Born and bread - A food history of the humble Icelandic flatbread Skip to content

Born and Bread

Words by
Erik Pomrenke

Photography by
Golli

On visits to my grandfather’s farm, I would often follow him around, helping him with the farmyard tasks. In the early afternoon, perhaps after mending a fence, we would come inside to have some coffee and flatbread topped with butter and lamb that my grandmother had laid out. Taking off his rubber boots that smelled of rust and horses, he would smile with satisfaction at the simple fare, mumbling happily: “Ekta matur.” Real food. 

TRUE TO TRADITION

Like language and music, flatbread is a near-universal feature of cultures throughout the world.  And for a cuisine such as Iceland’s, which is often so different even from the other Nordic nations, flatbread is also a humble connection to the wider world.

To this day, Icelandic flatbreads, or flatkökur, can be found in any Icelandic supermarket, making them arguably the most versatile and popular of Icelandic gamaldags matur, or traditional food. Often pre-cut into halves, they are traditionally eaten topped with a smear of butter and smoked lamb (hangikjöt) or liver pâté (kindakæfa). Mottled with specks of char and perforated by fork tines, a flatbread has a subtle flavour, so often paired with butter and lamb that the light burn marks and smokiness of the meat merge into one. Standard flatbreads found on a grocery store shelf will contain a mixture of wheat flour and rye, but traditionally, they were made exclusively with rye. Often, other additives such as dried moss and seaweed were also used to stretch out the precious imported flour. This modern lunchtime and family gathering staple is, like so much of what’s considered traditional Icelandic food, a relic from a time of scarcity.

 

ADVENTUROUS EATS

When I first tried hákarl, the notorious fermented shark native to Icelandic cuisine, my uncle proffered me a small yellow cube on a toothpick, grinning devilishly. “You’ll love it,” he said. “It’s terrible.”

Brought up on dried fish and cod liver oil, it was not the smell that deterred me, though it is admittedly rather unpleasant. It was the gelatinous texture I found most repellent, making the experience last much longer than one wants. Still, washed down with a stiff drink, it’s not quite as bad as it’s made out to be.

That little phrase, “You’ll love it; it’s terrible,” captures something important about Icelandic attitudes towards traditional food. Icelanders are a people who get through things, it says. But in the grim determination for survival, there is a perverse pleasure as well. Collective suffering often brings people together, and something of this masochistic ritual lingers today in Icelanders’ attitudes towards their traditional foods, best characterised by þorramatur.

In a land of scarcity like pre-industrial Iceland, these foods were what was available in the depths of winter. Additionally, the lack of available firewood in Iceland made extracting salt from seawater through boiling impractical. In terms of food preservation, pickling was the only game in town. So when Icelanders gathered round for þorrablót, no doubt dishes that we recognise today as þorramatur must have made it to the table.

And yet, the particular spread of þorramatur in its modern form is very much a recent invention, originating only in 1958 at the Reykjavík restaurant Naustið. Even then, such foods were perceived as something from the olden days, and as Iceland quickly urbanised in the post-war years, the sense developed that the rural heartland of Iceland was quickly being displaced by the urban culture of Reykjavík. When Naustið began to offer their “traditional” spread of good old country cooking, it was as much an expression of this urban-vs-rural dynamic, as an attempt to preserve an already-fading tradition. Eating þorramatur is a sort of historic reenactment, performed at specific occasions to strengthen the bond to a past long gone.

It is no surprise that þorrablót also forms a key event in the social calendars of many Icelandic emigrant communities, such as the West Icelanders in Canada and the American Midwest. Eating such foods becomes a rite of passage, and for second- and third-generation Icelanders abroad, what better way to connect with the past than the communal consumption of fermented offal?

While the flatbread is present at the þorrablót buffet, it isn’t limited to such an occasion. Traditional foods, after all, can still be delightful.

Brynja and her mother Tóta have been making flatkökur together for the past 30 years. And for the last 11 years, they’ve had their own business down by the harbour in Vogar. They use an old family recipe that has been tweaked and improved through the years, and they even use specially-modified grills that reach higher temperatures than standard commercial flattops. 

HARD TIMES

Up until the importation of colonial goods through Denmark, Icelandic foodways remained more or less frozen in time. It was well into the 19th century when Danish merchants began to supply Icelanders with sugar, coffee, tea, butter, raisins, and a host of other everyday luxuries now taken for granted. The introduction of flour also caused a minor revolution in food customs, in what Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, one of the foremost food historians in Iceland, has called “The Great Cake Deluge.” Where visitors might previously have been offered plates heaped with smoked lamb, dried fish, and other preserved foods, middle- and upper-class households could now offer baked goods to their guests. Cakes of various kinds exploded into the Icelandic diet, and to this day, they remain a staple offering at most coffee tables.

