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Feasts and Celebrations

Warning: Contains opinionated commentary, humour and generalized information.
Page added on October 3rd, 1999.
 Last update: December 19th, 2000.
 

Menu

(The main source of historical information is a very interesting book about Icelandic feasts and celebrations, past and present
"Saga Daganna", by Árni Björnsson - Mál og Menning, Reykjavík, 1993).

January-February: Sun Coffee February-March: Ţorri and the Ţorri Feast
March-April: Easter - Páskar December 23rd: The Day of St. Thorlakur
December: Icelandic Yule Tidbits New Year's celebrations

Icelandic Yule Tidbits

Many Icelanders celebrate Yule throughout December, especially those who have children. In many homes there is a Yule calendar, with little gifts for the children for every day from December 1st to Christmas Eve. Other children receive "shoe gifts" from the Yule lads for the last 13 nights before Yule.

Advent lights and Advent candles
Many Icelanders use Advent lights to count down the weeks until Yule. Four candles are stuck in a wreath, and lit on the four Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday one candle is lit, allowed to burn for a short while, and then put out. The next Sunday two candles are lit, and so on until Christmas Eve, when all the candles are lit and allowed to burn down. Here is an explanation of the Advent lights and their significance: http://www.jolahusid.com/engl/advent.htm

Many Icelanders also put Advent lights in their windows. These are electric lights set in a holder shaped like an inverted V, with candle shaped bulb holders with 7 lights. Walk past a retirement home in December, and you can expect to see Advent lights in every window.

Christmas Eve

  • The Christmas holidays start on Christmas Eve (Ađfangadagur, literally "the day of stocking up"). Most people stop working at noon, others between one and three p.m. At six 'o'clock the festivities start. Many people attend a church service, others sit at home and listen to a service on the radio. The gifts are opened in the evening of Christmas Eve.

  • Christmas Day and Boxing Day are legal holidays, and people will use this time for being together and visiting with family and friends. 

  • Between six and ten on Christmas Eve, the Icelandic TV-stations stop broadcasting, a tradition that goes back to the early days of Icelandic television.

  • Yule isn't over just because Christmas Day and Boxing Day have passed. Yule is thirteen days long, and doesn't end until January 6th (12th Night). Instead of the usual New Year's Eve bonfires, some communities have a Last Day of Yule bonfire and fireworks show. (If weather prevents a New Year's Eve bonfire, it is usually held on January 6th).

Icelandic Christmas food 

Icelanders will use any occasion to eat and drink and celebrate. This is very apparent when Christmas starts approaching. We have adopted several Christmas or pre-Christmas traditions from other nations, especially ones that involve food and drink.

  • Jólahlađborđ = Christmas Buffet. Christmas-time in Iceland is very much a boon for restaurants and caterers. The buffets have become so popular that some restaurants start taking orders months in advance, and the Xmas buffet season is now staring as early as mid-November. It isn't uncommon for a person to attend three buffets before Christmas: one with the people from work, one with friends, and one with family. This buffet tradition is probably derived from the Scandinavian Julefrokost.

  •  Jólaglögg. This is something people mostly do at work. Glögg is a Scandinavian term for hot spiced wine, and in Scandinavia and Germany it is a traditional warming winter drink. (You will find a recipe for it on the Beverages page). For some, this is unfortunately a wonderful excuse for over-drinking. The Jólaglögg is something that happens shortly before Christmas, sometimes on the last workday before the Xmas holidays. Glögg can be a warming, refreshing drink, made with red wine and spices, or it can be a potent, extremely intoxicating brew, equal parts wine and vodka. Unfortunately, the latter version is more common.

  • Ţorláksmessa is the feast day of Iceland's patron saint, Ţorlákur helgi (Thorlak the holy). I have already written a short essay about this feast. Read about Ţorláksmessa.

Links to Icelandic Christmas websites:

Yule in Iceland  
http://festivals.projects.eun.org/Iceland/jol.htm
 
http://www.fortunecity.com/rivendell/tiamat/553/

The New Year

New Year's celebrations in Iceland.

