‘It’s Mostly Foreigners Who Take an Interest in Turf Houses’ Skip to content

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Photo: Þorvaldur P. Hjarðar, Screenshot, RÚV.

‘It’s Mostly Foreigners Who Take an Interest in Turf Houses’

An engineer in East Iceland is passing down ancestral methods of turf construction, Austurfrétt reports. Þorvaldur P. Hjarðar has a great deal of experience with these ancient building techniques, having recently restored two turf outbuildings and one turf sheep shed on his farm, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal.

“There aren’t a lot of folks who are up for such specialized courses, but seven people were interested in participating and so now we’re just about to finish rebuilding an old, turf smokehouse which must, of course, be consecrated by smoking some lamb and singing the old songs,” said Þorvaldur. His course focused on methods of building turf structures that are unique to the East Fjords.

Interior wall of restored turf house, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal / Minjastofnun Íslands, Instagram

“Not many people know this, actually, but there were a number of unique things about the turf houses here in the East. Foremost that the masonry on most of them is cabled, as it’s termed. That’s to say that they alternated between layers of turf and stone. This isn’t unheard of elsewhere but it’s very prominent here in the East. It was done a lot here because there weren’t a lot of good stones in most places out here.”

Interior of restored turf sheepshed, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal / Screenshot, RÚV

Þorvaldur says that Icelanders even have their own prosciutto, though it’s a luxury good that has yet to be capitalized on.

“So, the thing is, that in the old days, all hangikjöt [smoked lamb] was double-smoked in smokehouses made from turf and that hangikjöt is much different from the processed kind we get in Icelandic supermarkets today. The meat is much firmer and the flavour a lot milder. It is, to my mind, the only real Icelandic delicacy, but no one’s running with this historical tradition. We lose our minds over prosciutto in Italy or Jamón Ibérico in Spain. But we’d have an entirely comparable product here in this country, if we just smoked it in an old-fashioned turf house.”

Window of restored turfhouse, Hjarðarhagi í Jökudal / Screenshot, RÚV

Þorvaldur says he’s found there’s a growing interest in Icelandic turf houses, but this interest is by far the greatest among foreign tourists.

“There’s certainly a growing interest, but maybe least of all among Icelanders,” he mused. “It doesn’t make any sense because we tend to go see old buildings when we ourselves are traveling abroad, but we care almost nothing about our own remarkable history and houses. And no one should be in any doubt that Icelandic turf houses are magnificent in every way.”

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