Scent of an Island
Words by Gunnar Jónsson
Photography by Golli
For thousands of years, man has been extracting scent from plants for his pleasure and physical well-being. Despite this long history, Iceland has been lagging behind. Sure, herbs have been used for food, medicine, and broths since settlement began, but the undeniable luxury of smelling nature did not result in any sort of tradition around its scent extraction.
Lately, however, things have changed. Forestry in Iceland has been on the rise over the last decades, and now Iceland has not one, but two businesses that specialise in the research and production of oils and scents made entirely from Icelandic plants, opening up a new and exciting chapter for lovers of all things aromatic.
We’ve come to Borgarfjörður to visit the farm of Hraundís Guðmundsdóttir, a certified forester and aromatherapist who extracts oils from plants in her surroundings and sells her products under the name Hraundís. She used to live in downtown Reykjavík before moving out into the country with her husband. “It was quite a change, leaving the city, but I wouldn’t want to move back,” she says as we stand outside the main house with her two dogs, Krummi and Twister, taking in the fresh country air.
“My interest in plants started when I moved here,” Hraundís tells me. “I wanted to understand the plants around me better, so I’d go for walks, pick plants, and then go home and look them up in a big book I had on the flora of Iceland. I became fascinated by the efficacy of essential oils and what they could do for one’s health without one having to resort to commercial medicines.”
Things escalated from there. Hraundís eventually received a degree in forestry as well as going to Sedona, Arizona to school herself in the science of essential oils. Her farm is now surrounded by an ever-growing forest, the source of much of her essential oils. “My goal with the forest is to get lost in it when I become an old woman,” she jokingly tells me. “No one will be able to put me in a home! I’m not a tall woman so it won’t be difficult to disappear,” she laughs.
But Hraundís doesn’t just rely on her own forest for oils (and future escape routes). Today, she’s getting ready to distil Siberian fir oil from a nearby friend’s forest. The fir was planted back in 1980 and is richer in oil than many other types of wood. She expects the batch to yield around 1,500ml (50.7oz) of oil and is visibly excited by the prospect.
She proudly shows us her distiller, fashioned from an old milk silo and other items she ordered on eBay, as well as her well-worn chair next to the gear where she sits as she waits for the very last drop of oil to leave the material. She then connects a hose that emits steam to the distiller, and we wait.
“The process can take up to seven hours, so it’s a great excuse to sit down, relax, and watch the action. My grandchild loves helping me with the distillation process, and when it’s all over and I open up the distiller, everything fogs up and it smells great and we feel like we’re in some mystical universe.” It’s easy to believe her, as the place is already smelling great, the air thick with a steamy fir needle note that will only grow more pungent as the distillation progresses.
We also pop into an adjacent room where Hraundís lets me smell her various products and experiments. There, I become transfixed as I take in the unadulterated luxury of her essential oils: the musky earthiness of her angelica archangelica seed (a plant that’s grown in Iceland since before settlement and was, and still is, a popular medicinal herb); the fruity otherworldliness of her Sitka spruce (“I use it to make an oil for swelling and aches, it’s my most popular product,” she says); the sweet anise smell of cicely (sometimes called garden myrrh); the cedar-like sensuality of Russian larch. All of these smells are so sultry and amazing and speak more loudly to the attraction of essential oils than any words can. I’m suddenly reluctant to continue the interview, and would rather overstay my welcome, silently smelling Hraundís’ products.
But Hraundís is pleased with this, and even comments on how attentively I’m smelling her oils. She knows better than most just how all-encompassing a smell can be. In fact, our sense of smell does not follow the same routes in our brain as the other senses. Whilst other sense information initially comes in through the thalamus, scent is first processed by our limbic lobe, one of the oldest, most primal parts of our brain and hugely important to our sexual and emotional responses. This is why nothing can jostle an old memory quite like a scent, and perhaps why certain oils are deemed potent aphrodisiacs.
A little east of Reykjavík lies the peaceful town of Mosfellsbær, perhaps most widely known as the stomping grounds of Nobel laureate novelist Halldór Laxness. At its heart, overlooking the frothing Álafoss waterfall, a young company called Nordic Angan is slowly building up its own world of Icelandic aromatics.
Nordic Angan is run by two friends, Sonja Bent and Elín Hrund Þorgeirsdóttir. When we drop by for a visit, Elín warmly welcomes us before showing us some of their projects, one of which is their so-called “fragrance library.”
“Our goal is to capture the scent of Icelandic nature,” she enthuses. “It’s an ongoing project. So far, we’ve captured many of Iceland’s gorgeous smells, but also some unexpected ones, like sheep dung, hay, and seaweed.”
Elín opens a little box in front of us, revealing dozens of small vials inside, containing matter of various colours and consistencies. I immediately go for the one marked “bladder wrack.” This type of seaweed (fucus vesiculosus) is abundant in Icelandic nature, and sure enough, as I lift it up to my nose, I’m transported to my youth as I played on the beach. The aroma is so evocative and transfixing, I inadvertently push my face too close and get some on my nose before sheepishly wiping it off.
Nordic Angan not only employ the method of steam distillation, but also CO2 and solvent extractions. Not all materials contain oil, so in order to capture every scent of Iceland, the Nordic Angan sisters had to get creative. In fact, their workshop is equal parts beautiful work of art and mad scientist lair.
The production of oils and essences is a deeply scientific process. Both Hraundís and Nordic Angan have sent their oils abroad for analysis only to be pleasantly surprised by the results.
“As it turns out, Icelandic oils are more powerful than corresponding oils produced closer to the equator, containing more of the beneficial chemicals,” Elín says. “There are some theories as to why that is. One is simply that due to the harshness of the weather, plants grow slower here and need to be stronger to endure.” Elín leans forward conspiratorially. “But then there is also the theory of the volcanic activity of the island playing a role in the oil’s strength. Some say that oils from Japan are also of superior quality and strength, and Japan, like Iceland, is a volcanic island, so that’s a very interesting theory.”
Whatever the reason, the future certainly looks bright for Nordic Angan, who just had a smash hit at this year’s DesignMarch, Iceland’s annual design festival, with their “Forest Shower.” Next fall, they plan to open their doors to the public, allowing visitors to enjoy their fragrance library, and to unveil an all-natural perfume made from their essences.
As our interview winds down, I smell my hand containing the bladder wrack I wiped off my nose earlier. The scent has now dried down to an irresistibly sweet, earthy, and slightly mossy note. It would make a perfect base note for a perfume. Without thinking, I lift my hand and let Elín smell, as if she doesn’t know her own scents. She just nods and smiles and for a moment we sit silently, enjoying the fruits of her and Sonja’s labour.
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.