Reykjavik Bakeries

Although I began my talk at the Iceland Writers Retreat telling the group that I disliked the word “humbled,” (and invited the group to call me out on it in the future, if I ever used that word again), I felt humbled being in the presence of such highly esteemed writers, who came from around the world. Being the only person who writes about food, I’ve had to explain that writing about food isn’t always about food, per se, but every culture and country, and situation, involves food or eating. Even poets and historians write about food. It doesn’t just keep us alive, but defines and differentiates us.

So in my own unique way, I was able to tie food into everything, even as part of my raison d’être for being in Iceland.

While planning my trip to Reykjavík, I wanted to visit the local bakeries. I love dense, Nordic breads, but the Scandinavians also have a tradition – which is primarily Danish – of pastry-making. There are only 121,000 living in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, and 98% of the country is heated natural geothermal energy.

A popular activity is sitting in one of the natural thermal springs and pools, and ten minutes from my hotel is a beach where naturally heated water makes the water swimmable, 365 days of the year. With the President enjoying a 97% approval rating, aside from the weather, in addition to some of the best bakeries I’ve been to, anywhere in the world, what’s not to like?

The first bakery I stopped in was Sandholt. Although it was a weekday morning, the place was packed full of people drinking strong coffee, along with nibbling on bread and pastries at rough wooden tables.

Many of the pastries in Iceland are Danish, although some are French. (Even though it’s believed that croissants originated in Austria, which is why they are called viennoiserie, in French.)

At this family owned bakery, I was impressed by the croissants, as well as the glazed apple cakes, but especially the hearty loaves, made with everything from kamut and quinoa, to smoked pumpkin seeds and – of course – rye. I wasn’t there at lunch or dinner, but they serve both, as well as breakfast.

Sandholt Bakery

Hewing close to tradition is Bernhöfstbakarí. The owner, baker Sigurður Már Guðjónsson, makes the pastries at the oldest bakery in Iceland. Their dough divider, above, has a serial number on it: Number #38, which he learned was, indeed, the thirty-eighth dough divider that the manufacturer made.

Apples and almonds figure into most of the baked goods here, including an apple-filled puff pastry topped with raw brown sugar, as well as almond swirls (above), which he told me are equal parts sugar, butter, and marzipan. I tasted one hot out of the oven and was happy to have woken up early (4:52am that morning, to be exact) for that experience.

Even better were the pretzels, made the traditional way by dipping the shaped dough into lye, which gives them that particularly burnished appearance.

Sigurður is an avid collector of baking books, some of which lined his office, but I suspect at home, he’s got some baking tomes that would make the rest of us weep with envy. Kind of like I felt when I saw this Eplastykki (below), covered with nuts and caramel.

His beautiful Danish Rúgbraut also would have found its way home in my luggage, had it not been for meager luggage allowance, but I did get an official, generously sized Bernhöfstbakarí t-shirt, which I suspect will be a little snug by the time I leave Reykjavík.

Bernhöfstbakarí Bakery


Not as traditional as the other bakeries in Reykavík, it’s impossible to list what 17 Sortir makes because they make seventeen different desserts every day…and never make the same dessert twice.

I loved meeting the friendly owner, Auður Ögn Árnadóttir, who was a baking teacher before she opened her shop. We joked about licorice, an extremely popular treat in Scandinavia, and one of the few things I don’t like. I’m okay with that, because there are plenty of other things that I do like, but I sometimes wish I liked it, because the cupcakes topped with gooey caramel and licorice looked liked enticing, with the black, salty candy sprinkled on top. But I did walk out with a few little cakes to bring back to my hotel with me, for snacking on later.

17 Sortir


I stopped breathing for a moment when I walked into Brauð og Co. There are very few times in life where I enter a place and realize I’m all of a sudden, in the middle of somewhere special. Sometimes it’s a French cookware factory, other times it’s a bakery.

And in the middle, I was, with my puffy winter down parka, surrounded by a team of fast-moving, but friendly, bakers, rolling, spreading, folding, and kneading all sorts of breads, pastries, and buns.

Unlike other bakeries, Ágúst Einþórsson set up his bakery specifically so the bakers are just a few feet away from the customers, so there’s little distinction between the customers and the bakers. Their opening hours just say “early,” and people can come in at any hour they want to pick up bread. (Which is good to know if you’re jet-lagged, and/or can’t wait to have one of their pastries.)

