It's 2:12 a.m. in the Icelandic capital city of Reykjavik, and I can’t—for the life of me—find darkness.
I’ve drawn the blackout curtains in my hotel room, tucked towels in the nooks and crannies around the windows, and even attempted to burrow underneath the covers like a mole, desperate for a cocoon of night.
It’s two days before the Summer Solstice in Iceland, and the sun doesn’t really go away. Technically, it “sets”—dipping below the horizon for a couple of hours each day—but darkness never really takes over. Instead, a kind of perma-twilight dominates those hours, pinks and purples streaking the sky like pastel contrails. It holds a distinct, magic hour-style romanticism photographers swoon over. For me, it’s just disorienting.
Icelanders are not phased in the least, though, and chuckle at my pining for darkness as we drink buttermilk and eat pickled herring together each morning. Nighttime has always felt like my safe space; a place to come to terms with all the rumblings and secrets knocking around inside without the harsh light of day intruding. And with that, breakfast has been the liminal period between shadow self and the sun’s spotlight, a time to slither out of my nocturnal snakeskin and become a more humane critter once more—as gently as possible.
In Iceland, though, that therapeutic sunrise transition doesn’t quite happen. Breakfast at 3 p.m.? Breakfast at 3 a.m.? It all, pretty much, looks the same.
In Iceland, breakfast is a highly personal meal, and one typically eaten at home. Restaurants that serve breakfast in Reykjavik (home to two-thirds of the country’s population) on weekdays are few and far between, with the city’s warm, always bustling bakeries serving as the most common refuge for early birds. At a place like Baenir & Braud in the city center, traditional treats including Icelandic marriage cake (filled with oats and rhubarb) are found alongside good-for-you potions like turmerik-safi, a neon yellow turmeric-based drink that even looks healthy.
Just like everything else in the country, Icelandic breakfast options feel very pure. This is largely due to the fact that such tight controls have been kept on the quality of the country's livestock, produce, and natural resources throughout the centuries, leading to some of the world’s cleanest, best tasting water and lambs that are able to roam free throughout the countryside. There are, literally, no predators.
The high percentage of sheep, goats, and cattle mean that people also go gaga over all types of dairy (including Skyr, the tangy-sweet Icelandic cheese-yogurt combo that’s, somehow, fat free), but it’s milk—er, mjolk—that they really love. The country seems completely built on the back of calcium, with multiple versions of thick berry-flavored buttermilk, goat milk, and cow’s milk trotted out at “day break” with an unmistakable air of Icelandic self-satisfaction. Even non-dairy mjolk is wildly popular, made from decidedly non-native ingredients like chestnuts, rice, coconut (!) and—best of all—oats. Sipping a cool glass of oat milk is unexpectedly lovely, and roughly akin to drinking the dregs from the bottom of a bowl of Cheerios.
But perhaps the most curious piece de resistance of Icelandic mornings, though, is that slippery, unctuous, globally deplored health elixir that strikes fear into the heart of those who choke it down: cod liver oil. While I’ve only ever slurped some on a sleepover dare (not recommended), once was enough to be forever weary of its tongue-coating slimy texture and sensory-possessing fishiness that feels like face-planting in a pile of fermenting cod. Even my mother—a child of the '50s who was force-fed spoonfuls of the stuff a child—talks about it with equal parts fear (that she’ll have to drink it again) and reverence (for its purported fortifying qualities).
Icelanders, though, inexplicably love it, and almost everyone takes a spoonful or two before they head out the door. They’ll be more than happy to tell you about the high-quality of their country’s cod liver oil, and the pep-in-your-step qualities that their most popular version—a brand called Lysi—provides (Omega-3s! Vitamin A!).
Plus, they start ‘em young. Like an Icelandic version of Flintstone vitamins, Lysi makes a version of cod liver oil specifically for children, marketed by a nautically-dressed, bug-eyed cartoon cod that looks like a lost character from the Ren and Stimpy Show. Known as “The Cool Cod,” I can imagine parents cooing to their kids that the smiling, snaggle-toothed fish on the bottle is, “a cool cod, not like regular cod!” (a la Mean Girls) wagging the bottle back and forth for emphasis.
At my hotel, a sterling ice bucket holding a massive bottle of cod liver oil sits poised at the end of the breakfast buffet alongside towers of shot glasses and lemon wedges, beckoning for us all to start our day with a reared-back toast to our own well-being. And who am I to say it’s not the way to go? Everyone in Iceland is calmer than me, cheerier than I am, and could probably beat me in a wrestling match, so maybe, just maybe, they’re on to something.
Waving off the cod liver oil in favor of an espresso one morning, I’m struck by how even coffee somehow feels like a hale and hearty elixir when you drink it on Icelandic turf. The purity of breakfast feels like an edible reflection of the country’s current steady state of light, and a rejection that impurity—or darkness—is even an option.
But as for me, I’m up too early, and night is still calling my name. So back I go, retreating into makeshift darkness until I decide to make it morning again.