There are many traditions connected with the new year in Iceland. It is an old belief that animals are able to speak like humans on New Year's Night, and that elves and spirits move house. Icelanders celebrate the coming of the new year with bonfires and fireworks. Unlike many other countries, where the use of fireworks is restricted, everyone in Iceland has access to firecrackers and rockets - and it shows!

Just as the family have recovered from the rich and heavy Christmas food, 'round comes New Year's Eve, and another delicious meal. In my family, it is usually smoked rack of pork, served with potatoes, pineapple, pickled red cabbage, peas & carrots, brussels sprouts, red vine sauce and redcurant jelly. After dinner, we go to the bonfire. Icelanders like to say 'goodbye' to the old year and 'welcome' to the new year with a bonfire. In my parents' hometown, the bonfire is safely situated in an old gravel mine a couple of kilometers out of town. Around 8'o'clock, everyone gathers at a convenient spot outside town and light their torches and march up to the gravel mine to light the bonfire.

The bonfires used to me made out of any rubbish the organizers could get their hands on: old building timber, old tires, paper boxes, used furniture, old boats, and on one occasion a bunch of old tool shacks. The fire was helped along with a liberal application of used motor oil. These days, EC regulations have banned many of the old ingredients, so now we mostly burn wood and paper, and use some gasoline to help light the fire. As a result, the fires have gotten smaller, but also much more environmentally friendly.

After attending the bonfire, we go home and watch the "Áramótaskaup". This is a humorous TV revue that pokes fun at the events of the past year. At midnight, we go outside and shoot rockets and firecrackers and enjoy watching them explode.

New Year & Xmas Photos

 

Easter

We Icelanders often enjoy an Easter holiday that lasts longer than Christmas, since Maundy Thursday (Skírdagur), Long Friday (Föstudagurinn Langi), Easter Sunday (Páskadagur ) and the following Monday (Annar í Páskum) are all holidays, giving most people a five day holiday and students even longer.

There are not many Icelandic food traditions connected with Easter. In olden times when good, fresh food was scarce, it was traditional to serve some kind of porridge on Easter Sunday, usually made from barley. In concession to the holiness of Easter, the porridge would be unusually thick and rich, not like the gruel that was usually served. In the 18th and 19th centuries porridge would be served on Maundy Thursday as a special treat. This porridge would sometimes be made with rice, which was considered the height of luxury.
    It may not look like much, to serve porridge on such a holy day as Easter Sunday, but before the 20th century cereals were a luxury to all but the richest Icelanders. Barley was the most commonly used cereal, and was grown in some places in the south until the 16th century. Wheat flour, oats and rye were sometimes available as well. Since cereals were such a luxury, they were reserved for special occasions, like Christmas and Easter, when they would be used to make bread (flat bread, rye bread and leaf bread) and porridge. Gruel would be served as an everyday food, usually made with Iceland Moss, with perhaps a handful of barley meal thrown in for a little taste.
     At Easter it would be time to start eating meat again after Lent, and so meat, especially hangikjöt, would be served.

These days, the only real Easter food tradition is that of eating Easter eggs. About 3 weeks to a month before Easter, chocolate eggs of all sizes begin to appear in supermarkets, making it very difficult for parents to take their children along when they go shopping! 
     These delicious eggs are filled with candy and there is also a strip of paper with a proverb or saying, somewhat like the ones you find in fortune cookies. When my brother and I were children, our parents used to wake us up on the morning of Easter Sunday and give us our Easter eggs. It was very difficult not to have a taste before breakfast, and the eggs would usually be finished before the day was over. We used to have a lot of fun breaking the eggs, attacking them with a hammer or dropping them on the floor to watch them shatter.
    Easter egg hunts are not practiced in Iceland, due to the fact that the ground is often covered with snow at Easter-time, and it is usually too cold.
     Our traditional family Easter meal consists of pork, usually smoked rack, cooked in red wine and then oven glazed with a sauce made from brown sugar, mustard and ketchup. Served with pineapple rings, brussels sprouts, peas and baby carrots, redcurrant jelly, fresh salad and red-wine sauce. Dessert is often home-made ice-cream or pineapple fromage (I'll add the recipe later).

