A Culinary Circle from Iceland to Ireland, Algeria, Tunisia, and Malta
It took 3 flights and 40 hours to get from one geothermal island to another. Unfortunately, my luggage preferred to holiday in Copenhagen. Thankfully I packed my carry-on strategically. Three days later my bag was delivered. It felt longer.
August highs in Iceland average 13 degrees. One day only was 20. It is a sunny 9 degrees as we head off for a whale watching cruise. Two humpbacks give us more than an hour of frolicking as they repeatedly spout, and dive with tails flipping just metres away.
The food has been excellent. Fish is superbly fresh. Soft, black rye bread, steamed for 24 hours in a hot spring, gets slathered with butter, and pickled herring that is tender and sweet like smoked salmon. It is served with 38 proof potato spirits. I tried surprisingly mild shots of cod liver oil for breakfast. Fermented Skyr for dessert and breakfast is a cross between thick yogurt and soft cheese, mixed with tiny berries.
Trees here too are small and slow growing as warmth and light can be meagre. Outside of towns are volcanic islands, rapids, seals, caribou, fjords, spectacular waterfalls, people fishing for salmon, vast lakes with blue ducks and hundreds of swans, fields of scoria green with moss and lichen.
Mountain tops are often flat like cake layers, sliced by advancing glaciers. Isolated farms have sheep with curved Viking horns, wild mink, and long maned horses. Survival here favours short, stocky, and furry. Hobbits would do well. Geysers erupt and Arctic winds threaten to blow me over.
Towns are named to torture tourists. I stay at Borgarfjordureystri, a fishing village of 85 inhabitants. Brightly coloured houses, some with sod roofs, have names instead of numbers. I pick wild blueberries and a nearby family invites me to dinner. We eat pink Arctic char and foraged mushrooms. Poetry is read, and tales of elves and trolls are told with gravitas.
One day I stand between the high rocky sides of the rift valley where the tectonic plates of Europe and North America meet. This dark, narrow, and savage gouge was used compellingly in Game of Thrones. The whole country could erupt like White Island, and locals reference our New Zealand disaster.
Along the Ring Road, my bus travels the southeast coast past Europe’s biggest glacier. We stop and watch nesting puffins swoop and feed. A small boat takes us through a lagoon with mighty icebergs seemingly constructed from different shades of blueberry meringue. Swimming is not recommended with water at 4 degrees.
We visit a geothermal plant. The country’s power is from 100% renewable sources. The air is 12 degrees, but I happily swim and soak in the toasty waters of the Blue Lagoon with my new friend Mona, a retired Irish nurse living in Sydney. We enjoy silica facials, champagne, and jollity.
More books are published here than in any other nation. It has no standing army and one of the lowest global crime rates. 80% of citizens are members of the Lutheran Church. Iceland doesn’t allow Uber, Starbucks, MacDonalds, casinos or strip clubs. The population is the size of Christchurch. All school children learn Icelandic, Danish and English. People are hardy, proud, friendly, and industrious. Humans are extraordinarily resourceful. No other species roams and adapts so extensively to extreme environments.
Odin would approve.
IRELAND – Fifty Shades of Green
Eleventh century church bells ring with frequency and joy. Buildings are elegantly Georgian brick. Most streets have a succession of ancient pubs with larrikin names. A city park is home to wild deer, and a statue of the local boy who became Duke of Wellington, and defeated Napoleon. Another lad, Bram Stoker, used Irish mythology to create Count Dracula. This must be Dublin.
At a nearby rural estate I dine at Ballyknocken Cooking School with owner and TV food star, Catherine Byrne-Fulvio. The 1855 cottage is full of charm and antiques. She serves a three-course meal sourced mostly from her clearly loved garden. A standout was fresh herb scones served with spinach, carrot and cumin soup, swirled with fresh cream. On the narrow country road back, we pass resident and actor, Daniel Day Lewis on his yellow Ducati motorbike.
More than 20% of New Zealanders have Irish ancestry. Both lands are fair, green, rolling, sea-edged, sheep-dotted, and snake-deprived. Together, among the OECD, we have the greatest number of adventurous expats living overseas.
Sadly, 93% of Northern Ireland schools remain religiously segregated. Belfast though is now booming instead of bombing. A walking tour with a local history teacher guides us through the protest art, barbed wire, and endless new apartments. The Titanic Museum is huge, prow-like, and architecturally stunning. Immersive depictions of dockside workers reveal harrowing lives even before the deadly voyage. Newsreel footage shows hungry, dirty, desperate living and working conditions.
Farther north at Ireland’s windiest point is the Giants Causeway. It was formed by shifting tectonics and red rivers of lava. However calm the surface, the earth is shaped by foundations of fire. Huge vertical columns of basalt rock thrust up and over jagged shores and tempestuous Atlantic waters.
