Icelandic Baker Uses Lava to Bake Bread

Iceland is famed for its remarkable geology. The searing heat radiating through the country's stunning terrain drives volcanoes, hot springs and something you might not expect—bread ovens.

Sigurður Rafn Hilmarsson is a baker from Laugarvatn, Iceland, a sleepy lakeside town with a population of just 200. For him, baking rye bread, or rúgbrauð, underground is something of a family tradition. "My grandmother used to bake this all the time, and then my mother again and my brother and his family and a lot of other locals in the village," he told Newsweek.

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Sigurður Rafn Hilmarsson slices a loaf of his famous rye bread or rúgbrauð. Chiara Brambilla

Geothermal activity shapes Iceland's terrain; the island itself is really just a peak of the mountains jutting from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and peeping above the ocean. The boundary of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates slices through the heart of Iceland, creating the country's devastatingly beautiful shape.

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Forged in earth warmed by Laugarvatn's hot springs, this simple rye bread has become something of a national icon. Hilmarsson has even plied the pantry of Iceland's president, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson—and, of course, the steady stream of tourists traveling the country's Golden Circle route.

Related: Ocean Craters Off the Coast of Iceland Defy Scientific Explanation

Every day, Hilmarsson mixes rye, flour, milk, sugar, salt and baking powder into a dough which he places in a buttered cooking pot. Then, he ventures outside to find his oven—a hole dug near the town's lake. About a foot down in the soil, temperatures can approach boiling point. Plastic wrapping protects the bread from the wet soil that oozes around the pot at this depth. Hilmarsson covers the hole with sand to keep in the heat, then lets the pot rest for about 24 hours.

Before he leaves, he places a stone above the hole. This signals to other locals that this bread-baking spot is taken. "If someone is baking you just aim for another hole and make this mark," he explained. When he returns the next day and digs up his cooking pot, the bread is ready.

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Lava flows from the Bardarbunga volcano in southeast Iceland. The county's geothermal activity shapes the nation's unearthly landscape—and its cuisine. Bernard Meric/AFP/Getty Images

Hilmarsson's shop produces six to 10 loaves of rye bread a day, each weighing nearly seven pounds. Slightly sweet, the bread is reminiscent of cake. Hungry customers slather slices with butter and top them with salmon.

Growing up, the bread was more of a treat or a special dish for guests, he said. "As a kid this...wasn't something to do every day, but if we were expecting someone to come from Reykjavik for a visit."

Related: Volcanoes May Have Kick-Started Life on Earth Four Billion Years Ago

Although Iceland's geology is perfect for baking, its weather can halt the magic. The borders of Laugarvatn's lake can swell with heavy rain and melting ice after winter. This "drowns" Hilmarsson's bakery, closing it for a week or so at a time.

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Sigurður Rafn Hilmarsson enjoys his traditional rye bread. Chiara Brambilla

After the rains, he couldn't be more excited to get back to baking. "It's the…[slow] cooking that makes this bread so special," he said. "It's the mixture of the rye and the sugar and...baking powder that comes to life."

Hilmarsson thinks his children, captivated by the magic of lava bread, will continue baking it long after he is gone. "My children, for example, are crazy about this," he said. "I know for sure they will get this from me and they will definitely do this in the future so I have no worries...As long as these holes are alive and we can do this—we will."

Icelandic Baker Uses Lava to Bake Bread | Culture