The bakery is packed and I spent a few minutes in the middle of the kitchen, trying to stay out of their way while polishing off one of the best pain au chocolats of my life. (I had my eye on a sesame pretzel but the woman in front of me in line snagged it right before it was my turn – why does that always happen to me?)

I stopped back into the bakery before leaving Reykjavík for a few loaves of bread to pack in my suitcase. Ágúst was there, again, removing breads from the oven. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by a place, I get a little emotional and told him that what he was doing really was very special. As I continued, he started to turn red, and I think I did too. So I let him get back to tending to the breads in the oven behind him, and slipped my breads in my canvas bag, with an extra pain au chocolat, for the road.

Brauð og Co.


Heiðdís Einarsdóttir, who gratefully said that I could call her “Heidi” (whew!), because I hadn’t mastered the Icelandic language yet, in spite of some of the locals best efforts to help me (Vesturbærlaug, however, the name of my favorite thermal bath, I did manage to memorize) works for Visit Reykjavík, and offered to take me to Café Loki for a traditional Icelandic lunch.

When she described the place, it sounded exactly like where I wanted to eat. This simple restaurant was filled with locals and a few others, most dressed for a day of hiking, even though it was in the middle of town. Perhaps many just climbed off a mountain and were in need of some sustenance? Or they’d just visited four bakeries in two hours. If so, we were all in the right place.

We started off buttered rye bread topped with this slices of smoked lamb, which Iceland is famous for. Beef and chicken are rare, but lamb is plentiful, and the lamb is Iceland was some of the best I’ve had. It is prepared similar to ham, but has a sweet lamb flavor. There was also lamb-head jelly (not shown) and fermented shark, shown below.

At the other end of the scale (and the platter) is the dried fish, a popular snack in Iceland, smeared with some of their delicious butter. Accompanying a photo I posted on Instagram, a reader said that it was as good as French butter, and I had to agree.

The fermented shark was interesting and owner Hrönn Vilhelmsdóttir told me not to smell it first, before eating it. Just to pop it in my mouth, and follow it with a shot of Brennevín, Icelandic schnapps made from potatoes and caraway. (The shark is buried for 2-3 months, then hung to dry for several weeks, or months.) The reason our noses are above our mouths is to prevent us from eating stuff that’s funky or spoiled, and in this case, I did inhale briefly, but quickly popped the cube of shark into my mouth before following it with a shot of the bracing – and cleansing – snafs.

Some people really don’t like it, but I didn’t find it all that objectionable. Another reader said it was for the tourists (which I was, so I didn’t mind), but locals told me they do eat it, however only during certain seasons.

We had some little sandwiches served on squares of homemade rye bread with herring, lamb paste, and trout smoked over sheep dung. Huh? In a country, an island, where wood is scarce, ya gotta use everything…and why waste any good poop? It has a slightly funky flavor, but not objectionable. (And that’s from someone who does his best to avoid andouillette in France.)

We finished with the house specialty: Rye bread ice cream, accompanied by cups of bracingly strong Icelandic coffee. Using crumbs of rye bread, this ice cream reminded me of Brown bread ice cream, and next time I churn up a batch at home, I’m going to make it using rye bread. Thankfully I have a suitcase of Icelandic bread, so I foresee it happening in the near future.

Café Loki


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67 comments

  • Amy in Hunting Valley, OH
    April 8, 2017 3:11pm

    David .. I want to come back in my next life as you. Reply

  • April 8, 2017 3:30pm

    When Charlie and I visited Reykjavik in December, we were delighted to find that Broud was next To our Airbnb. We treated ourselves to their pastries once or twice a day. (Well, we did do a lot of walking.) I brought home two loaves of their dark bread. Boy, those loaves are HEAVY. We ate the dung smoked trout. (Meh) I’m with you on the andouillette. As we say, we tried it twice–the first and the last time. Would love to go back to Iceland. Reply

  • April 8, 2017 4:50pm

    Great photography! These are some amazing shots that are inspiring me to travel! Reply