You don’t come here for the weather. Their August summer is often like our August winter. The Romans came briefly and left. Later their Barbarian conquerors did the same. Only the English Protestant Tudors took a strategic interest, as this was a potentially dangerous landing site for their hated rivals, France and Spain. On such singularities can an entire history be shaped.
I try my first whiskey. A drink invented by the Irish and quietly reported as perfected by the Scots. There is wild salmon, plump oysters, Guinness meat pies, seafood chowder, and seaweed dishes. At breakfast I enjoy black pudding, and fried soda bread. There is every interpretation of the potato. Especially good is colcannon (mashed with cream, kale, and onion), boxty (potato pancakes), and farl (potato flatbread).
There is a grand banquet dinner and boisterous medieval entertainment at the 15th century Knappogue castle. Other meals too are accompanied by music: from harp, violin, bagpipe, Van Morrison, U2, Sinead O’Connor, to fast tapping dance. Country western music originated with the Celts in the southern United States. Their King William supporters were known as “Billies” and then hillbillies.
I volunteer to try Gaelic dancing (did well), and the national 3,000 year old sport of hurling (did badly). I love the Irish gaiety, colourful phrasing, speedy gab, and easy wit. The castles, abbeys, drystone walls, thatched rooves, vividly painted cottages and shops.
Stroll through the grounds of Trinity College and imagine an alumni dinner with Oscar Wilde, Niels Bohr, AA Milne, Ralph Vaughan Williams, scores of royalty, politicians – and infamous spies.
This is an ideal land to practice the philosophy of its revered romantic poet, W B Yeats, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”.
Fresh dates, camembert, pastries. You’ve probably had them. Not like this. One mouthful here is so intensely complete as to transcend any previous claimants.
This is Africa’s largest country. It has a Mediterranean coastline, snowy mountains, and an interior with the largest swathe of the Sahara. Its national animal is the adorable, blonde, huge-eared desert fox. Algiers, the capital along the sea, is known for the maze of its Kasbah, the winding lanes of the Medina, Ottoman palaces, marble mosques, the old port’s colourful fishing vessels, French boulevards and vast botanical gardens. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site – one of seven in the country.
The nation was colonised by the French from 1830. They fought together during World War II. And then viciously against each other until independence in 1962. Over one million Algerians died during that claim for independence. In 1957, one of its famous sons, Albert Camus, won the Nobel prize for literature. Women have better status here than in most Islamic countries: 60% of judges and 70% of lawyers are women. There is a lot of poverty, though that is ever decreasing, and no national debt due to petroleum and natural gas exports.
Algerian foods are a statement to its varied past. Hearty stew-topped couscous; pastry with lemon, olives and coriander; mhajab – flatbread filled with onion, tomato and then fried; rachta – pasta with veg and chickpeas; makroud – semolina parcels filled with dates, and glossy with lemon syrup. Particularly good are samsa, their triangular, densely almond and orange cookies. Despite the French influence, don’t bother asking for a glass of wine though, alcohol is rarely available.
Every aspect of arranging travel here was problematic: flights were changed; hotels were changed; walking tours difficult to book. Out of the six countries I visited, it was not just the only one to require a visa, but my passport had to be physically sent to their embassy in Canberra. Their bureaucracy (tellingly, a French word for “rule by desk”), set the entire experience somewhere between Monty Python and the Twilight Zone. Amid their many political, and socioeconomic issues, they made an important civic stipulation before my arrival: the Barbie movie was banned.
As in many other Arab countries, people are tenderly besotted with children. Otherwise surly officials, and the weary on cramped planes, gaze at screaming toddlers like they are the epitome of endearment. About 70% of the population is under 30.
Locals are hospitable and easy to engage with. They apologise for the well-known, suspicious entry requirements. Seeing other tourists is uncommon. When women of all ages pass me, they often smile softly and are quick to help. I did two 5-hour walking tours, each with smart, charming young guides who could answer my every question, discuss history and world events, find me the foods I wanted to try, and head me safely home. They spoke of wages averaging 250 Euros per month (basically double that for NZD), while rent is 150 to 200. Even doctors earn just 500 per month. Families squash together. Young people sigh about privacy being a fairytale concept.
Algerians can withdraw a small amount only of Euros each year. Downtown I pass an entire street dedicated to black market currency trading, which the heavy police presence everywhere, ignores. We Westerners are born to Luckyville.
Its beauty is a surprise. Seaside towns, such as popular Sidi Bou Said, were postcard whitewashed, with vivid blue shutters, yellow doors, and crimson bougainvillea, long before the Greek islands copied them.
