over 50 years straight. He brought French cuisine and French chefs to the forefront of fine dining and international gastronomy, and created the Bocuse d’Or competition in 1987. It’s a 2 day compeition that happens every year, first every two years on a regional level (Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Europe), then every alternating year, the ‘worlds’, some sort of a cooking Olympics (which includes the winners from each region, plus Canada, the USA, and Morocco, and 2 ‘wild card’ invited countries). In the end of each Bocuse season, you have 24 nations in Lyon every other year competing for the Bocuse d’Or.

Coach Siggi Helga supporting Viktor during the competition, while the stands behing fill with screaming fans

Coach Siggi Helga and Icelandic Bocuse president Sturla supporting Viktor during the competition, while the stands behind fill with screaming fans

Iceland’s best placing was 3rd, winning the Bocuse d’argent. Silver, Bronze and Gold mark the podium winners, and there’s even one crazy Danish guy who has competed three times and won one of each… The European selection and Bocuse d’Or Lyon have started to be pretty consistent in the last 5  or 6 years – Scandinavian countries are always on the podium, and often the only ones on the podium. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have many medals under their belt, and Finland and Iceland are never far behind (Iceland has never landed lower than 9th place in either the European or Lyon competition).

Viktor and team Iceland win the best fish dish!

Viktor and team Iceland win the best fish dish!

The competition is super complicated, but can be broken down into a few words to explain it simply enough for you and me to understand. Each country sends a Chef and a commis (an assistant that acts kind of like as sous chef that has to be under 23 years old) that have 5 hours and 35 minutes to cook two gourmet courses for 24 judges. They plate 24 fish dishes, and 24 meat dishes that have first to be presented on a showy catering platter, then split up into 24 portions. The fish and meat produce are the same for each team – this year it was Sturgeon fish (and its caviar) and Hungarian Young Red deer. The rest of the meal is imagined and designed by each team for months prior to the competition. In addition to the chef and commis, the team has a Coach and a President (officially), plus a dozen other behind the scenes experts to help (designers, second assistants, promotional managers, and millions of kronurs worth of sponsors who all have a say).

Team Iceland relaxing after their grueling 5 hrs and 35 minutes

Team Iceland relaxing after their grueling 5 hrs and 35 minutes

Viktor Örn was this year´s chef to compete, one of 20 chefs and nations represented, and placed 5th in the European Selection. He also won the prize for the Best Fish Dish. Only one other chef, Siggi Laufdal, has placed higher in the pre-competition, 4th place in 2012, and also won the Best Fish dish prize. After the podium is filled with the overall winners in both dishes, there is a reward given to the highest earned points in each dish, one for meat and one for fish. There’s also a prize for the best commis, and the judges are the presidents of each competing country, plus 4 honorary judges (Paul Bocuse’s son and previous Bocuse d’Or winners or presidents of hosting countries).

this years Bocuse Europe was hosted by Hungary in Budapest

this years Bocuse Europe was hosted by Hungary in Budapest

Viktor Örn is a good friend and an unbelievable chef, having won the Icelandic chef of the year in 2013 and the Nordic Chef of the year in 2014 (he’s HOT at the moment), so stay tuned to see how he does in Lyon for the Bocuse d´Or 2017. Better yet, come and support team Iceland at the event, since it´s a one hell of a time… and our humble little country never has as many supporters as the others, even though we´re so much better than most of them 😛

French Gastronomy and Bocuse in Lyon

Lyon is an amazing city for gastronomy, with more than 20 Michelin stars given to its local restaurants. Food experts and lovers alike have even come up with a special term to refer to a traditional Lyonnais restaurant, a ´bouchon.´ I ate at Leon de Lyon, but not being a fan of pork, mustard or foie gras, it was hard to choose a traditional plate. My favourite restaurant was Au 14 Fevrier, a Valentine´s day themed restaurant where even the bread and butter are heart shaped.

the French are really good at making cute little coffees

Lyon native Paul Bocuse first became a legend in France with his innovatie nouvelle cuisine, changing traditional French cuisine into something fresher and healthier. He is one of the most awarded and famous chefs in the world, and the Culinary Institute of America named him the Chef of the century. His namesake restaurant, Paul Bocuse, has fully booked reservations each night months in advance. There you can try his famous truffle soup, probably the tastiest but most expensive soup you could ever try. He also established the Paul Bocuse Institute, a prestigious culinary school where 10 other cooperative universities around the world send their most promising chefs to study.

