If the surge in Instagram photos tagged with #BlueLagoon is any indication, Iceland is, like, so hot right now. The Nordic country’s tourism has increased exponentially over the last several years; it saw 2.3 million visitors in 2018, according to the Icelandic Tourist Board. But in reality, it’s always been hot—just in a different sense.
Geothermal energy from the ground powers 30 percent of Iceland’s electricity, and geothermal fields of potable water up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit dot the country. That’s not all though—smart (and hungry) Icelanders figured out long ago that the ground can also double as an oven.
"The baking of bread in hot ground is quite old," Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, who’s authored several cookbooks on her native country’s cuisine, explains. "It’s been made in the manner it’s done today for at least 100 years."
What’s simply called rye bread (or hverabrauð) by Icelanders is also known as lava, volcanic or hot spring bread. The process starts with a dough of dark rye and whole wheat flour, buttermilk, golden syrup, baking powder, baking soda and a little salt. The dough is enclosed in a metal container—even an old can with a lid will do, Rögnvaldardóttir says—before it’s sealed and buried in the ground to bake for 24 hours.
Michelle Gross, a travel, food and lifestyle reporter from New Jersey, was surprised by the experience during a recent visit to Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal spa and bakery located about an hour east of Reykjavík.
"We were taken out back to these steaming fields on a cold February morning, and the proprietor started digging until he’d hit a metal cooking pot, like one you’d find in any kitchen," Gross recalls. "He pried it out of the black sand, and within minutes, we were eating some of the best bread I’ve ever had in my life."
What makes it taste so great, despite a day spent underground? The dense bread has precisely the right amount of sponginess and a hint of caramel, thanks to the golden syrup. Best served hot, it’s even better with a little butter.
"It was truly beautiful to taste—fresh and warm like it had just come out of an oven, but incredibly moist and slightly sweet, almost like the consistency of a cake," Ruth Hogan, who lives in Sydney and visited Iceland with her partner last year specifically to taste the bread, says.
While hverabrauð is starting to become a must-try for visitors to places like Laugarvatn Fontana, another version of the bread that’s baked in an oven overnight is a staple for Icelanders.
Rögnvaldardóttir makes nearly the same recipe as many other Icelandic bakeries, but instead of burying it, she slow-bakes the bread inside a can in an oven set to about 200 degrees Farenheit for nine to 12 hours. And it’s not just for the awe of tourists, she says. "It’s a real thing that people bake it this way, and then eat it."
She says she enjoys it fresh with butter or topped with smoked lamb or herring, a Scandinavian staple. No matter what it’s called or how you slice it, you probably won’t be able to stop at one piece.
Kelsey Ogletree is a freelance writer in Chicago covering food, fitness and travel. Follow her on Instagram at @gounearthed.