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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Helga August 27, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I have never heard the layer cake you described called Jólakaka. In my world Jólakaka is a bread-formed cake with raisins. The other one is called Lagkaka.

Chris August 27, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Getting real bread (and not only toast) is some issue, if you are used to it. I agree with you about Mosfellsbakari, but I don’t like Joi Fel to much. I would throw the Bernhöftsbakari into the ring as well.
Also very nice, although its in Akureyri is the Bakaríið við Brúnna.

ECS August 27, 2010 at 12:25 pm

totally agree that vínarbrauð is overrated except for the pecan kind (my favorite!)

I was wondering about the things you can buy at the store called “skonsur” but to me look and taste like American pancakes. We actually eat them like they are- heated in a pan with maple syrup on them. Are these actually an Icelandic item?

As for bakeries, I’ve stopped really going and have explored baking my own- the Icelandic raw ingredients make for amazing homebaked goods. I think it’s the butter!

Amy Clifton August 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I look forward to weekends when I can buy traditional Icelandic breads and pastries from the Selfossbakarí booth at Kólaportið. They have the best fjallagrass flatkökkur I have tasted in the capitol area, as well as fantastic döðlubrauð (?….date bread), normalbrauð, rugbrauð, snúðar, and my favorite hjónabandsæla. Oh yes, the big fat chunky yummy cookies are not to be missed. The booth is always crowded with people tasting the samples and always buying something. And I must not forget to mention the ‘service with a smile’, always friendly no matter how busy.

alda August 27, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Helga — my mistake!! Duly corrected. (see? shows how much I know …)

Chris — interestingly, Bernhöftsbakarí is the one I would go out of my way to avoid. I find their breads awful.

alda August 27, 2010 at 12:32 pm

ECS — yes, I’ve always thought of skonsur as Icelandic … not sure if they are, or if they’re “borrowed” like the vínarbrauð.

Amy — thanks for the tip, I didn’t know about them. I’m also a big fan of hjónabandssæla — literally and figuratively. ;)

Chris August 27, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Alda: I actually buy all my bread at the Mosfellsbakari. Or I make it myself. I bought some nice cakes in the Bernhöftsbakari, I should have written it.

Hilda August 27, 2010 at 12:42 pm

The best quality breads and especially cakes are found at Sandholt bakery on Laugavegur, but they are very pricey. I find the best quality vs. price balance is at the Kornið bakeries.

And I agree with you on Bernhöftsbakarí, they were excellent 20 years ago but they are long past their prime.

Douglass Turner August 27, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Well, for those of us living in the vast bread wasteland known as the U S of A, the bread from any random Icelandic bakery is vastly better then the bizarro, flacid, wonder bread crap I have to navigate through.

Even Whole Foods is disappointing.

Drop a container full of Icelandic bread in the parking lot of any American super market and it will be empty in an hour.

kevin oconnor,waterford,ireland August 27, 2010 at 12:48 pm

“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.”

Surely wheat can grow in Iceland, if not does this mean that if you wanted a loaf of bread it had to be imported or more precisely the flour,quite amazing wow you guys really did do it tough up there for a long time.

alda August 27, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Hilda – The best quality breads and especially cakes are found at Sandholt bakery on Laugavegur — your opinion, or established fact?

Personally I’ve never found Sandholt’s breads to be anything special. Not sure about their cakes — think I’ve only tried them once and yes, they were OK.

elín August 27, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I love this bakery in Sauðárkrókur: Sauðárkróksbakarí. Wonderful kleinur – a bit more cardamom-scented than others I’ve tried – which I like. Two charming rooms to sit in and enjoy your kaffi and pastry while there.

I am wondering if late-start in developing breads and pastries in Icelandic cuisine might of also had to do with lack of proper home ovens (even-cooking, well-ventilated) until relatively recent decades? (1930s, 40s 50s?)

Tómas August 27, 2010 at 2:56 pm

My opinion: For the absolute best bread in the greater Reykjavik area go to Kökuhúsið (Cakehouse) in Auðbrekka, Kópavogur. It is a strange little bakery with a very limited selection and you can’t always count on getting your favorite item. To top it off they are closed on weekends (I think their main business is supplying for cafés). If you can live with those shortcomings you will be rewarded with excellent products (Spelt bread in the style of Danish rye bread, sourdough, italian style, etc.)

Heard good things about Eco bakery Brauðhúsið in Grímsbær as well.

Not a fan of the style of bread from Joi Fel, + it is over-priced.

erika August 27, 2010 at 3:09 pm

I never found anything too interesting in the bakery department when I still lived in Iceland. I tried out several bakeries but agree that the lack of tradition in this arena made it all but impossible to find something that tasted quite right. Not to add that most bakeries seem to offer all the same things, very little variety. Then again, the non-Icelandic palate would probably prefer something else. This led to my assuming responsibility for supplying all my friends and colleagues with vast amounts of my own baked goods. I still do this but am sadly no longer in Iceland.