Siggi, 2013 Icelandic candidate, and Þráinn, his coach and 2011 candidate

The Bocuse d’Or is a culinary competition, kind of like the Chef Olympics, held every other year in Lyon since 1987. It gets more and more popular each year, and the competition itself has grown to include chefs from every continent. There is a regional Bocuse comptetition held every opposite year to decide who the qualifying chefs will be (from Europe, Asia, and the Americas)  to compete for the Bocuse d’Or, and specially invited countries participate too (like Australia and Morocco).

sporting a chef hat at Sirha

The competition happens concurrently with the Sirha exhibition, a rendez-vous of all things restaurant related. Local chocolatiers and champagne makers offered free samples at their booths, and patisseries and cheese makers from all over Europe come too. We sampled our way through all the most delicious booths while 24 countries competed for the Bocuse d´or, until finally 2 days later, France was declared the winner.

For the first time ever, Japan won a medal with 3rd place. Iceland placed 8th, which is an incredible feat if you consider the fact that from a country with a population of only 320,000, we have the 8th best chef in the world. In 2011, my friend Þráinn from Iceland placed 7th, so we´re pretty consistent.

Lyon: Bocuse d'Or 2011

Bocuse d'or 2011

Every time I go to France, I make it as far as Paris and just stay there, romanticizing about all the wine, baguettes and delicious cheese I can eat without getting fat (well, thats what they say), but making it to Lyon was a special treat, although I have to admit the people do not get nicer. I had the spontaneous opportunity to go to Lyon for the biannual Bocuse d’Or competition last week because of some ties to the Radisson hotel. My flight was booked at 4pm on Sunday for departure at 7 am the next morning, and only with the help and organizational skills of others already going did I actually make it to France. I didn’t book any of my own travel or hotels, have any idea what was going on half the time, but blinldy followed around the others in charge and had such a great time just going with it.

painting the Icelandic flag on everyone's cheek

I didn’t get a chance to sleep til Tuesday, and we spent all day Tuesday cheering for Iceland’s candidate, Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson, and then all day Wednesday patiently waiting for the compeition results. Everything went down at Sirha, a huge exhibition self-proclaimed as the world’s rendez-vous for all restaurant and hoteling needs.

the crowds on day 2

Thrainn’s direct support crew were some of his closest friends, his coach slash former bronze Bocuse medalist Hakon Mar, and his comis chef Bjarni Jakobsson. Behind them they had a couple more kitchen helpers, namely Atli and Tomas, and then about 50 or 60 Icelandic cheerleaders, all friends, family or restaurant industry related people. We were only outnumbered by perhaps the French and Japanese spectators, although 50 Japanese cheering sounded like background noise compared to only 4 or 5 Icelandic men clapping, screaming “Islande!” in bass voices, and blowing off all sorts of noice makers. We had awesome tshirts, face paint, and viking helmets to make sure we didnt go unnoticed.

Mister Sevens, Bjarni & Thrainn

We spent the time outside of Sirha taking in the best wining and dining Lyon had to offer, eating at a bunch of different restaurants since Lyon is the world’s gastronomy capital. We partied at Wallace bar, a joint with over 200 whiskies, overrunning it with the same Icelandic people 4 nights in a row and probably giving them the best mid-week business they’ve ever seen.

We crashed a Norwegian techno dance party the night after the results, celebrating Thrainn’s 7th place finish; he was expecting better, and under a shroud of politics and suspicious dishonesty, he perhaps deserved 3rd or 4th, but 7th is damn good for a country of 300,000, competing with a small fraction of the budget that medal winners Denmark and Norway had (Denmark brought the Prince with him!).

Domaine de Clairefontaine

We had one relaxing day to be tourists, and took the day to drive out to Domaine de Clairefontaine, a beautiful chateau south-west of Vienne, where the famous Philippe Giardon runs a restaurant and catering heaven amidst the surrounding vineyards and countryside. I’ve never really traveled for food tourism before, or in a group of 50 people, but everything turned out so well, and ironically enough, I’ve never felt more like an Icelandic patriot.

Related Links:

Icelandic Newspage for food and wine, and Bocuse d’or reports (in Icelandic): http://www.freisting.is

Bocuse d’or: bocusedor.com or bocusedor.is