I stay at the Royal Victoria, built in 1662, and the former British Embassy. It is ornately Raj-style, as if designed during an opium rapture. Think the Civic Theatre turned into a hotel. I write this from my room’s balcony, which looks onto the bustle of a town square, and a street designed to resemble the broad, welcoming ramble of the Champs-Elysees.
A slim wedge of North Africa’s vast expanse, this nation comes perfumed with jasmine. The Republic of Tunisia achieved independence from the French in 1956. Customs and croissants remain. The land is home now to many mega movie sets such as for Star Wars and Indianna Jones.
With a push for more presidential power, parliament was suspended in 2021. It partially resumed in March 2023. The legitimacy remains questioned, home and abroad. As a protest, recent voter turnout was merely 11%. Oh, the privileges of democracy that we take for granted.
Next to the parliament buildings is the Bardo. After Cairo, it is Africa’s second largest museum. Due to proximity and thus politicians’ safety reasons only, this splendid collection of antiquities remained barred for three years until the very day I visit. By chance, I was approached within by Tunisian TV. They interviewed me and filmed while I gazed at superbly curated exhibits. It was easy to enthuse.
The capital Tunis, sprawls along a lake with flamingos. I wander through the medina’s colourful markets and try cactus fruit, and mint tea from filigree pots, served with sesame cookies. Coastal homes and gardens are gloriously intense. September temperatures are 37° Celsius and beyond.
Nearby, I explore the extensive ruins of Carthage. This once wealthy maritime centre inspired poetry, and mythology. It existed for more than 500 years before its fall to Rome in 146 BC. It has one of the world’s largest historical amphitheatres, built in 238 AD for a capacity of over 30,000, and still used for theatre and concerts. If you have any lust to forge an empire, look upon these magnificent but dusty ruins, and ponder how time mocks egoic obsessions.
Tunisia ranks among the world’s top three olive oil exporters. The cuisine is a mixture of Mediterranean and Berber influences. Couscous is spicy with harissa, or sweet with orange, dates, and geranium. Brik are triangular filo parcels filled with fresh, local tuna, and preserved lemon. Zingy Merguez sausages come fragrant with sumac, fennel, garlic, and chili. For sweets enjoy bambalouni, fried dough rings soaked in honey. Or their version of makroudh: semolina dough wrapped around a thick paste of figs and almonds.
After the dusty clamour of North Africa, Malta is clean, calm, discretely prosperous, easy and safe to traverse. It’s like a Sicilian Riviera with British infrastructure. Children starting school must learn Maltese and English. By middle school it is mandatory to study at least one other language. There is a lot of Italian speech, food, and relaxed vibe.
In area, Malta is about the size of Christchurch. It is one of 21 small islands, with 18 of them not much more than tiny, barren rocks. The main island has no lakes or rivers, but beams with 300 days of sunshine. Carob, olive, and fig trees flourish. The beauty and climate have made it a hub for the wealthy and some impressive yachts.
Historically, it has been part of almost every nearby civilisation. A home to Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French, and lastly British. Its strategic location and natural harbour made it a fought for prize.
Malta’s golden age story is told through its baroque architecture, especially enhanced and protected by the Knights of St John for 250 years. This still active, medieval Catholic military order, built hospitals, and fed the poor. The Holy Roman Emperor, in 1530, rewarded them with sovereign rights over the island. In return, the Order made a token annual rent of a live falcon. This payment was immortalized in the Humphrey Bogart movie, The Maltese Falcon. The territory gained independence in 1964.
I stay in the walled World Heritage capital, Valletta. Overlooking the magnificent harbour, the Barrakka Gardens were created as a private idyll for the Knights of Italy in 1661. They are full of busts, statues, and colonnades. Structured over two levels, there is a lift from the waterfront that swiftly goes up 58 metres.
Stroll through markets and find WW II memorabilia, glass blowing, and ornate lace work. I sail to the stunning Blue Grotto, weaving through its caves, and sweeping limestone arches over radiant turquoise waters.
Thanks to the excellent Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour, I snack on the local favourite of pastizzi: flaky pastry stuffed with spiced peas. We have coffee mixed with orange peel and aniseed liqueur, served with a cookie, dark with treacle and honey. Other specialties are peppered sheep cheese, horsemeat (looks and tastes like beef), pies with spinach and anchovies, and prickly pear liqueur. The national dish is Stuffat tal-Fenek: rabbit and vegetables, stewed slowly in red wine.
Narrow streets run steeply to the sea. Many are profuse with restaurant tables and convivial diners. Everywhere are glimpses of effortless beauty. With this final gracious chapter, there is a mixture of joy and relief. My health and possessions have survived. Now 30°, I head for the pool and then packing. It is time to prepare for one of the world’s most popular destinations: home.