Sigurður “Siggi” Hilmarsson beckoned for us to follow him, shovel in hand, along the edge where the half-frozen Laugarvatn lake hit the black sand. It was well into the morning in Iceland but the sky still maintained a pre-dawn hue. To the left, hot spring–warmed water lapped at our feet. To the right of us, several mounds of dirt. Siggi stopped at one and eased his shovel in, steam rising as he removed protective layers until he hit it: a pink pot, tightly sealed with plastic wrap to make it impermeable to the surrounding eggy sulphuric odors. Inside the pot was bread to be eaten. In the cavity where the pot used to reside, the sandy mud gurgled lazily with a gentle geothermal boil.
I had tagged along with tour operator Contiki on its Golden Circle excursion, traveling a loop out of Reykjavik that encompasses many of southern Iceland’s naturally-formed tourist destinations, and an extra that you can tack onto its Iceland package. This Rye Bread Experience at the spa and restaurant Laugarvatn Fontana fell on the route, but was not yet a stop—Contiki was considering adding it for the uniquely Icelandic Rúgbrauð demonstration, where bread is buried in the ground and baked for 24 hours, heated by the country’s geothermic springs. Also called Volcano bread or Thunderbread (for its proclivity to cause a gassy situation if you overindulge), this Icelandic bread is served ubiquitously in the country. But there are few places, however, where you can try it right after it’s popped out of the earth. Who wouldn’t want those bragging rights?
You don’t have to be on a tour for this experience: Laugarvatn Fontana offers it on its own, and it concludes with a dip in its steam baths. Although this experience is perfect for food lovers, Laugarvatn Fontana’s primary function is as a spa. With its modest three outdoor mineral baths of varying temperature and three steam baths fueled by hot springs, you feel very much in tune with the earth, highlighted by a view of the serene lake, which could also double as a cold-water plunge pool.
Back inside, the pink pot had now made its way to the café. Siggi lifted the lid and a sweet-smelling, nutty steam wafted out. He flipped it over, releasing the golden brown bread with a thud. After he cut it into thick, warm slices and laid out fat pats of butter, we each greedily reached for our piece. The butter melted into the fibrous nooks and crannies and added a saltiness to the dense sweet bread, which almost could pass for a cake. Even though we had only recently come from breakfast, the slices were quickly devoured.
Next to the bread was a stack of papers with Siggi’s family recipe:
5 cups rye
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 liter milk
250 ml water
Put the ingredients in a bowl and mix together.
Grease a pot with butter, so the bread will come out easily.
Put the dough in the pot and wrap the pot thoroughly so the hot springs’ water won’t get in.
Dig a hole in the boiling sand and leave the pot there for 24 hours.
That last part might be tough to mimic at home.
(For an oven-friendly recipe, see here.)