How Icelanders bake bread

It hisses, bubbles and steams. Lake Laugarvatn, an hour’s drive from Iceland’s capital Reykjavik, is one of those places where you learn how Icelanders use their often archaic nature. In this case, not for swimming or heating frozen sidewalks, but for baking bread. Rúgbrauð is a dark, long-cooked rye bread similar to German pumpernickel, only sweeter.

Traditionelles süßes Roggenbrot in einem Supermarkt in Island / © Foto: Georg Berg
Traditional sweet rye bread in a supermarket in Iceland / © Photo: Georg Berg

You can get Rúgbrauð in any supermarket in Iceland. But then it is conventionally cooked in an oven. Hverabrauð is when the bread dough is baked in the ground and with the energy of a hot spring. The heat during the long baking process causes the sugar to caramelize. This makes Hverabrauð almost irresistible when it is dug out again after 24 hours. However, you should curb your appetite a bit. As delicious as the bread tastes, it is heavy on the stomach and causes turbulence in the intestines. This has earned it another name. It’s also called thunder bread.

Große gelbe Schilder warnen vor der heißen Quellen am Laugarvatn-See / © Foto: Georg Berg
Large yellow signs warn of the hot springs at Lake Laugarvatn / © Photo: Georg Berg

Geothermal energy – energy at zero cost

While energy prices are skyrocketing all over the world, Icelanders have been harnessing the energy of hot springs since their settlement in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Settlements sprang up near them early on. To this day, geothermal energy is one of the country’s most important sources of energy. In many places, the groundwater in Iceland is so close to magma chambers that it is extremely hot and is used to generate energy. Records from the 12th century show that the hot springs were used for cooking even back then. This was also a matter of conserving resources. This meant that the settlers did not have to burn either the scarce wood or the valuable peat. Baking the typical rye bread Hverabrauð at a hot spring can be experienced during a trip to Iceland near Reykjavik and in the northeast at Lake Myvatn.

Heiße Quellen zum Backen von Hverabrauð, dem süßen isländischen Roggenbrot. Blasen im Sand, aus denen etwas Dampf emporsteigt, deuten auf die richten Stellen zum Backen hin / © Foto: Georg Berg
Hot springs for baking Hverabrauð. Bubbles in the sand, from which some steam rises, indicate the right places for baking / © Photo: Georg Berg

Laugarvatn Fontana Bakery at the Golden Circle

Steam is rising from Lake Laugarvatn. A large black and yellow sign warns of the high temperatures. Countless hot springs in the water or directly on the lakeshore bubble and hiss. Here, where the North American and Euro-Asian plates meet, there are especially many of them. Sigurdur Rafn Hilmarsson is a native of Laugarvatn. His grandmother and mother used to bake hverabrauð in the bubbling places by the lake. His family can trace this custom back to the 18th century. Siggi Hilmarsson was born in Laugarvatn, a village of 200 people. He has seen the number of tourists in Iceland increase year by year. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of tourists increased fivefold. In Laugarvatn, they knew how to take advantage of the prominent location on the Golden Circle.

Der Golden Circle, Gullni hringurinn,  ist eine 230 Kilometer lange Panoramastrecke in Island. Auf der beliebten Route liegen Naturwunder wie die Wasserfälle Gullfoss und Selfoss, die Geysire Geysir und Strokkur und Thingvellir, das erste Parlament Islands, das schon im Jahr 930 abgehalten wurde / © Foto: Georg Berg
The Golden Circle, Gullni hringurinn. The popular route includes natural wonders such as the Gullfoss waterfall, geysers and Thingvellir, Iceland’s first parliament, which was held as early as 930 / © Photo: Georg Berg

Iceland’s natural wonders lie like a string of pearls along the 230-kilometer panoramic route. If you are coming from Reykjavik and want to see Geysir, the namesake of all geysers, and the thundering waterfall Gulfoss, you will also pass Laugarvatn. Siggi Hilmarsson is the idea man and today’s manager of Laugarvatn Fontana. The original attraction of Laugarvatn was the geothermal bath. In the 1920s, a bathhouse stood in the same spot on the lake. Today it is a chic wellness oasis.