But prior to the large-scale import of flour that began in the 19th century, bread played a relatively minor role in Icelandic diets. For the first period of Icelandic settlement, about the first two hundred years, some grains such as barley, rye, wheat, and oats could be grown in small amounts. These were never highly productive crops in Iceland’s climate, but of these, barley, seems to have by far been the most popular, able to be grown in Iceland’s grassy lowlands. However, Iceland’s ecosystem began to decline with the deforestation of the island. Following the beginning of the “Little Ice Age” in the 14th century, grain production in Iceland completely collapsed, with barley cultivation only resuming in the 20th century.

While barley is the only grain to have seen any successful production in Iceland, it was imported rye flour that became the grain staple of Icelandic diets, wheat flour being reserved for the refined breads of the wealthy. But for much of Icelandic history, imported flour wasn’t used to make bread. Instead, porridge was the staple of choice, presumably because people considered it more economical to thin out the small amount of grain into larger batches of porridge. What bread there was, was known in several forms in pre-industrial Iceland. Besides flatbread, refined wheat cakes, fried in pans, were common among the well-to-do, in addition to “pot bread,” in which the bread would be baked in a dutch oven, either in the kitchen hearth or in a hot spring. 

There is also reason to believe that different regions of Iceland knew flatbreads by different names. We have, for example, a story from Vopnafjörður, a fishing village in Northeast Iceland, which refers to flatbread as dindill: “An old vagrant with a bad reputation came to town one day. He was given a flatbread (dindill) and some butter to spread on it. He was then heard muttering ‘I should be careful, I should be careful.’ Someone present asked: ‘What are you being careful of?’ The wretch said: ‘To make sure there’s enough butter for the flatbread.’” 

Like in many folktales, it’s hard to find a moral, so far removed we are now from the story world. But besides the curious name for flatbread it preserves, it also serves as a time capsule for historical Icelandic attitudes towards food. On the one hand, food was scarce in pre-industrial Iceland, and extra mouths to feed must never have been welcome. On the other hand, these conditions of scarcity were precisely the reason why generosity was one of the highest values an Icelandic farmer could embody.

She and her mother start the workday early, often by 5:00 AM. Getting off in the early afternoon, they always take a soak in their “private pool,” by which they mean the local pool that they mostly have to themselves at that time of day. “I think it’s important for us to keep making these,” Brynja says. “As far as I know, Icelanders are the only ones to make flatbread like this. It’s nice to have something that’s just for us.

Þorramatur is the collective name given to the foods eaten at Þorrablót, a midwinter festival based on the Old Icelandic calendar. If you’ve seen a YouTube video of an adventurous tourist in Iceland tasting something challenging, chances are it’s a form of þorramatur. The menu is broken down into two categories: fermented and unfermented. To the latter category belong many uncontroversial favourites, such as hangikjöt (smoked lamb). But to the former group belong various farmhouse curiosities including ram’s testicles pickled in whey (súrsaðir hrútspungar) and pickled meat boiled and wrapped in offal (lundabaggi). Today, you can buy a selection of these traditional foods in Icelandic grocery stores, stored in industrial-strength buckets to prevent unnecessary olfactory trauma to innocent shoppers.

MAKING A CLASSIC

These days, there are several ways to make Icelandic flatbread in a modern home kitchen, most of which involve the use of an electric stovetop.

One of the distinctive features of the flatbread is its char marks. This can be achieved by simply placing the flatbread in a dry pan and cooking on both sides, but many Icelanders will either cook the flatbread directly on their stove burner, or else use a torch to lightly char the bread. Most home cooks will then quickly dip the flatbread in water, so that it doesn’t dry out too quickly. 

However, even these char marks, which most would recognise as a sine qua non of the Icelandic flatbread, may be up for debate. A classic recipe found in Hallgerður Gísladóttir’s landmark book Íslensk Matarhefð (Icelandic Food Customs), specifically calls for an oiled pan to avoid burning. Perhaps the housewives of the interwar years did not recall as fondly as we do cooking on hot stones, and welcomed their new electric stovetops without nostalgia. Is the real flatbread from the postwar period, or does authenticity simply mean older? In a sense, one could argue that uncharred flatbread is obviously preferable, and it’s understandable that a generation of Icelandic cooks would prefer the cleaner, more controllable electric stove. But at the same time, there is something curious about the length that we will go to in order to re-introduce the char marks when we have perfectly modern kitchens. 

Today, foodies visiting Iceland will find open-faced flatbread sandwiches sitting under plastic wrap at a variety of cafés and brunch buffets throughout the nation. They are a staple of school cafeterias, weddings, and funerals, visits to relatives, breakroom snacks, and afternoon coffee spreads. 

Some chefs, however, aren’t content to let this national icon waste away on shrink-wrapped lunch trays.

FUTURE OF A TRADITION

Represented abroad by such star chefs as René Redzepi, Claus Meyer, Magnus Nilsson, and more recently by native Icelander Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, New Nordic Cuisine has brought about a transformation of our attitudes towards food, emphasising the local, seasonal, and natural. In pursuit of these goals, New Nordic Cuisine has also reignited an interest in traditional Scandinavian foods, limited as they were by what was available at any given time of year.