  • Helen S. Fletcher
    April 8, 2017 5:17pm

    What a beautiful post – both the writing and the photography. There is not much I envy in the world, but your travel adventures are a delight. You are so right, there is much more to food writing than recipes. Reply

    • Maria Bashaw
      April 9, 2017 6:55am

      I concur! Thank you David. I live vicariously through your travels. Reply

  • Gwen Ethelbah
    April 8, 2017 5:20pm

    Any recipes you can share? Reply

  • Janet
    April 8, 2017 5:25pm

    Going to Iceland for the second time next month. Definitely looking for those yummy looking pastries! P.s. I’ve ordered your new book! Reply

  • Steve
    April 8, 2017 5:31pm

    David,
    Iceland photos the best food porn I have ever seen…….. Eplastykki!!!!
    Steve Reply

  • April 8, 2017 5:40pm

    Lovely blog – very inspiring! Who takes these exquisite photos? Really remarkable. Reply

  • Sarah
    April 8, 2017 5:40pm

    I just devoured every word and photograph. Thank you for the mini vacation! Reply

  • Kathleen Mann
    April 8, 2017 5:46pm

    Another amazing post, full of information, heart and visual delight (and a little humility :-))

    Just watch Icelandic tourism surge now! Reply

  • Sue Piner
    April 8, 2017 5:49pm

    Thank you again David for a wonderful trip. I hope to meet you next time you come to San Antonio, Texas Reply

  • Helen
    April 8, 2017 5:49pm

    Wow–beautiful writing and pictures; such a beautiful beginning to my day. I make a lot of bread but few pastries so am tremendously inspired by these wonderful bakeries and their beautiful bread loaves. Thank you for taking me along on your travels. Reply

  • Becky
    April 8, 2017 5:53pm

    David, your mention of andouillette made me laugh. A couple years ago, my husband, daughter, and I were in Paris eating at Chez Denise. My husband speaks zero French and mine is approaching competency. He asked me to tell him what was listed on the menu and when I reached andouillette (which I’d never heard of), I said sausage (which was accurate in a way), so he ordered that. I doubt either of us will ever forget the taste or that our then 6 year old daughter ate most of it. The haricot de mouton was amazing though! Reply

  • Ella
    April 8, 2017 5:54pm

    OMG, that apple sugary thing…. and the breads…lI think I gasped aloud…. Reply

  • Anne
    April 8, 2017 5:59pm

    I’m drooling – what great-looking food!!! Reply

  • Dorina
    April 8, 2017 6:01pm

    Please …. would you do us all the honor of procuring and posting at least one recipe for one dense bread … just one … for those of us who may never make it to this wonderful destination …. please? Reply

    • April 8, 2017 6:13pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve not made dense rye breads such as this, but there is a book that came out this year called The Rye Baker that sounds very interesting and might be worth checking out for a recipe. There is a recipe for Adventure Bread here on the site that is packed with grains, which you might find interesting as well. Reply

      • Dorina
        April 8, 2017 6:20pm

        Thank you very much for recommending Mr. Ginsberg’s book … now on my to-do list! And the Adventure Bread? Oh yes! Many times! Excellent! I appreciate your response and wish you a lovely day! Reply

      • Garden Goddess
        April 9, 2017 7:41pm

        Adventure bread is great–I had a slice this morning! Since I’ve been trying to cut down on carbs :( this has been my go-to breakfast bread/toast. (Just be aware, it’s not easy to toast!) It’s super easy to make thought (just a bit of a hassle finding all the ingredients…).

        Also, thank you David for this fabulous post. I want to eat every vegetarian item I saw AND I want recipes–your next book perhaps? I also really liked that last photo of the equipment drying rack for some reason–I want that too! Thank you. Reply

      • Ilona
        April 28, 2017 3:26am

        Mr. Ginsberg (author of The Rye Baker) has a blog (http://theryebaker.com/). He sponsors conference calls for rye baking enthusiasts, information for which is on his site. Reply

    • MJ
      April 8, 2017 6:17pm

      Yes, Please!!!!
      and p.s. The enjoyment received from reading your words and drooling over your photos is immense! Thank you, David. Reply

