Another extreme adventure, this time more of the culinary sort…. Icelandic folk have a pretty rigorous set of tastebuds…. and I fear training from a fairly young age is necessary to fully enjoy all the delights (??) on offer!! Jón whisked me away to his local valley’s Þorrablót (pronounced Thorrablot) a festival which happens every winter. All the locals and their friends gather for a night of feasting, singing and generally taking the piss out of each other…
Þorrablót originated from a sacrificial midwinter festival in early pagan Iceland. It was abolished during the Christianisation of Iceland, but resurrected in the 19th century as a midwinter celebration. The first Þorrablót in the form in which it is now celebrated in was held by the Association of Icelandic students in Copenhagen in 1873, it didn’t become widely celebrated until the 1960s when a Reykjavik restaurant offered traditional food that was more commonly eaten in the countryside. The festival coincides with the month of Thorri, according to the old Icelandic calendar, which begins on the 23rd of January which is Bóndadagur, (Husband’s Day) and ends on Konudagur (Women’s Day). Blót = a festival held in honour of a Norse god, in this case, Þor, Thor.
The locals come together to eat, drink and be merry. Family and friends group together and bring their own feasts along with them, which generally means days of food preparation back at the farm. The menu consists of traditional Icelandic delicacies, such as rotten shark’s meat (hákarl), pickled ram’s testicles, boiled sheep’s head (svið) and congealed sheep’s blood wrapped in a ram’s stomach (blóðmör)! This is traditionally washed down with some Brennivin – also known as Black Death – a potent schnapps made from potato and caraway.
Iceland was an impoverished country historically, and inhabitants had to be inventive when it came to storing food and making sure that nothing went to waste. For centuries, Icelanders had to smoke, pickle or dry their food in order to preserve it through the harsh winters. As a result, the traditional Icelandic food mainly consists of seafood and lamb that’s gone through some preservation method.
During the Þorrablót dinner there is a large amount of singing traditional songs, and the Committee (which changes annually) make a series of very cheeky skits and videos about their valley friends. Following the feasting, the food is whisked away as are the majority of tables and chairs, and then it is time to hit the dance floor- old and young, which in true Icelandic style continues until the early hours of the morning!
Hangikjöt is smoked Icelandic lamb. A delicious cold meat. The sheep roam free over the mountains all summer feasting on native grasses, berries and mountian herbs, so the meat already has a unique flavour. After the animal is slaughtered, the farmer smokes the lamb fuelling the fire with birch and dried sheep dung – each of which adds its own distinctive flavour. Once smoked it is then boiled and served cold. Smoked lamb is usually served up with potatoes, a white sauce called ‘uppstúfur’, red beets and green peas
Soðið Brauð (deep fried bread)
Delicious, almost donut like savoury bread deep friend in lamb fat and vegetable oil. These are extra delicious hot, but also good cold with a smeer of butter.
The Greenland shark, huge and plentiful, is poisonous when eaten raw. Only by burying the beast and letting it ferment for a few months, when it’s transformed into the famed hákarl, does it become safe to eat. It is left to putrefy (rot) for 6 weeks, literally fermenting, and then cut and hung out to dry for another 4 months. By the time it reaches the table it has been slightly beaten to soften it up, had the tough moldy bits scrapped off and is eaten by itself often as a chewy snack. Rotten shark meat has a strong Ammonia or urine smell…. I tried one very small cube- and had to follow with a large slug of whatever liquid was nearest….
Súrsaðir Hrútspungar (Pickled Ram’s Testicles)
A dish made of lamb’s testicles pressed into blocks, boiled, and cured in lactic acid. They have a strong sour taste due to the acid and a naturally spongy texture. Pickled ram’s testicles is one of the traditional Þorramatur dishes, eaten during winter as a tribute to old Icelandic culture. Apparently according to my Viking, the traditional method, was to cut the testicles off skin and all, sow them top up, blow torch the hair off them and pickle them whole… hmmmmmmm…….
Pickled Whale Blubber
The tough fat of a whale is much softer when pickled in sour milk and it loses its stringy texture although it remains oily. With the decline in whaling and the whole subject being politically incorrect real whale blubber is still eaten by some on traditional occasions but there is now a more conservation friendly alternative and that is “whale blubber” made out of fish meat. The fish whale blubber has it’s own unique taste but looks like the real thing.
Svið (Singed Sheep Head)
Svið, a dish of sheep heads split into two halves, singed and then boiled is one of the most commonly eaten traditional dishes in Iceland. Svið isn’t bad food, the head is pretty good meat, but many find it uncomfortable to literally look their food in the eye. They keep everything from the tongue to eyes, since they are some people‘s favourite parts to eat. For the feast the heads had the meat removed and pressed overnight to form a terrine of sorts.
Brennivín – Black Death
Brennivín can be directly translated as ‘burning wine’ – although it’s mostly marketed as ‘Black Death’. Brennivín is a schnapps made from fermented potatoes and caraway. It tastes strongly of caraway, but it is mainly a rapid delivery system to oblivion, which, if you are eating fermented shark and sour ram’s testicles, is probably not such a bad thing.
Harðfiskur – Dried fish
Another popular food item is the dried fish, usually cod or haddock. This is very popular amongst Icelanders. It’s sort of like a ‘fish jerky’. Icelanders eat tonnes of this every year with butter on top, as the texture of the fish is very dry and the butter makes it softer. You need to chew each bite very thoroughly before swallowing it! It’s very rich in protein, 100g have about 80-85% of protein in it. It’s one of my favourite Icelandic foods and I recommend you try it, it’s either going to be a love or hate relationship!
Last but not least, one of my favourite Icelandic foods. The famous not-actually-a-yoghurt-but-nobody-cares, skyr, is technically a type of soft cheese, made from gelatinous milk curds. As appetizing as that sounds, mixed with milk and served with sugar or Icelandic blueberries, it’s actually quite wonderful, with a rich, yoghurt-like texture and taste.
The real magic, however, is in its nutritional value. This superfood is incredibly high in protein and unbelievably low in everything else, a typical batch sporting something like 12% protein, 3% carbohydrate and 0,5% fat, and also rich in calcium and various vitamins. The best breakfast!!!
Below is a very silly show and slightly disrespectful take on the rotten shark delicacy!