Joerg-wi August 27, 2010 at 3:27 pm

I had mentioned Mosfellsbakarí already in a comment to the “Best-of Coffee” post, because I have swapped hotel breakfast for bakery items like sandwiches and coffee/tea from them on my way out of town a couple of times.

I have noticed that I often get much better bread in restaurants than I can buy in bakeries, let alone supermarkets. I often resort to flatkökur instead of this flavourless white bread.

skugga August 27, 2010 at 7:57 pm

I can’t say anything of the bakeries – it was 12 years ago I visited Iceland for the last time…

But: what I really really loved (even more than kleinur) was kryddbrauð. I still have the recipe. Do they sell it in bakeries at all?

Dagný Ásta August 27, 2010 at 8:26 pm

hmm I think you are leaving out the only thing that I and my aunt who lives in the US like from the bakeri and that is Snúður.
The best Kleinur are the ones that are home-made, they aren’t as HUGE as the ones you can get in the bakeri :-) and the same goes for Hjónabandssæla (and the BEST one of all is made with jam from the Rubarb that you can see from your kitchen window ;-) in my parents back yard) .

Bhuti August 27, 2010 at 8:36 pm

It’s ages since I was in Reykjavík the last time. I remember there was a small bakery on Bergstaðarstræti were I liked to buy pastries. I don’t remember the name though Bernhöftsbakarí has a familiar ring.

sylvia hikins August 27, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Alas in the UK, consistent selling of bread at below cost price by the giant supermarkets with the intention of driving out of business all the small, family run bakeries, did just that. On a Sunday morning you could walk in my neighbourhood of Liverpool and sniff the tantalising odours of freshly baked cakes and buns, bread and bagels. Alas, no more. The last family baker in Liverpool closed its doors last year. There’s been a bit of a fight back nationally with one or two small scale organic bakers. But more typically,most bread is bought in the supermarkets by shoppers who more and more can’t remember what real food tastes and smells like. Which probably accounts for the big growth in farmer’s markets-shoppers buy direct from the growers and the produce is fresh and local.
sylvia from viking wirral

Mark August 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Café Konditori used to be okay and Ostabúðin on Skólavörðustígur has nice sandwiches if you get there early but I don’t know of any good bakeries, they are all just not bad.

WiseWoman August 27, 2010 at 11:27 pm

The bakery in Ísafjörður run by a Danish woman is the best one I’ve met in Iceland. Her white bread with “Birkes” is good, she has some good whole wheat stuff, and their pastries (especially the French waffles) are very, very yummy. Why, I’d go back there just to have another French waffle!

hildigunnur August 28, 2010 at 2:10 am

I like quite a few items in Bernhöftsbakarí (yep Bhuti, on Bergstaðastræti), short walking distance from my house of course, as is Sandholt but that’s very much more expensive and not that much better. All the rolls in Bernhöfts cost only 50 krónur which is way cheaper than even Bónus and Krónan and they’ve got a nice corn bread and some good pastries. Björnsbakarí on Hringbraut used to have some excellent sour dough rye bread, only about 2 days a week though, don’t know if they still sell them but the bakery in Grímsbær on Bústaðavegur still does.

The Icelandic bakery scene is of course very Danish, really (well, you don’t get any gåsebryst, muuu!). Vínarbrauð and Napóleonshattar and yes, snúðar are fairly danish. I suspect all the pecan pastries (and probably more things) are half baked in Denmark or sum and transported here – they’re the exactly same everywhere.

WiseWoman yes Gamla Bakaríið in Ísafjörður is excellent! Love it. Last time I heard, the Danish woman was getting a bit on in years – happens to the best of us I suppose :(

And yes, Mosfellsbakarí carries head and shoulders over the others (good candidate for the weird Icelandic ways to say things, right… :þ) Hafliði’s a genious! Disagree on Jói Fel though, have had some very disappointing experiences there.

Nat August 28, 2010 at 4:30 am

I love when the blog is about this subject, great places to visit on next vacation. Since we are talking about goodies, anyone in here have the recipe for piparkökurpe? think it’s pepper cookies, internet being a beeeeeeeeeeep :)

Charlotte Frantzdatter August 28, 2010 at 7:41 am

I always go to Sandholt both for bread, cakes and chokolates. And I really like hanging out in the cafe. I know it is oldfashioned, but that is sort of the thing I like about it :)

James August 28, 2010 at 10:07 am

I’m in Reykjavik again for a little while and last night had some homemade bread at a cafe which I think was called Kryddlegin Hjortu on the waterfront. Not a bakery, but unusually good bread…

cactus zonie August 28, 2010 at 10:28 am

When in Iceland back in April , I stopped at Bjorns Bakari on Hringbraut and and pigged out on that chocolate “snudur” , a taste of cinnamon and chocolate just made for each other. Those things are freaking GOOD !

