Best of Reykjavík: Bakeries

by alda on August 27, 2010

Iceland does not have a long tradition of cake or bread-making … unsurprising, perhaps, since flour, sugar and other such commodities were a rarity in this country up until just a few decades ago.

That said, there are a few “traditionally Icelandic” pastries, cakes, breads etc. such as pönnukökur [literally "pancakes" -- though not in the Anglo-Saxon use of the word, these are like crepes], kleinur [dough-twists that are deep fried, sort of the Icelandic version of a donut], flatkökur [literally "flat-cakes", rye bread made on a flat pan and sort of burnt on the outside, very tasty with butter, smoked lamb, etc.], jólakaka [literally "Christmas cake" a form cake with raisins that is not just served at Christmas], and the ubiquitous vínarbrauð [literally "Vienna bread" but basically what most English speakers know as danish].

These traditional pastries are by no means a staple for most Icelanders, however. I always find it amusing when my foreign relatives must have their jólakaka or vínarbrauð when they come to Iceland … in my 16 years of living in this country I don’t believe I’ve bought a single jólakaka, and it’s very rare that I pick up a vínarbrauð — except maybe the yummy pecan and syrup ones that they came out with a few years ago.

But back to the bakeries. Sadly, I have to say that Iceland is not great in the bakeries department. In my opinion the vast majority of bakeries in the capital area and beyond are merely ho-hum [and some downright bad], and I’d never go out of my way to get bread or pastries at any of them … with two notable exceptions.

Unfortunately, those two notable exceptions are located quite far from where most visitors to Iceland tend to hang out — i.e. they’re not in the city centre, and this being Reykjavík, you more or less need a car to get to them [unless you enjoy extended travel on the city's buses].

2. Mosfellsbakarí. This bakery started in Mosfellsbær, a municipality adjacent to Reykjavík [the one you pass through when you're heading out of the city in the direction of Mt. Esja]. They were an instant hit and on the strength of their success opened an outlet on Háaleitisbraut in Reykjavík, sort of halfway between the Kringlan mall and the Skeifan shopping district. They have wonderful breads, cakes and pastries, but the pièce de résistance is their homemade chocolates and truffles, made by their resident chocolatier, that totally match any I’ve had in Belgium or anywhere else for that matter, they are so good. Both of their bakeries also have little cafés where you can gobble down enjoy the goods.

1. Jói Fel. Jói set up shop in the mid-90s, having returned to Iceland from Italy where he learned to make bread. His bakery, too, was an instant hit and he has since become an industry, morphing into TV chef, author of cookbooks, and having his own line of products that range from cakes to barbecue sauces. However, his breads, cakes and pastries have remained consistently excellent and this is the place I tend to go to whenever I want something extra special for brunch or afternoon tea. His main bakery is in Holtagarðar, a shopping complex on Sæbraut, where there is also a good café that serves lunch, among other things. However, he also has smaller outlets in both Kringlan and Penis Smáralind malls.

OK, over to you. Care to share your bakery experiences in Iceland — good or bad?

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