Borgarfjörður Esytri, North-East Iceland.
If you’ve taken the time to venture to Borgarfjorður Eystri, you’ll already know that there’s plenty of authentic Icelandic history and culture to enjoy, as well as traditional cuisine. In this article, I’m going to take you beyond the food in the bowl, and take you on a journey to discover the people behind the food and their story.
The best place to get your fill of the finest local foods in Borgarfjorður Eystri is Álfacafé. This is a small, family run business that employs local people, uses local, freshly caught/grown produce and age-old recipes. The cafe is named after the ‘City of the Elves’ which can be found opposite the cafe. This large stone area is elevated in the town of Bakkagerði and is called Álfaborg. Ancient folklore states that elves reside here, as does the ‘Queen of the Elves’ – Borghildur.
Álfacafé was originally a stone factory, where stones from the local area were brought to be chiselled and polished into souvenirs and furniture to be sold. Alongside this, a gentleman used to use a small area of the building to fix cars, as the local people do not have a car garage as such to go to when things go wrong. The building was small yet bustling with production, however unfortunately the business had to shut down, and the premises were sold to a gentleman who turned them into a small coffee house. In order to continue the story of Álfacafé, I must now introduce you to a lady called Margret.
Margret Bragadottir was born in 1959 in Sauðárkrókur, North Iceland, where she lived with her parents. Her Father was from Borgarfjörður Eystri, and she still had Grandparents in the town there called Bakkagerði, therefore would spend three to four weeks each Summer visiting them. Margret went on to study in Reykjavik to become a teacher, and spent many years teaching, however she had met a gentleman who was from Borgarfjörður Eystri, and his spontaneity would one day change her career, and her life.
In 1984, Margret moved to Borgarfjörður to be with her husband, who at the time owned the local Fiskverkun (Fish Factory), which is located immediately next door to what is now Álfacafé, and dreamt always of owning a small place from which to sell his fish. In 2009, whilst away on study in Reykjavik, Margret called her husband to ask for news, to which he responded that he had spontaneously bought the local coffee house, the perfect premises for his dream to come true!
As a result of this impromptu decision, Margret retired from teaching and began working full time on the renovations to create Álfacafé as we know it today. She extended the building to make room for more guests, and created a beautiful space that embraces much of the cultural riches and historical importance of the town. One way in which Margret is keeping traditions alive is with the stone souvenirs she sells at the cafe. Just like the items that would have been made in the original stone factory, Margret sells all sorts of artefacts made form stone of Borgarfjorður Eystri itself. Even the tables are made from Gabbro, a stone found in a nearby town called Höfn, Hornarfjorður.
As well as ensuring she keeps the history, cultures and industries of Borgarfjörður Eystri alive, Margret also takes great pride in ensuring that all of the food she serves is home-made, from the cakes and breads, right down to her home-grown potatoes and hand-reared sheep. The most famous meal served in Álfacafé is Margret’s fish soup, which is served every day using locally caught, fresh sea cod. People come from far and wide to try this famous fish soup. If you’re in Borgarfjörður Eystri already, and the wonderful interior of Álfacafé isn’t enough to entice you in, the fish soup definitely will be! Margret said;
“The day I come and don’t feel like baking, I get too lazy and want to buy the food in the shop instead, I will quit.”
This just goes to show the passion and pride Margret has for good, traditional, home-cooked food.
Her husband still owns the fish factory, along with three small fishing boats that go out every day to bring back fresh sea cod. Although not a fisherman himself, her husband works every day at the factory, along with around fifteen other members of staff in the busier Summer months, and around six to seven other members of staff in the Winter months. During the end of September, when fishing is prime, larger fishing vessels from other Northern towns such as Dalvík and Siglufjorður come to fish off the shores of Borgarfjörður Eystri, and bring their catch back to the fish factory next to Álfacafé. Some of the fishermen from these other Northern towns can be away from home for up to four weeks, and as a result, Margret likes to ensure that everyone is taken care of. She often cooks delicious, hearty meals for the long-term fishermen to eat when they come in from a hard day at sea, using whatever fresh meat and vegetables she has in stock. The fishermen love the hospitality that Margret provides, and in return have handed her a variety of archaic fishing memorabilia over the years that can be found hanging on the walls of the cafe.
Since buying Álfacafé in 2009, guest numbers have risen year after year as a result of increased tourism in Iceland as a whole, and better opportunity for tourists to travel into these more remote, once unvisited towns. The ferry and cruise ships dock in a town called Seyðisfjörður, a mere one hours drive from Álfacafé itself. Eight times during each Summer period (June-September), Margret will host between seventy and eighty people at a time at the cafe, all of whom have come off a cruise ship. This is an incredible amount of people for the town to host, especially considering the population of the town itself is only around eighty people. Therefore, you can understand why Margret and her husband underwent renovation works at Álfacafé to extend the seating area and ensure they had enough room to cater for all of their guests.
During these busy Summer months, Margret’s employees are hard at work, and even help out in the fish factory if demand calls. Most of the staff are young adults, living in Borgarfjorður with their family and looking for Summer jobs. The staff come back to work for Margret year after year, and she feels the Álfacafé employees are more like a family than a workforce. They all thoroughly enjoy the work and like to look after each other, as well as take pride in everything that Álfacafé stands for. Margret says;
“The staff do so much good for this place; they are gold!”
As well as a fantastic location, wonderful staff, delightful traditional cuisine and archaic fishing memorabilia, Álfacafé also embraces the history of the town, and one man in particular – Johannes Kjarval. Inside the cafe, the walls are lined with photographs, pictures and information boards about this gentleman. He is one of the most famous artists in Iceland, and he is extremely important to the people of Bakkagerði.
Johannes Kjarval’s life spanned from 1885-1972. He was born in South Iceland to poor parents, and in 1890, at just five years old, he moved to Borgarfjorður Eystri where he had relatives. He began by drawing pictures of the elderly inhabitants of Bakkagerði, and soon became very popular. The women from the Church congregation felt that their Church had something missing, and asked Kjarval whether he would paint them something to hang at the altar. In return they offered to cook delicious meals for him, and so the deal was made. The painting can be found hanging at the altar today, and the Church at Bakkagerði is always open, so if you’re in the vicinity, be sure to have a look.
Álfacafé really is a spectacle to behold, and you can’t help but be completely overwhelmed by the passion of Margret and her staff, be taken aback by the historical details and artefacts on the walls, be delighted by the little stone souvenirs for sale, and be absolutely certain that another bowl of fish soup is going to be devoured, because one is just never enough!
So, when visiting North-East Iceland, be sure to pop in and pay Margret and her staff a visit. It’s a truly wonderful experience, and i’m certain you’ll leave with a full stomach and a smile on your face.