Sólarkaffi - Sun Coffee

Because of Iceland's northerly location, the sun rises very low over the horizon during the winter. The country has many deep, narrow fjords and valleys where the sun does not rise above the mountains for several weeks during the darkest winter days. When the sun finally does show itself for a few minutes, it is a cause for celebration for the inhabitants of those dark valleys and fjords.
    These days, the inhabitants of some towns and villages will get together in the gathering hall to celebrate the arrival of sunshine. Others will celebrate individually in their own homes. There is no specific sunshine day, since the sun will appear on different days in different locations. And there should be no cheating: even if you know that the sun has risen above the mountains, there is no celebrating until the weather actually allows it to be seen! This tradition is widespread in Iceland, especially in the east and west fjords, but also in some fjords and valleys in the north.
     The Sun Coffee is traditionally served with pancakes, cream cake and any other cake you want! (This includes just about anything from the Cakes, pancakes and cookies page). Many will make caraway coffee for this occasion.
     Sunshine day is also a cause for celebration and remembrance among those who have moved away from the fjords and valleys, usually to Reykjavík. Many of these people have formed clubs that are open to anyone coming from the "old place". They will pick a day close to the time when they know the sun will appear in the old place. A number of volunteers will each bring one cake, or a pile of pancakes or a plate of flat bread with hangikjöt, and they will have a feast with the cakes and drink freshly brewed sun coffee. Sometimes there will be entertainment. 
     I don't know when this sunny tradition started, but it is clearly a modern version of the ancient midwinter festivals, like Yule and Ţorrablót. People look up to the skies and thank God that the sun is back and another winter will soon draw to an end.

 Back to the Menu

Ţorláksmessa - The Day of St. Thorlakur

Ţorlákur was a 12th century Icelandic bishop, who was revered as the patron saint of Iceland after his death in 1193. He was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1985, which many people find funny as Catholics are a small minority in the mostly Lutherian country. That, however, doesn't stop us from celebrating Ţorláksmessa.

          There are two mass days dedicated to Ţorlákur, Ţorláksmessa in Summer, July 20th, and Ţorláksmessa in Winter, December 23rd. The first marks the date his bones were removed from the coffin and put in a shrine, and the second marks the date of his death.

        In past centuries fresh fish was a common food on Ţorláksmessa in Iceland. The origins of the tradition of eating fish on Ţorláksmessa is that this is the last day of the Catholic Christmas fast, and of course people weren't expected to eat meat on this day. The tradition continued after the country converted to Lutheranism, because this was a busy day, and food had to be quick and simple. (No work was done on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, so everything had to be ready by Christmas Eve.) 
In my parent's home and many others, the smell of hangikjöt cooking on Ţorláksmessa is one of the long-awaited signs that Christmas is coming. But it is cured skate that is the dish of the day.
      The tradition of eating this peculiar and smelly food (it has a strong odour of ammonia) arose in the West Fjords. The best time for catching skate is in the late autumn, and the pickling and putrefying process takes a while to complete, so it would be ready and available around Christmas time. Therefore it was perfectly normal that skate would be served on Ţorláksmessa. This tradition has slowly spread all over the country, and now there are many people who look as much forward to eating skate on Ţorláksmessa as they do to eating hangikjöt, ptarmigan, turkey, ham or steak on Christmas Eve. 

      In the village where I grew up, the crews of the trawlers and boats belonging to the local fishing company have for the past several years invited the population of the village to a skate lunch in the community hall, every December 23rd. Living across the street from the community hall means that if the wind is favourable, my parents will know exactly when the fish starts cooking! 

      As I have already indicated, cured skate is an odiferous food, but it doesn't taste anything like it smells. The reason for this putrefying business is that in fresh skate (much like in shark), there are chemicals that can be harmful when the fish is eaten fresh. All I can say is that the person who discovered this must have been pretty desperate to get something to eat, because the smell is really horrible. I once went to the skate lunch with a nose so stuffed that I could neither smell nor taste anything, but when I was finished eating, my cold had disappeared. Powerful stuff!

