Þorrablót Feasts Return After Two-Year Hiatus

After a two-year hiatus during COVID, 2023 marks the return of Þorrablót, a midwinter feast inspired by the food traditions and pagan celebrations of medieval Iceland. Demand is expected to be high over the coming weeks and local food producers are scrambling to prepare. RÚV reports that Icelanders are projected to eat some 60 tons of traditional þorrablót fare, which ranges, on the more appetizing end of the spectrum, from hangikjöt, or smoked lamb, to soured meats that have been pickled in whey.

A not-so-ancient festival

Þorrablót coincides with the old Norse month of Þorri, which this year, begins on January 21 and continues through February 18. But while the feast does have its roots in ancient tradition, “…there is really nothing that connects [that tradition] to the present-day feasts of the same name,” food historian Nanna Rögnvaldadóttir writes in Icelandic Food and Cookery. Instead, Nanna explains, the festival was largely the creation of “…a restaurant owner in Reykjavík in the late 1950s—he thought there might be a market for the disappearing traditional Icelandic foods that had never been served in restaurants before.”

A traditional Þorrablót spread includes hangokjöt, or smoked lamb, as well as a variety of preserved sour dishes, or súrmatur. Súrmatur, as Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir explains, “includes soured blood and liver pudding, ram testicles, sheep-head jelly, brisket and lundabaggi, a roll of secondary meats. Also eaten at Þorrablót is putrefied shark and buttered dried fish. A traditional type of bread served alongside the Þorri dinner is flatkaka, a special Icelandic rye flatbread.”

Pickling prep started in August

A traditional Þorrablót buffet. Screenshot via RÚV.

Þorrablót is typically celebrated with large, buffet-style feasts. Workplaces, cultural associations, and villages all host their own, well-attended festivities, something that was obviously not possible during COVID. This changed the way that þorramatur (food for þorrablót) was packaged and sold over the last few years, namely that stores began selling single-serving, pre-portioned þorrablót plates that could be eaten at home.

These TV-dinner-style plates proved popular and will still be sold this year, but there’s also a resurgence in demand for þorramatur in banquet-ready quantities. This means that local meat processing companies like Norðlenska have their hands full for the next few weeks. Andrés Vilhjálmsson, marketing director for Norðlenska, says that he fully expects that some popular þorrablót products will sell out this year.

Meats being preserved in whey at a Norðlenska processing plant. Screenshot via RÚV.

Þorrablót is a feast of all the food that survived the winter, primarily meat and fish that has been dried, salted, smoked, soured, pickled, or cured. What this means in practical terms for producers today is that preparations had to start all the way back in August. “There really are a lot of steps,” affirmed Norðlenska’s quality control officer, Bára Eyfjörð Heimisdóttir. “You have to boil food down, which is tricky, you have to pickle it in whey, and you need to have good whey and monitor that whey closely. So we’ve been working hard.”

Something sour is a relief after all that Christmas candy

Þorramatur is not for the faint of stomach, but Bára nevertheless finds the season’s sour spreads refreshing after all the sweetness of the Christmas holidays. By February, she says, Icelanders are “all trying to get moving, to get away from all the sugar and carbs and shift completely to protein. And that’s where soured foods and all this þorramatur scores high.”

East Iceland Startup Makes Beverages Flavored with Locally Foraged Herbs

A start-up in East Iceland is producing nonalcoholic beverages using wild, Icelandic herbs, Austurfrétt reports. The company, Könglar (meaning ‘pine cones’), has been selling its beverages at restaurants throughout East Iceland since earlier this year and aims to be a truly local product. “People are always asking us if it’s possible to get [our drinks] in the [capital area],” says marketing manager Brynjar Darri Sigurðsson. “And we always say, ‘no, you have to come out East.’”

Producer Dagrún Drótt Valgarðsdóttir got the idea for making natural beverages from local, Icelandic ingredients after sampling a blueberry drink made in Finland. “We started to wonder if we could use that method using the nature we have here,” she says.

Könglar received subsidies from the municipality of Fljótsdalshérað, as well as the government’s Food Fund, which aims to “strengthen development and innovation in the production and processing of food and by-products from agricultural and marine products,” with an emphasis “on innovation, sustainability, value creation and the competitiveness of Icelandic food throughout the country.”

Thus far, the company’s beverages, all of which have names inspired by local folk tales, include a lovage drink, a dandelion iced tea, and a rhubarb soda. Dagrún says their focus has been “to use what’s around us as much as possible” instead of opting for imported produce or ingredients that aren’t native to Iceland. So, for instance, if they want the flavor profile of a tart, green apple, they use rhubarb, which is plentiful in East Iceland. In the future, Dagrún says Könglar would like to use their same production and infusion methods to make herbal-flavored beers and wine.

Follow Könglar on Instagram, here.

‘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.”

Iceland’s First Hamburger Was Sold in 1941

Hamburger and fries in Iceland

The first hamburger may have been sold in Iceland as early as 1941, Vísir reports. Visitors to the island may be more likely to think of lamb soup or cod cheeks when thinking of classic Icelandic fare, but while these are certainly more homegrown dishes, the country has long maintained a love affair with the hamburger. As such, Iceland’s preeminent food historian, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, has set out to determine when and where this delicacy was first sold to hungry Icelanders.

Nanna has been outlining her research for Vísir and also in televised interviews, which has yielded a great deal of information from the public about early sightings of the fast food favorite. In October 1956, Kjörbar in downtown Reykjavík started advertising “hamburgers all day” and a rest stop grill near the Hvítá bridge in West Iceland also had them on the menu. A restaurant called Ísborg in downtown Reykjavík began selling burgers and French fries in 1957. The much-beloved rest stop grill and gas station Staðarskáli began serving up hamburgers during the summer of 1960. And in January of the same year, a restaurant called Smárabar in the Westman Islands started advertising them on their menu.

Fittingly, it now seems that the earliest documented hamburger in Iceland was likely sold at a restaurant on Aðalstræti, Reykjavík’s oldest street.

“The American army arrived in July 1941,” notes Nanna, “and that same month, they start offering hamburgers there.”

There are also stories of American soldiers teaching Jakobína Ámundadóttir, the owner of a cafe near Öskjuhlíð (the hill on which Perlan is located), how to make hamburgers during the war years. According to her sister Íris, Jakobína opened her café when the British built their base on the site of the Reykjavík Domestic airport and intended it to serve Icelanders who worked on the base. When the American soldiers arrived, however, they craved burgers and French fries from home and in addition to teaching Jakobína how to make a hamburger are said to have also baked hamburger buns for her to try as well.

These early hamburger-adopters would have been among several places that advertised burgers in newspapers that were published specially for servicemen, such as The Daily Post and The White Falcon.

Even as the meal gained popularity at cafes serving soldiers stationed in Iceland, however, it does not seem to have made a big impression on Icelanders as a whole for close to ten years. In a travel article written by Vísir journalist Thorolf Smith after a trip to America in 1952, for example, he describes hamburgers as a strange, unknown phenomenon: “some kind of ground beefsteak between two pieces of bread.” Another news article describes an Icelandic man’s shock at being served a hamburger for dinner by the chef of a canteen at the American base in Keflavík.

Nanna says that the American base in Keflavík became the de facto home of the hamburger in Iceland, but that by 1956, it had made its way to Reykjavík and had given rise to a number of hamburger joints, such as those mentioned above. All of these early restaurants are closed now, except for the Staðarskáli rest stop and grill. Nanna believes that it’s likely that Staðarskáli holds the honor of being the place that has sold hamburgers longest in Iceland.