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.”

Six Icelandic Firms on Yale’s List of Companies Doing Business in Russia, Three Shouldn’t Be

The Yale School of Management names six Icelandic businesses on its list of companies still doing business in Russia, but RÚV reports that three of them have no presence or operations in Russia at all, and one never did in the first place. Attempts have been made to contact the manager of the Yale list, a professor and dean at the university, to make appropriate corrections, but these attempts have not been successful.

Failing grades

The list, simply dubbed “Yale CELI List of Companies” (CELI stands for Chief Executive Leadership Institute”) was started on February 28, days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the responses of over 1,200 companies regarding their presence and business activities in Russia have been tracked by Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and the Yale Research Team. “Originally a simple ‘withdraw’ vs. ‘remain’ list,” reads the preface, “our list of companies now consists of five categories—graded on a school-style letter grade scale of A-F for the completeness of withdrawal.”

The CELI list is said to be “updated continuously.” As of July 8, 2022, its headline read “Over 1,000 Companies Have Curtailed Operations in Russia—But Some Remain.” As of that time, six Icelandic companies were included on the list. Three of these—Hampiðjan, Knarr Maritime, and Sæplast—were given a grade of F, “Digging In: Defying Demands for Exit or Reduction of Activities.” Two other Icelandic companies—Marel and Naust Marine—were graded D, “Buying Time: Holding Off New Investments/Development” and one, Eimskip, was graded C, “Scaling Back: Reducing Current Operations.”

No operations in Russia, but still on the list

RÚV contacted the public relations officer for the shipping company Eimskip, who said the company had ceased sailing to Russia right after the invasion and moreover, had not had any operations in the country since 2019, when it closed its Russian office. The PR officer said that Eimskip has attempted to contact Prof. Sonnenfeld to correct its record without success.

According to the Yale list, Knarr Maritime, has “members still operating in Russia.” RÚV reports, however, that the company closed its office in Russia two years ago and no longer has any operations there.

Sæplast, a company that designs and manufactures insulated tubs and pallets for use in the fishing industry, issued a statement on its website on Thursday, saying that it has no operations in Russia, and never has. “The company has no office in Russia and no employee works there,” reads the statement. “Sæplast sold tubs to Russia for many years, either directly or through agents and/or independent distributors, but since Russia invaded Ukraine, no products have been sold there or delivered from Sæplast to the Russian market. Allegations about Sæplast’s operations and trade with Russia are therefore incorrect.”

According to Sæplast general manager Daði Valdimarsson, the company has attempted to convey this information to the managers of the Yale list but has had no success. Sæplast has also been in touch with the Embassy of Ukraine to Iceland (located in Finland) via the Iceland Chamber of Commerce.

Still have offices in Russia

Naust Marine is one of two Icelandic companies given a D grade, meaning that they’ve paused but not ceased operations in Russia. Four years ago, Naust Marine signed a major deal to sell electric winches to Russia for use on its trawlers. General Manager Bjarni Þór Gunnlaugsson told RÚV the deal is at a complete standstill, but it’s unclear what that means for future operations.

Fellow D recipient Marel, a food processing company, published a statement on its website on March 9, saying that it “strongly condemns the military actions of the Russian government in Ukraine” and that it had “taken the decision to pause all new projects in Russia.” The statement continued by saying that Marel has a sales and service operation in Russia, and employees 70 people. It will “continue to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of our employees” and “maintain our dedicated teams in the Ukraine and Russia and our office in Russia, despite expected lower utilization in the near future.” The statement also added that “Marel’s annual revenues and order book in Russia and Ukraine amount to approximately 4% of total.”

RÚV was unable to speak to management at fishing manufacturer Hampiðjan, as they were apparently all attending a meeting on Friday. The company has an office in Murmansk, Russia. At time of writing, there was no information on Hampiðjan’s website indicating whether the Murmansk office is still operational, or if the its business activities in Russia have changed at all since the invasion of Ukraine.

E. Coli Found in Icelandic Meat

E. coli was found in 30% of lamb samples and 11.5% of beef samples in a test carried out by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). The particular strain discovered is known as STEC, or shiga-toxin producing E. coli. This is the first time lamb and beef have been screened for STEC in Iceland.

The testing was carried out on around 600 samples of lamb, beef, pork, and chicken of both Icelandic and foreign origin between March and December 2018. The purpose of the testing was to determine the prevalence of pathogenic micro-organisms in products when they reach the consumer, and for this reason the samples were taken from shops.

Campylobacter and salmonella were not detected in pork or chicken samples, with the exception of a single sample of pork from Spain. MAST attributes this to improved preventative measures in slaughterhouses.

Strain can cause illness

Shiga-toxin producing E. coli is a toxigenic species of E. coli. STEC can cause serious illness in humans. Common symptoms include diarrhoea, but contraction of the bacteria can also lead to a type of kidney damage known as HUS (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome). People can contract STEC through contaminated food or water, direct contact with infected animals, or from an environment contaminated by infected animals’ feces.

Part of natural flora

The results of the study indicate that STEC is part of the natural microbial flora of Icelandic cattle and sheep. “It is clear that STEC must be studied more closely in meat and preventative measures in slaughterhouses and meat processing must be intensified to reduce the likelihood that STEC enters meat,” reads MAST’s press release on the findings. “The cleanliness of the livestock is also important here, and it is therefore necessary to prevent the slaughtering of unclean livestock in slaughterhouses.”

Consumer prevention

MAST points to several ways consumers can reduce the risk of infection from salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli, including cooking meat all the way through and taking care to avoid cross-contamination. Most E. coli is found on the surface of meat, and therefore is killed by frying or grilling, but when meat is ground, the bacteria is distributed throughout. Therefore, hamburgers and other types of ground meat should be cooked through.

Icelandic Company Marel Listed on Amsterdam Stock Exchange

Marel Euronext Exchange

Shares in Icelandic food processing company Marel were admitted to trading on the Euronext stock exchange in Amsterdam this morning, Kjarninn reports. The company’s shares rose in value immediately as trading began. Marel will continue to be listed on the Iceland Stock Exchange as well.

Marel is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of food processing machinery, employing around 5,500 people in over 30 countries. The company’s total market value has been estimated at €2.82b (ISK 393b/$3.2b).

“The listing on the Euronext Exchange will support the next steps in the company’s development and support ambitious growth goals,” stated Marel CEO Árni Oddur Þórðarson. “Our vision is a world where high quality foods are produced in a cost-effective and sustainable way.”