Dill restaurant, owned and operated by chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, opened in 2009 and has since been at the forefront of Icelandic food culture, earning Iceland’s first-ever Michelin star in 2017. For chef Gunnar, Icelandic flatbread represents a unique intersection of the past and present. “One of the things we try to do in the restaurant is to remember how we ate them in our childhood, how our parents and grandparents ate them. I think one of the best things we can do for a patron is to give them this glimpse of childhood simplicity again.” Joking, he adds: “You know, like in Ratatouille”

The development of their recipe for flatbread consisted of everything from historical research, kitchen experimentation, and, of course, asking little old ladies for their recipes, preferably passed down through several generations. “When I was younger, I used to work at a farm up in Vatnsdalur, by Blönduós,” Gunnar recalls. “The farmer’s wife there made everything herself: flatbread, rye bread, pancakes, dumplings, you name it. Later on, when we opened the restaurant, I went back to visit and get as many of her recipes as I could.”

Dill’s flatbread is reinventing a tradition, but they’re certainly not just reiterating it. For starters, they most often use barley flour instead of rye. “We get this wonderful barley grown in Fljótsdalshérað in East Iceland,” he says. “But we also love the idea of the whole barley in the flatbread, so we also cook the grains and let it cool before adding it into the dough.” This addition also creates a heterogeneous texture in the flatbread, making more than just a sideline to the main act. Some traditional recipes also call for the addition of rutabaga for their earthy sweetness, which Dill has also experimented with.

The subtle texture and taste of flatbread also mean it pairs well with many things. Gunnar is of course not content to serve up the most obvious renditions of the classic, and patrons at Dill can expect to see it topped with dehydrated and powdered trout, micro greens, flecks of kelp, and pickled preserves. “Sometimes our toppings have nothing to do with tradition,” Gunnar admits. “But at the end of the day, it goes well with so many things.” 

In addition to the taste and texture of flatbread, chef Gunnar is a firm believer that the char itself is an integral part of the flatbread experience. “We char them to the point of burning,” Gunnar says. “It’s definitely how it would have been back in the day.” There is actually some controversy in the culinary world about this. Foodies often talk about sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami as the building blocks of flavour. But the process of carbonisation, of burning, brings out other elements in foods that can’t simply be described by these categories. When done properly, charring food adds a whole other dimension to it.

At the end of the day, the survival of flatbread in both everyday diets and fine dining represents a small miracle for Gunnar: “It’s definitely one of those things that could have died out a long time ago. It’s very simple. When I think about all of the new foods available to us, the selection we have now, it’s amazing how everyone is still eating it. My wife and kids alone go through tonnes of it every week!”

This, then, is the lasting meaning of flatbread. Rather like this island itself, it’s a relic of the past that’s found its own place in the modern world. Humble and unassuming, whether found on grocery store shelves or Michelin Star plates. Just something to ruminate on at your next meal. 

Before the introduction of store-bought yeast and chemical leaveners, bread was either unleavened or leavened with sourdough. Some recipes, for instance, call for a remainder of the last batch of bread to be mixed into the dough and left to rise. Then, a portion of the dough would be set aside for the next batch, and the cycle would continue. Some other households would knead out the dough in a wooden trough. Through years of breadmaking, microbes living within the wood itself would develop, and it would be enough to knead out the dough and let it rise in the trough overnight, the wood itself forming the sourdough starter. 

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Once urbanisation was underway in Iceland, the byproducts of brewing would also be used in baking. Conveniently, many bakeries were also breweries, and they would use the excess malted grains in their baking. Although baking and brewing often went hand-in-hand, it is a relatively new tradition in Iceland, the first commercial bakery only being established in 1834.

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Several historical accounts of Iceland make specific mention of the rarity of bread in Iceland. The 15th-century German cartographer, Martin Behaim, took note of this in his 1492 globe Erdapfel, the oldest surviving globe in the world. It briefly notes Iceland as an island inhabited for some time by Christians living in such poverty that they sell their dogs and children to merchants for bread. Needless to say, this was not the case. But the kernel of truth behind this tale is that bread was not an everyday food for the poor.

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While we can assume historical flatbreads were not standardised in size, modern flatbreads average 15 cm (6 in) in diameter. There was, however, considerable regional variation, and among these regions, considerable variation among households. There are some accounts, for instance, of a turn-of-the-century flatbread from the Westfjords which was considerably larger, around 25-30 cm (10-12 inches) in diameter, and around a centimetre thick. These were used instead of plates for meals, which would simply be served directly on top of the flatbread. Flatbreads also came in considerably smaller sizes, with palm-sized flatbread for children traditionally known as góma.

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150 gr rye flour

150 gr whole wheat flour

150 gr wheat flour

100 gr sugar 

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 dl milk

Bring the dry ingredients together and then add boiling milk. Knead well together and form into thin cakes. Prick the cakes. Bake on a stone slab (a dry cast iron pan will also work) or directly on the burner. Dip them in lightly salted water and pile them in a stack. Make sure that the flatbreads do not stick together when they’ve cooled down.

 

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