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Iceland gets the all clear: Dairy Farming on Lake Myvatn

Iceland gets the all clear: Dairy Farming on Lake Myvatn
Icelandair flies twice daily from London Heathrow and four times a week from Manchester and Glasgow from £202 return per person inc. tax.
Air Iceland flights Reykjavik to Akureyri cost from around £50 one way including tax
Iceland gets the all clear: Dairy Farming on Lake Myvatn
Before it spewed volcanic ash into international air space, Craig Butcher went all the way to northern Iceland to meet 7th generation dairy farmers. There are no travel restrictions on iceland so we venture back. 
I’m mere inches away from the backside of a substantially proportioned brown cow, tail gently swishing from left to right like the reassuring arm of a stately grandfather clock. From this particular vantage point, limited as it is, and unaccustomed to fathoming cow tail gestures, I can’t tell if the action suggests happiness, indifference or an imminent and potentially embarrassing trip to the dry cleaners for this intrepid reporter. Throwing caution to the wind, I reach forward, clasp the cup in front of me, raise it to my lips and sip gently on an impossibly fresh café latte.
Mercifully, the cow’s world and mine are separated by a thick pane of glass and I’m in no real danger of coming unstuck. On the cow’s side of the partition lie the relaxing environs of the dairy, on mine, the rustic café now very much a part of the original cow shed. Welcome to the Cow Shed Café which overlooks open pastures and the shimmering waters of Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland, where everything is just that little bit, well, different. While it’s lush grass and glacial springwater on the farm, behind the next ridge lies a lunar landscape so alien it was used by NASA to train astronauts for the moon landing.
Back on earth, with the alternate hiss and pop of the dairy pumps comes the promise of fresh milk. It’s piped directly from the dairy in a thin transparent tube akin to something you’d expect at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, travels through the glass pane, along the wall at eye-level, past the h v e r a b r a u d (dense rye bread), the packets of Icelandic moss tea leaves and on past the thrumming espresso machine where it collects in a chilled vat ready for use. Unpasteurised, naturally. The only way it could be any fresher is if I went out the back, donned overalls and milked the cows myself. Which is exactly what I did next, with a little guidance from Olof Hallgrimsdottir, whose family have lived on and farmed this land for over 150 years.
Tall, determined and welcoming, Olof, her husband Jon and their five children are all involved in running the farm and café. “The idea behind everything is that this is the place where we want to live and so we have to do something here which lets us do that. We needed to connect farming with tourism and got the idea of the café where everything is homemade and original.” At this point I become aware of the Icelandic tradition of understatement. I’d already treated myself to the house speciality for lunch -- an astounding smorgasbord of flavours and textures where everything was produced right here on the farm and which brought its entire purpose together on one plate. “We try to recycle things, not to spend, to think about things how they used to in the old days” says Olof.
The smoked trout and wild lamb dominating the plate are truly something special. “All the farmers around the lake have little boats to go fishing here and they each have smokehouses by the lake to smoke their trout and their wild lamb,” says Olof. “The method I use is traditional to this part of Northern Iceland. There’s no fire, just smoke. Producing the fuel takes about one or two years – it comes from the animal dung in the fields. I’m down at the smokehouse usually three times a day, adding fuel so that it burns little-by-little. The meat I salt for about a week, sometimes longer, before hanging it in the smokehouse for three weeks. Once out, I leave it for one or two months so the flavours can continue to develop as it dries. I’ve been doing it this way for over 25 years.”
The rye bread which adorns my plate is dense, nutty and prone to flaking under it’s own weight. “Everyone has their own bread recipe and they all think theirs is the best. We think ours is pretty good too” says Olof, with a cheeky grin. “We make the dough and take it to the mountain where we place it in lidded plastic buckets in our geothermal bakery. It’s just a foot underground but cooks in only a few hours.”
The wild blueberry jam is picked from neighbouring fields, the Icelandic style verging on slight bitterness. Also from the fields come angelica, heather and moss. “We pick angelica from the fields to use in our homemade schnapps and along with moss and heather in our wild tea. It also goes really well with our wild lamb” says Olof. The mozzarella and, more recently feta, they produce themselves from their own milk as is their skyr, an Icelandic soft cheese more reminiscent of natural yoghurt. It is remarkably low in fat and has a welcome balance of sweet and savoury.
Tending to sheep, milking cows, stoking fires and catching fish makes for an incredibly busy day. “It’s really hard work but we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t like it, and we love it. We’re used to hard work, we’ve always been doing that.” ‘Always’ is a phrase I’ve heard a lot during my time on the farm. It captures a depth of tradition that underlines everything that is done here, the assured belief in past knowledge, the confidence of knowing what is being done is right and the optimism to expect it to continue. Long may it.
Vogafjos, 6 6 0 M yv a t n , Iceland. T e l : ( + 3 5 4 ) 4 6 4 4 3 0 3 . Web: w w w . v o g a f j o s . n e t / e n /
For more information on Icelandic cuisine, how to get there and where to stay, visit:
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