    • GRB
      April 8, 2017 7:33pm

      This recipe makes a wonderful Icelandic rye bread that is both authentic tasting and easy to make. Note that it takes over six hours to bake. Be sure to use golden syrup and not corn syrup – Lyle’s Golden Syrup is available at amazon.com, at Whole Foods, and in the UK. This bread is wonderful served warm with a little butter, and freezes well.
      http://www.cookingismessy.com/2015/12/06/icelandic-rye-bread/
      Enjoy! Reply

      • April 8, 2017 7:39pm
        David Lebovitz

        Thanks for sharing that recipe. I do have a Swedish dark bread (which they call sour milk bread) that a chef gave me in Stockholm, here on the site, which is similar. Although it’s not a dense, super-grainy bread. Reply

      • Tom K
        April 10, 2017 3:26pm

        The link doesn’t give credit to the source (if there’s ever a source for a bread recipe …), which is Iceland’s most popular cookbook author, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, and her book Icelandic Food and Cookery. It later appeared in Saveur magazine (http://www.saveur.com/article/recipes/icelandic-dark-rye-bread).
        I’ve made this more times than I can count. It’s so easy, pretty authentic, and absolutely delicious. Reply

      • TomK
        April 10, 2017 4:19pm

        I agree this Icelandic rye is easy and delicious. However, the math in this recipe looks suspect to me. A very similar one, in “Iceland’s Food and Cookery” by Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, uses the same amount of flour but a cup less buttermilk for two loaves, rather than Ulfar’s one — which probably explains the problem of the spillover and crust (and thrown-away batter). Nanna also covers hers while it bakes, more closely mimicking the steaming of the authentic loaves. I’ve made Nanna’s many times and my Scandinavian relations are always pleased. Reply

        • April 10, 2017 5:04pm
          David Lebovitz

          Thanks TomK for chiming in with your notes on how you made it, and how the two recipes vary. Reply

  • Douglas Losey
    April 8, 2017 6:01pm

    This is the best porn I’ve seen on the internet. Reply

  • Lydia
    April 8, 2017 6:23pm

    Iceland is one of my favourite places I’ve ever visited. Pinning this post for my next visit, which hopefully won’t be too far away! What is the name of that beach you mention at the beginning? Reply

    • April 8, 2017 6:43pm
      David Lebovitz

      It’s this one. It has limited hours this time of the year, so I wasn’t able to go, but looks and sounds interesting. Note that going into a thermal pool in Iceland, they require people to take very (very) thorough showers beforehand, without swimsuits. So bashful people should be aware of that ; ) Reply

      • Hulda
        April 10, 2017 12:38am

        The man made beach is Nauthólsvík. Lovely to read your blog and follow your visit to Reykjavik on Instagram. Us locals go to all the bakeries you mention and love it. Reply

  • jeanne
    April 8, 2017 6:50pm

    This is a beautifully written, beautifully presented post. Your blog is the best. Thank you for sharing with us. Reply

  • Wendy Rawady
    April 8, 2017 6:55pm

    Never put yourself down as a writer. You are up there with the greats in your use of language and ability to mix so many aspects of life comfortably in your stories. Thanks for allowing readers to live vicariously and tag on your coat-tails in all your journeys, from the corner bakeries in Paris to wait … what? Iceland? ANd I am so with you on ‘humbled’. What DOES that mean? Reply

  • April 8, 2017 7:13pm

    Iceland has been on my bucket list for quite sometime. Now, after reading your article on the bakeries, I must go! Everything looks amazingly delicious. i think I would love just about everything you photographed. Reply

  • Cammy
    April 8, 2017 8:16pm

    Absolutely amazing. I wish we could bring artisan cooking to every state, city in the US – get rid of Panera and bring these mom n’ pop style bakeries where you are trained to make amazing breads, desserts using quality ingredients. Even better – make them cooperatives. Reply

    • Heart
      April 11, 2017 6:58am

      Hear! Hear!
      I vote 2nd Story Bakery, San Jose, CA
      Wonderful, no Heavenly, Homemade Organic Bread with Quirky names & best of all Love! Fantastic! Reply

  • Auður Ögn Árnadóttir
    April 8, 2017 8:18pm

    Hi David and Thanks so much for stopping by in 17 Sortir; my cake shop. I was so pleased to meet you after following your blogs and books for years – a real honor. Could I say I was humbled by your presence ;-)
    If you ever find yourself in Iceland again, come say Hi – our 17 sorts of cakes will await you.
    My best for your future travels,
    Auður Reply

  • tone midtgård
    April 8, 2017 8:19pm

    How fun to read this post!

