I know the basics about Iceland -- spectacular volcanoes, Bjork, the glaciers, Reykjavik’s famous nightlife and the good-looking locals. I’m just not sure what the nation is like, how the people live and what makes them tick. Turns out, the answer is fish.

Fish are everywhere -- on posters, T-shirts, on all the coins in my pockets and, of course, every menu and breakfast buffet. It’s understandable for a country that at one point owed half of its export income to herring fishing alone, and the connection to fish and fishing goes deep into this nation’s culture.

It’s not surprising when you see the landscape of the north. It’s stunning but harsh, and fish were at one point the only reliable local source of food and income as the lack of decent topsoil makes growing crops tough here.

The sights, smells and sounds are like nothing else on the planet, with geysers and boiling mud pools spewing steam into the air and yellow residue all over an alien landscape. I’m staring out at a horizon of cracked lava stone jutting up through green pastures. It’s lunchtime and to the right of me is a glass wall with cows and milking equipment on the other side.

My host strikes up a conversation with the owner of The Cowshed (a working farm, café and guesthouse that has got the Slow Food concept right) on how they may be related through a mutual great-grandfather.

The café is an amazing concept in a land with so little farming. Impressively, it provides customers with meals of almost exclusively locally sourced food, including butter, cheese and skyr -- an Icelandic cheese similar to strained yogurt. Guests are invited to enjoy the scenery while sipping a latté, made with milk from the cow of your choice, which you can milk yourself. It really would be impossible to get ingredients any fresher.

The café’s owner has brought the menu for me to enjoy. It consists of local smoked trout, wild salmon gravlax, their own smoked, raw Icelandic lamb and geyser-steamed bread.

We’re almost finished when the owner comes to ask how everything was. The tender, subtly flavoured smoked lamb is my favourite. When asked what kind of smoke has been used, she nods at the remaining pieces on the plate and says she’ll tell me when I’m finished. With the last piece polished off on a corner of geyser bread she says, with the subtlest hint of a wry smile, “cow dung”.

She goes on to explain how the dung is dried for well over a year and, of course, burned, producing a bacteria-free and very well-rounded smoke, using an environmentally-friendly technique. The revelation doesn’t actually cause much shock. It makes sense in a country of rich, clean, geothermal energy (so abundant there are serious discussions about running a line all the way to Scotland to sell the surplus) that respect for the environment is a part of the culture. It’s not just respect for Icelanders’ natural resources that you can sense; it’s a respect for most things, especially other people.

Moving on, it turns out I’m just in time for the Dalvik annual fish festival. Here is where the present-day connection between fish and community shines, or maybe shimmers.

The festival started three days ago with a neighbourhood fish-soup swap. Participating homes tie balloons (taking the place of jack-o’-lanterns) to the mailbox at the end of their drives, indicating that anyone is welcome to join their table for a bowl of their fish soup.

The main event is at the port and centre of the small fishing village. Here, the entire population and several thousand visitors celebrate all things fish each year. Exhibits displaying the local species, examples of them on ice and multiple food stands abound and gourmet restaurants and local producers show off their piscine prowess to locals and visitors. The mayor -- a confident and attractive woman with long white hair -- explains that the official opening of the festival consists of the village people and their guests linking arms side-by-side and listening to a speech on friendship.

It all comes back to fish, in the end. While herring fishing wrapped up in the late 1960s due to overfishing by more than one Nordic country, almost all the approximately 320,000 inhabitants of Iceland have their traditions and their family history anchored in the sea. It’s a shared heritage that is literally bound in blood, with most Icelanders able to trace their families back to the same handful of settlers in the late ninth century.

I don’t know if it’s the size of the population, their common roots or their intimate connection to their stark environment, but the result is a comfortable and proud people without bravado or pretension. They are just Icelanders. They are happy to be Icelanders, and happy to share their stories, their homes and their tables without any agenda.

