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.”

‘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.”