    And I must say, as a Norwegian, I am SO pleased that Scandinavian/Nordic ingredients have been discovered and truly appreciated over the past few years, largely thanks to Noma.

    But yet, this is a bit of a fad. Because, frankly and truly, Nordic cuisines will never beat e.g. French, Italian and Mexican food. Sun-drenched is really a tremendeous quality!

    Nonetheless, it is really good that also the qualities of our ingredients get the opportunity to shine. Because they’re worth it, too. Reply

  • Cece
    April 8, 2017 8:49pm

    On my very first trip to Europe I stopped over in Reykjavik but sadly did not do a bakery tour. I suspect it has become a bit more sophisticated than my visit. One thing I remember is that they didn’t broadcast TV one night a week in the hopes that people would go out and socialize in bars and restaurants. It’s a very interesting country; I enjoyed your post. Reply

  • Marjorie
    April 8, 2017 9:22pm

    I was struck by your comments on writing about food (last couple sentences in opening paragraph). I think you have identified the heart of the importance of regional cuisine, the way it binds us to our family, our history, and our time. I am still thinking about it. Thank you. Reply

  • Molly
    April 8, 2017 9:22pm

    Yes, I’m echoing that David, you are a superb writer. Your writing is so evocative, and along with your excellent photos, makes me long to go where you’ve been.

    And to Cammy: YES, get rid of the Panera’s, or at least let there be more independent places (I wish). Panera is pricey so not a good value for the money in my opinion. But even more compelling is that there is better food to be had elsewhere, again in my opinion. Reply

    • Heart
      April 11, 2017 7:02am

      Agreed! Reply

  • Rockyrd
    April 8, 2017 10:40pm

    Don’t you ever need a chaperone on any of these trips? Great drool worthy photos and a wonderful description of a place I want to go to. Thank you.
    More videos please.
    Xo. Reply

  • Mary Jude
    April 8, 2017 10:49pm

    Thank you dears for the write up. Reply

  • Marta
    April 8, 2017 11:08pm

    Oh you missed the best cinnamon buns in Iceland! Icelandic traditional buns meet american sticky buns at a tiny gourmet shop/restaurant that is a hidden gem in the suburbs of the west side of Reykjavik, only 10 minute walk from the center. Only locals know about this place so please be shure don’t to miss it if you come back! It’s called Borðið (means The table or also a different meaning in Icelandic is “eat”!) and the address is Ægisíða 123 ! Reply

  • Kelly
    April 9, 2017 12:36am

    Ha! What a coincidence, I actually JUST lugged home a loaf of Danish rye bread, from Copenhagen. It weighed plenty so I left behind a couple of books, but it’s worth it! I loved hearing about Iceland – 2017’s 3rd happiest country in the world, right behind Denmark and Norway- and your travels. Thanks, David! Reply

  • Linda Briganti
    April 9, 2017 1:47am

    I loved seeing the special wall rack for pastry bags and tips. Reply

  • linda
    April 9, 2017 2:06am

    I laughed when I read your comment about andouillette. We tried this unknowingly last summer — and managed 1-2 bites before we understood why it was “especialle.” It is rightfully nicknamed the “dish of death.” These baked goods, on the other hand, look fab. Reply

  • huw rowlands
    April 9, 2017 1:43pm

    This is slightly off topic but it does give a witty review of a high-end Paris restaurant that I d like to share. It made me smile broadly. Jay Rayner (the Guardian)
     Reply

  • Betsyros
    April 9, 2017 2:51pm

    Wonderful read! I’m going to buy some rye flour today and dig
    up a recipe. This was so inspiring! Reply

  • April 9, 2017 3:07pm

    When people are writing about Iceland they don’t usually write about the food, it is good to see that they have amazing food too! Iceland is on my bucket list. Reply