The next morning I am champing at the bit for the day’s fishing trip. I get up at the more reasonable time of 8am, avoiding a 4am start and spoiling my chance of gaining an authentic Icelandic fisherman’s experience from the off. I skip my breakfast of geyser-bread and pickled herring as penance and head to the coast.

A charming sea-savvy man named Freyr Antonsson greets our group at his fishing boat around 9am and we are off. The day begins with whale watching, with a few Minke sightings and a couple of pods of white-sided dolphins.

Then Freyr collects and prepares the fishing lines. When asked what our chances are of catching anything today, he replies in a soft, friendly tone, “about one hundred percent.” The engines slow and we halt in the middle of the fjord.

I’m amazed when Freyr demonstrates to me how the line is dropped into the water, hands me the rod and informs me a fish has already taken the lure. He’s not kidding, and as soon as I haul in the first fish and examine it for size and species, another one is on the hook. An hour later and we have caught more than enough to feed everyone on the tour, and then some.

Filleting the fish on the boat shows how plentiful supplies are, as large portions of fillet are discarded because “they have bones”. Returning to port, fish filleted, foiled, and brushed with garlic and herb butters, our catch is slapped onto a barbecue, pre-heated and awaiting our arrival. Within seven minutes the fish (caught not half an hour ago) are pleasing our palates with delicate and gorgeously fresh flavours.

Having experienced the plenitude of the Icelandic fish stocks at first hand, it’s easy to understand why few people believed the authorities in the 1960s when they said the herring were being depleted. It just didn’t seem possible. Now that it has had 40 years to bounce back, aided by environmentally conscious line-catching techniques, fishing in Iceland can be a much more sustainable industry.

Northern fjords, fish festivals and lunar landscapes behind me, the twin-propeller plane casts its shadow on miniature fishing boats hauling in trout, salmon, cod, haddock and herring for the next days’ meals. The flight to Reykjavik from Akureyri, the main city in the north, takes us over miles of uninhabited land, flat, glacier-scraped mountains and snow-filled, long-extinct craters.

Compared with the tiny population of the north, Reykjavik is teeming with life. Boasting two-thirds of Iceland’s inhabitants, Greater Reykjavik has a 200,000-strong population. This is Iceland’s cultural heart. It’s home to many of the nation’s writers, artists, architects and musicians.

Reykjavik’s nightlife is also world-famous, with foreign party-goers trying to keep up with locals until 10am. I pass on this and make my way to a few of Reykjavik’s culinary favourites.

Iceland has a flair for the quirky and unique and its restaurants rarely disappoint. The Sjavarkjallarinn seafood cellar restaurant on Aoalstraeti serves eccentric flavour combinations like salted cod in a papaya sauce with figs and polenta or whale sashimi (a non-endangered, abundant species) with spiced sesame oil and scallions. Dishes are served on large, amorphous ceramic plates, presented in bite-sized portions to be eaten with chopsticks as a shared experience.

Icelandic cuisine is unique and can be subtle or equally intense in its style and flavourings but I wouldn’t recommend the fermented shark. It is buried to get rid of toxic levels of ammonia but tastes like someone is removing nail varnish under your nose as you eat. My only regret? I never got a chance to try puffin.


Getting there:

Icelandair flies twice weekly to Reykjavik from Glasgow, increasing to four times a week from 25 September. Flight prices start from £196 return. Visit www.icelandair.is. Air Iceland flies to Akureyri from Reykjavik. Flights cost 8680ISK (around £42) one way. Visit www.airiceland.is


Where to stay:

In Akreyri, double rooms at Hotel Edda Akureyri cost from £65 per night en.hoteledda.is Hotel Kea Akureyri double rooms start from £112 per night www.keahotels.is. In Reykjavik, Hotel Plaza double rooms start from £58. Visit www.plaza.is


What to do:

Whale-watching costs about £42 for a three-hour trip with North Sailing (April-October). Visit www.northsailing.is

Fishing trips can be arranged with Freyr Antonsson, call 00 354 897 6076 or visit www.bataferdir.is. For more information on gourmet Iceland visit www.icelandgourmetguide.com