      At the skate lunch, two kinds of skate are served, one kind is salted and only slightly putrefied, the other salted and very putrefied. This is served in chunks, with boiled potatoes and a choice of two kinds of mör, the ordinary kind (melted sheep's tallow with burned bits of membrane - tastes better than it sounds), and hnođmör (the same, just kneaded and allowed to go stale before eating).


 Back to the Menu

Ţorri and the Ţorri Feast

Ţorri is one of the old Icelandic months. It always begins on a Friday, between the 19th and the 25th of January, and ends on a Saturday between the 18th and 24th of February. The first day of Ţorri is called Bóndadagur or "Husband's Day/Farmer's Day", and  is dedicated to men (formerly only farmers). In my family (and many others) , the women bring the men breakfast in bed on this day - just as the men will do on Konudagur - Woman's Day (if they know what's good for them). Many women will give their husbands flowers as well. This is a fairly new custom, introduced by flower shops in order to sell more roses. (Now they are trying import Valentine's Day for the same reason).

The tradition of a Ţorri feast is an ancient one. It has its roots in old midwinter feasts, Ţorrablót, which the advent of Christianity could not quite abolish, although the way in which it is celebrated has changed. This month falls on the coldest time of the winter, and therefore it is no surprise that Ţorri has become a personification of King Winter. He is usually portrayed as an old man, tall and grizzled, who is as cruel to those who disrespect him as he is gentle to those who show him respect. Some have suggested that the month is named after the legendary king who united Norway into one country. Others think it is derived from the name of the thunder-god Ţór (Thor), and that this was his feast during the pre-Christian era in Iceland. The story of this old feast and the changes it has gone through is both long and fascinating, and will not be told here. 

Whatever the origin of the feast of Ţorri, it is today a standard part of the Icelandic social calendar, and has even been exported to many countries which have ex-pat Icelandic populations (often to the utter dismay of foreign friends and spouses). The eating habits of the Icelandic nation have changed a lot in the last hundred years or so, and it is only during Ţorri that many people will eat the old-fashioned food. As this feast takes place in the middle of winter, it is no surprise that most of the food served at the feasts is preserved in some way: by pickling in whey, salting, smoking, drying or putrefying. 

A typical Ţorrablót takes place at any time during Ţorri. The season for it now extends into the following month, Góa, but the feast is then usually dubbed Góugleđi. It is advisable to hold it on a Friday or Saturday night, to give the participants time to recover from the effects of overeating and heavy drinking that goes with a good Ţorrablót. The form the feast takes is similar everywhere, the indispensable ingredients being merrymaking and lots of  food. Additional ingredients are staged entertainment (often a cabaret or revue), dancing and lots of alcohol. 

The traditional method of serving the food in deep wooden trays is these days usually only extended as far as the buffet, ordinary plates taking their place at the table, and cutlery taking the place of the traditional sharp knife and the diner's bare hands. 

Menu for Ţorrablót

comments courtesy of your host.

Traditional Appetizers: 

Shark, served in small cubes. It is prepared by burying it for several weeks, and then hanging it up and allowing it to dry. The semi-opaque flesh of the belly is called glerhákarl (glassy shark), and is not nearly as popular as the skyrhákarl, which is flesh from the body of the fish. Skyrhákarl draws it's name from its resemblance in appearance to the Icelandic curds called skyr. The tough glerhákarl is recommended for beginners, as the soft skyrhákarl has been known to cause an involuntary gagging reaction due to its texture. Wash down with a shot of cold Brennivín (caraway schnapps). Believe it or not, this is actually good for the digestion - especially before eating the heavy Ţorri food. To learn how to cure shark, click here.

Harđfiskur: Dried fish, usually haddock, cod or catfish, beaten to soften it. Delicious with or without butter. In old times Harđfiskur was eaten like bread in those homes that could only afford flour for baking on special occasions. It is still Iceland's favourite snack, and a popular travel food. (Chances are, if you meet an Icelander and he has a funny smell about him, it will be because of the harđfiskur tucked away in his luggage.)