  • April 9, 2017 5:06pm

    I have found the beautiful thing about bakeries in Iceland is that every town has one! I’ve had the best chocolate covered macaroons I’ve had in my life that were pyramids of dark chocolate with chewy coconut-ty centers. (I dream of those…that was in Stykkisholmur btw, home to The Library of Water by artist Roni Horn, the Volcano Museum and the Baldur ferry to the island of Flatey-a wonderful puffin viewing site.) The Braud Bakery has made me weep too, and sustained me all the way around the Ring Road on many trips! (this summer will be my 8th trip to work on my photographic project about the weather entitled “The Weather Diaries”. Love your blog! Reply

  • Parisbreakfast
    April 9, 2017 6:40pm

    How to get some grainy bread Icelandic bakers to come to Paris? Reply

  • April 9, 2017 11:44pm

    I’ve been dying to go there….one of these days! Reply

  • Susan
    April 10, 2017 12:46am

    Just as I am getting mildly obsessed with German-type bread recipes along comes this post!! I love baking bread and am quite taken with the little seeded rolls found at breakfast in Germany, Northern Italy etc. Now here’s more fantastic information. And the pictures of the loaves!!! SO beautiful. Thank you David Reply

  • silvia
    April 10, 2017 9:38am

    Dear David,
    This is just amazing! Does anyone know whether there is a good book to learn about their best recipes? Reply

    • April 10, 2017 5:12pm
      David Lebovitz

      I don’t know about their recipes; I don’t think anyone has done a specific cookbook on the bakeries of Iceland. But there are a few interesting-looking books on Icelandic cuisine. Icelandic Food & Cookery is said to be a very good book on the subject of Icelandic cuisine and cooking, in general. Reply

  • Ösp
    April 10, 2017 2:45pm

    The “locals” at Cafe Loki were tourists if dressed for hiking :p. If Reykjavík locals are going hiking, they will probably not gear up only to stop at a downtown restaurant first :D

    Aside from that, your blog has made me hungry for pastries! Which almost never happens :o thank you for an inspiring read. Reply

    • April 10, 2017 5:09pm
      David Lebovitz

      I couldn’t really tell who was who, but they were speaking Icelandic, however to be honest, so many people in Reykjavík have to dress for extreme weather – whether they are hiking or not – so it was hard to tell! Reply

  • amie pascal
    April 10, 2017 4:56pm

    The sesame pretzel at Braud & Co truly was a masterpiece. Sorry you didn’t get to try one. I went back today before heading to the airport only to find that they weren’t ready yet. I left instead with a spectacular orange twist roll in my stomach, and a hefty rye loaf and a couple of cinnamon rolls to take home. Things could be worse.

    Also, thank you for all you brought to the IWR this past week. It was an honor to meet you and hear you dole out wisdom, share tales, and describe drool-inducing foods. Reply

    • April 10, 2017 5:08pm
      David Lebovitz

      It’s funny because when I went back, they didn’t have the pretzels yet either. I had 2 loaves of rye and one of the spelt bread. I had to check an extra bag (but it was worth it!) Glad you enjoyed the retreat. It was a lovely event & it was nice to meet so many people : ) Reply

  • April 10, 2017 8:42pm

    My daughter was just in Iceland a week or two ahead of you, traveling with a group of coworkers and some spouses /significant others and she brought back a food ingredient for me. It is a salt blended with licorice root. I am looking forward to trying it. The label suggests confectionery or sweet desserts. After seeing your photo of the licorice topped caramel cupcakes I am thinking that I might head in that direction. Thanks for sharing your wonderful visit. Reply

  • Marilyn
    April 10, 2017 9:44pm

    Your words and photos transported me. It is wonderful to see the quality of their baking. Thank you. Reply

  • April 11, 2017 4:54am

    These are the sexiest breads I’ve ever seen! When you posted in Instagram, my eyes were gleaming. Reply

  • Lori S H
    April 11, 2017 10:50pm

    I want to be your best friend. Your travel adventures are awesome! : ) Reply

  • April 17, 2017 4:58pm

    You were so right about Brauð og Co! It took 3 tries to get there while they were open, but the experience — and the cinnamon bun and rhubarb cake I finally walked away with — were well worth the effort. It was a big pleasure to meet you in Iceland. Thank you for two inspiring workshops and the nudge on the whiskey project! Reply

    • April 18, 2017 12:54pm
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, they told me the place gets quite busy on the weekends so happy that you finally made it. (I brought 3 loaves of bread home with me.) It was nice to meet you and good luck with the whiskey project : ) Reply

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