Schwitzhütten am Laugarvatn See, Laugarvatn Fontana, Geothermal Bath, Golden Circle, Island. Durch die Holzboden in den Hütten steigt der Dampf aus den heißen Quellen nach oben / © Foto: Georg Berg
Laugarvatn Fontana Sweat Huts, Geothermal Bath. Steam from the hot springs rises through the wooden floor in the huts / © Photo: Georg Berg

Hilmarsson, a trained chef, noticed that besides bathing, baking is also very popular with tourists when he made a notice in Laugarvatn’s hotel a few years ago offering to accompany him to the hot springs to bake bread. The next morning there were 80 people at the reception. A week later, the first tour operator came knocking and the success story of the Laugarvatn Bakery took its course. Even in the low season, Laugarvatn Bakery offers a baking demonstration twice a day followed by a tasting. During the high season in summer, there are even three dates.

Vergraben von Hverabrauð. Das Backen von Roggenbrot an einer heißen Quelle wird Touristen in der Fontana Bakery in Laugarvatn gezeigt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Baking rye bread by a hot spring is shown to tourists at Fontana Bakery in Laugarvatn / © Photo: Georg Berg

In rubber boots to the oven

The bread event in Laugarvatn is so popular that there is a site map that looks a bit like a treasure map. The baking places are called Maria, Viktor or Erla. The Fontana Bakery team has to note when they buried a bread pot where, so that the next shift knows which hot spot to lift a baked-out loaf. Beatrice, in rubber boots and rain jacket, grabs a shovel. In the other hand she carries a pot wrapped in foil. The baking pan with a lid is half-filled with bread dough made from the ingredients rye flour, yeast, milk, water, salt and sugar. She leads the group to a small earthen cone called Sean. The stone at the top indicates that this place is occupied by a loaf of bread. The shore with the hot baking places is still available to all the inhabitants of Laugarvatn, she tells. Even her grandmother used to bake bread here.

Mitarbeiterin Beatrice, Fontana Bakery Laugarvatn, gräbt mit einer Schaufel ein Loch für das Roggenbrot. 24 Stunden wird das Brot in der heißen Erde garen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Employee Beatrice digs a hole for the rye bread with a shovel. It will cook in the hot earth for 24 hours / © Photo: Georg Berg
Brottopf mit Hverabrauð, dem süßen isländischen Roggenbrot. Es wird nach 24 Stunden aus der Erde geholt und im Laugarvatn See abgewaschen. Eine Folie schützt das Brot vor Wasser / © Foto: Georg Berg
Bread pot with Hverabrauð, the sweet Icelandic rye bread. It is taken out of the earth after 24 hours and washed in Lake Laugarvatn. A foil protects the bread from water / © Photo: Georg Berg

With well-aimed spade stabs, she uncovers the baking hole. The bread pot is hot and full of soil. Therefore, it first gets a shower in the lake. This removes the dirt and cools the metal. The foil protects against water penetration both in the baking hole and during cleaning in the lake. Still outside at the hot spring, Beatrice opens the pot and shows everyone the dark brown, slightly domed top of the bread. After 24 hours in the hot earth, the rye bread is baked in its own moisture.