Alex Elliott August 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm

I have to say, when I used to work in a leikskóli we all had vínarbrauð at least once a week!

And, as for Icelandic bakeries being bad: I can’t compare them with France; but compared to bakeries in most of the English-speaking world, I think they are pretty good. You know, I can’t even think of a single bakery outside of a supermarket in the town I grew up in in the UK. Sad!

Outside of Reykjavík, might I recommend Gamla Bakaríið in Ísafjörður?

SLM August 28, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Sandholt is the nearest and that’s why I go there pretty often. I like the products a lot, but service is terrible.

Braudhusid in Bustadavegur has the best bread, unfortunately it is just a bit too far away. But luckily one can find their products also in Yggdrasill on Rauðarárstígur.

Daniel Harðarson August 29, 2010 at 4:12 am

agree with WiseWoman, i put in my vote for the bakery in Isafjordur run by the danish lady :) best bakery in Iceland, it’s a shame there is nothing here in Reykjavik of that standard (though im yet to try mosfelbakari and Joi fel is taking a different angle)

Ill have no disparaging upon vínarbrauð though :) i love it!

walltoall August 29, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I have recently returned my family (to Essex!) after a brilliant 10day visit to Iceland. We ate in hotels, restaurants, cafes, petrol stations, and private houses from Keflavik to Stikkishomer via Eyrarbraut and the bread all over Iceland was to die for, as in ALL the breads. We tried every variety that presented itself and my main observation would be that the further away from Reyjkavik we got, the better was the bread! Your shop sold kleinur were uniformly kreppa, by the way. Too big too greasy, too stogy. My wonderful Icelandic mother in law, Margareta Ásgeirsdottir from Gravinis (now Grundurfjorder) made kleinur to die for.

hildigunnur August 30, 2010 at 5:31 pm

walltoall oh yes, you simply don’t buy kleinur, most of the bakery ones are horrible – stodgy and greasy as you say and mostly taste of fake cardamom. I’ve never tried making kleinur myself – not yet at least.

Icelandic bread (even Bernhöftsbakarí’s bread) beat the heck out of any Swedish bread, also some Italian (around Rome), what’s with bread with no salt at all? Tastes of nothing! Norwegian bread is a bit better than Swedish but they eat way too much of it… (my daughter went on a choral meet in Oslo a couple of years ago and the poor kids got bread for breakfast, bread for lunch and bread for supper until the parents protested – asked if it was really the plan not to eat anything but bread for the whole week?) This isn’t the only time I’ve come across this.

(afsakaðu þráðarránið, Alda :D)

Jim August 30, 2010 at 7:16 pm

With the Polish population of the country still being proportionally quite large and given the pride in their breads, I’m always surprised to never find any Polish bread in the country?

I tried some once in a Polish bakery in England and it was just wonderful, I would love to be able to sample some again in Reykjavík! Anyone seen any for sale?

Mike Richards August 30, 2010 at 9:27 pm

@ kevin

Historically wheat hasn’t been grown in Scandinavia because the growing season is so short, instead bread has been made with rye or even oats. Although I’m sure I saw wheat being grown next to Route 1 east of Selfoss last year.

Icelandic pancakes are lovely served with a sharp fruit sauce or berries, but I was a little disappointed by the lack of things to have with the excellent Icelandic coffee. Kaffitar have a rather delicious spice cake (perhaps Alda can tell us if that’s traditional) which is served with butter something like Yorkshire parkin. But alas there’s nothing comparable to Sweden’s cinnamon buns.

Alex Elliott August 30, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Following on from my previous comment on Ísafjörður bakeries: Gamla Bakaríið is definitely the place to go for delicious snacks; but the town’s other bakery, Bakarinn, sells the best tasting sliced sandwich bread I can remember ever trying…..

Sonja August 31, 2010 at 12:52 pm

The bakeries in Iceland are great, at least compared to the non-existent bakeries in the US. I’ve heard of a French bakery about 2 hour drive away, but other than that, the only ‘bakery’ here is buying doughnuts in a grocery store. (this is rural Ohio)

Michael Gordon September 2, 2010 at 6:01 am

Maltbrauð from a small bakeri in Keflavik many years ago. Maltbrauð was available many places but not as moist and firm as it was at that little Keflavik place.

I am very lucky to have an artisan bread shop (“Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread”) in this relatively small town; had some Asiago cheese bread with ravioli soup today for lunch.

The big difference is sugar. Too much of it in almost everything in the USA.

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