Bjarteyjarsandur is a family owned and operated farm located at the far end of Hvalfjordur, Iceland. A little remote to be sure, but their story is global in so many respects. It's also a shining example of what we''ll be working for as Wild Icelandic moves forward.
During the summer we had the immense pleasure of meeting this family; eating their food and hearing their stories. At the end of summer we joined them in Réttir (translates; the gathering). It’s an annual event where they heard sheep down from the surrounding mountains after letting them roam free for the entire summer where they forage in the wilds. It’s a huge tradition with Icelandic sheep farmers that has continued now for centuries.
Bjarteyjarsandur (Byart•āyur•sȧndur) is a sheep farm and has been in the family for generations. It was 1887 when Jónas Jóhannesson and Guðfinna Jósepsdóttir started the farm. Five generations later it’s bigger and better than ever. Most importantly, it’s still in the family. Today it’s run by Arnheiður Hjörleifsdóttir and Guðmundur Sigurjónsson along with their daughter Guðbjörg Bjartey Guðmundsdóttir. In addition there’s Kolbrún Eiríksdóttir and Sigurjón Guðmundsson (Guðmundur´s parents). Þórdís Þórisdóttir, Guðjón Jónasson and their kids; Elvar Þór and Arna Rún plus Jónas Guðmundsson (Guðjón´s father). I like how just sharing their names might make this the longest paragraph in the entire article - LOL
Family’s important here; it’s not something that’s preached about or moralized - it just is and anyone paying attention can’t help but notice. Maybe farming is simply a natural extension for family life; or vice versa. Either way it works and works well. Children start young here. The connection to the earth, nature and the elements that’s instilled within them also becomes self evident and seems to carry on for generations.
All of this becomes hugely evident when you meet Arnheiður. Her passion for the land, their heritage and farming is astonishing. Arnheiður is also a teacher with degrees specializing in environmental studies and geological analysis. Subsequently, Bjarteyjarsandur today is not only a working sheep farm; it’s also and education center.
They host school groups that conduct field studies during critical times like lambing season. This enables students to gain firsthand knowledge on natural lifecycle processes and animal husbandry in an unparalleled learning environment. These educational programs range from kindergarten all the way through university level and include students from both Iceland and abroad. Additional programs like wool workshops occur at other times of the year when the sheep are sheared.
One of the great things is you don’t have to be a student. The whole family works together to inform guests and customers about their work, all of which promotes an ecological sound and entirely sustainable way of life. They offer individual tours to anyone who visits. But if you want the full monty they welcome groups for 1 to 3 day tours along with accommodations for a full hands-on experience of farm life in Iceland.
Another thing you’ll really love is not a single aspect of this learning process was a boring, academic method of education. It’s wholly dynamic, engaging and immersive. It’s life; raw nature unfolding right in front of you. The results? Nothing homogenized, packaged and marketed in some artificial food chain. It’s like tasting real food for the first time all over again. True learning is through experience and for an urbanite this is the deeper end of the pool.
The best part of all this… it includes food. Wonderful, freshly prepared, farm direct, handmade food. All prepared daily in the converted sheep barn. Yes, the farmhouse restaurant used to be a barn, thus the name; Hlaðan (The barn). Meals at Bjarteyjarsandur are more than a real food experience. There’s a story behind every dish. There’s a reason for every choice. These are stories of season, history, culture. All passionately cultivated and infused into their food.
The menu items are crafted from ingredients produced on the farm and the surrounding areas. Just like the source ingredients, all menu items have originated at Bjarteyjarsandur. Yeah we know, Meat Soup is a nationally renowned dish. Yet the meat soup recipe at this place is as distinct as the farm itself.
Another dish is called “Lamb 3 Ways.” You experience 3 different cuts of lamb in 3 very different ways. Tenderloin that’s cured at the farm and infused with herbs from their garden. A Tartar from the eye of loin that’s finely cut and mixed with oil, fresh herbs and a mustard that’s also made at the farm. Finally, Kolla (Guðmundur’s mother) goes out every season and hand picks kilos and kilos of Icelandic Blueberries that grow wild all over the entire island. They make a reduction from these wild berries and soak the lamb in it before it’s smoked (a process also done on the farm.) So you end up with a herb cured lamb, a lamb tartar and then this smoked blueberry lamb that all combines as a true “Bjarteyjarsandur Speciality.” All from lamb raised in the wilds and sourced right from the farm.
Yeah, of course you can go to the amazingly fine restaurants in the city that will offer traditional Icelandic lamb dishes on their menus and they’ll be good; very good. At Bjarteyjarsandur they say, “you want an authentic Icelandic lamb dish?” - “Hold my beer…”
Arnheiður said one of the goals of Bjarteyjarsandur is to build bridges between farming and urban communities. When you tie this into their daily life practices. When you tie this into their goals of land restoration; their goals of sustainability and promotion of animal welfare; their immense respect for the land and nature; then you begin to actually close the gap between people in both communities.
They aren’t just talking about it; they’re living it; they’re doing it. They are the change the whole world needs. If we are to not only survive but evolve as a species, Ecological Sustainability for all our food sources can’t just be a marketing term. It has to be a way of life.
By inviting people into their home to see how they live, to share in a meal, to learn where the ingredients of that meal came from; what it really takes to produce it. Then you achieve a greater understanding and much greater appreciation for good food, good food sources and very, very good people.
In case you were wondering Bjarteyjarsandur translated means Bright Island Sand. It’s about an hours drive north from Reykjavik. I’d recommend taking Rt 47 along the south-side of the fiord instead of the tunnel. Only five minutes longer, but no tolls; no lines; no tunnel fumes and breathtakingly beauty any time of year.