Lageplan für Hverabrauð am Seeufer von Laugarvatn. In den Sommermonaten bietet Fotana Bakery dreimal täglich Führungen an. Da sind viele Backstellen im heißen Sand nötig. Wann welches Erdloch mit einem Brottopf belegt wurde, wird auf einem Plan eingetragen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Site plan for Hverabrauð on the lakeshore of Laugarvatn. When which hole in the ground was covered with a bread pot is recorded on this plan / © Photo: Georg Berg
Brottopf mit Deckel und in Folie gewickelt und in einem Erdloch an den heißen Quellen von Laugarvatn. Der Topf steht in kochend heißem Wasser. Er wird mit Erde bedeckt und nach 24 Stunden wieder herausgeholt. Solange benötigt das Roggenbrot, Hverabrauð, zum Garen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Bread pot with lid and wrapped in foil in a hole in the ground at the hot springs of Laugarvatn. The pot stands in boiling hot water / © Photo: Georg Berg

Before we start tasting, we have to bury the new bread in one of the hot holes. Beatrice places the fresh baking pan in the hole and shovels some of the hot water over the pot. Immediately, hotter water rises from below. Sometimes, when it rains a lot and the water in the lake rises, the hot springs are flooded. Then the breads become undercooked because the temperature in the baking hole drops. In addition, the holes migrate, Beatrice explains. The hottest spot is not always in the exact same place. An indicator of a perfect baking hole is silver specks in the sand and steam rising from small holes.

Verkostung von Hverabrauð in der Laugarvatn Fontana Bakery. Das Roggenbrot wurde gerade aus dem heißen Erdloch ausgegraben. Im Anschluss dürfen Touristen das typisch süße Roggenbrot probieren / © Foto: Georg Berg
Tasting Hverabrauð at the Laugarvatn Fontana Bakery / © Photo: Georg Berg

Back in the foyer of the geothermal bath, the bread is tumbled out of the mold, quartered with a long knife and cut into thin slices. Beatrice explains that Icelanders like to eat their Rúgbrauð with lots of butter. Something more noble is the combination with smoked trout. At Laugarvatn, the trout come from the lake. The rye bread is still lukewarm and tastes delicious, as mentioned at the beginning. Especially in combination with the smoked fish.

Verkostung von Hverabrauð in der Laugarvatn Fontana Bakery. In Island isst man das Brot mit Butter oder mit geräucherter Forelle. Durch die lange Garzeit ist der Zucker karamellisiert / © Foto: Georg Berg
In Iceland, people eat the bread with butter or with smoked trout. Due to the long cooking time, the sugar is caramelized / © Photo: Georg Berg

The recipe for Hverabrauð comes from the grandmother of manager Siggi Hilmarson. It is not a well-kept family secret, anyone can take it and try their luck. But without a hot spring to give the bread that special caramel note, the baking result is unlikely to match the original from Laugarvatn. If you still want to try, here is the recipe. For the Black Sand rye bread, Fontana Bakery uses: 5 cups of rye flour, 2 cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, 4 teaspoons of baking powder, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 liter of milk and 250 ml of water. “Verði þér að góðu”.

Baking and bathing

At this stop on the Golden Circle you can combine bathing in hot springs with the culinary attraction of Rúgbrauð with trout. After all, Lake Laugarvatn is not just for cooling hot bread pans! Bathing is possible all year round at Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths and Bakery. Baking, on the other hand, only from the beginning of June to the end of September. Also interesting is another look under the earth’s crust. In Reykjavik, water from the hot springs is used to heat the sidewalks . Another delicacy of the country is hakarl, the somewhat stern-tasting meat of the Greenland shark. If you don’t want to eat animals but want to look at them, you should know how people in Iceland feel about horses and why only there are the smart leader sheep.

Geothermal Bad Laugarvatn Fontana und Laugarvatn See. Das Wasser in den Becken hat eine Temperatur von 32 - 34 Grad Celsius.  Zum Abkühlen gehen Badegäste in den See / © Foto: Georg Berg
Geothermal bath Laugarvatn Fontana and Laugarvatn lake. The water in the pools has a temperature of 32 – 34 degrees Celsius. Bathers go into the lake to cool down / © Photo: Georg Berg

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Our mode of operation is characterized by self-experienced, well-researched text work and professional, vivid photography. For all stories, travel impressions and photos are created in the same place. Thus, the photos complement and support what is read and carry it further.

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