Modern Entrées: At many Ţorri feasts there is now offered a wide variety of entrées, usually food that can be found in a typical Scandinavian Julefrokost (Christmas buffet): marinated herring  (both plain and in several different kinds of sauce), smoked salmon and gravlax. This is (in my opinion) mainly to satisfy the tastes of guests who wish to take part in the celebrations, but don't like the taste of shark and pickled meat. 

Main courses: 

This is where the menu begins to get really interesting. Almost everything you find on a typical Ţorri buffet is made from lamb or mutton, with a few exceptions. The food can be separated into two categories: sour and non-sour. The sour food has been pickled in extra strong skyrmysa (whey) for several weeks. The trick is to get it sour enough to tell where it's been, but not so sour that you can't tell what it is. Most of the sour food is also served non-sour.  In the old days, sour milk was sometimes uses instead of mysa.
 
Sour only:
Hrútspungar or pressed sheep's testicles. Has little taste of it's own, and a texture reminiscent of pressed cod roe. 
Hvalspik or whale blubber. This became hard to find after the parliament passed a law forbidding whaling several years ago. It has made a small comeback recently, due to the Norwegians lifting their whaling ban and selling the blubber to Iceland. Fresh whale blubber is stringy and tough, but pickling it makes it soft and more easily digestible. 
Lundabaggar - This is a tough one to explain - it is made from secondary meats, like colons and other such stuff, rolled up, boiled, pickled and sliced. Usually very fat. 
Bringukollar - breast meat. These are cuts of really fat meat on the bone, which have been boiled before pickling. As the name suggests, these pieces come from the breast of the animal. 
Selshreifar - seal's flippers. These are rare, except at some family feasts where the participants have hunted the seals themselves. 
Hvalllíki or fake whale blubber. This was invented after the whaling ban. It is made from fish, and has a colour and texture reminiscent of the real thing, but an entirely different taste. Has become a Ţorri staple for many, and is by some preferred over the real thing. (Seems to be more common in the Reykjavík area than in other parts of the country). 
Sour and non-sour:
Slátur. Of this there are two types: Lifrarpylsa or liver sausage and Blóđmör or blood sausage, cooked before pickling. Both are quite good when fresh, but take on wholly different taste when pickled, which people either love or loathe (I happen to like it). Both contain rye meal, which contributes to the souring process and creates a special kind of taste that's hard to describe. Both are quite firm when fresh, but will take on a crumbly texture after extended pickling. These can actually be pickled in water, as the rye meal causes a souring action similar to whey. 
Sviđasulta - sheep's head jam. This is quite good when pickled, and delicious fresh. It is made by cutting up the meat from cooked sheep's heads (sviđ), pressing into moulds and cooling. The cooking liquid turns into jelly when cold, and keeps the whole thing together. For a further explanation of sviđ, see below. 
Svínasulta, or spiced pigs' head jam. A recent addition to the Ţorri table, probably borrowed from the Danish. Tastes much better fresh than pickled. 
Lappir and/or Fótasulta - sheep's legs and sheep's leg jam. This is a rare sight, both due to the effort it takes to produce the jam, and the fact that the slaughterhouses are required to throw the legs away. Therefore only available where people do their own butchering.*

*The must have changed the regulations - you can now get legs at my local supermarket.

Non-sour:
Hangikjöt - Literally "hung meat". This usually refers to smoked lamb or mutton, although smoked horse-meat is also called hangikjöt. This is one of those courses that are eaten outside the Ţorri season as well, and is really delicious. Many families (mine included) serve hangikjöt for Christmas. 
Magálar - heavily smoked sheep's bellies. Eaten like hangikjöt
Sviđ - singed sheep's heads. The name refers to the tradition of burning away all the hair from the head before cooking. This gives the meat a smoky flavour. The heads are cut in half lengthwise and the brains removed before cooking. Like hangikjöt, this is also quite a popular dish outside the Ţorri season. 

Side dishes:

Kartöflustappa- mashed potatoes
Rófustappa - mashed rutabagas. These are boiled until soft, mashed and sweetened with sugar. 
Flatbrauđ- flat bread, served with butter. 
Rúgbrauđ- rye bread. Dark (almost black) "thunder-bread" served with butter. Top with pickled herring for an entrée, eat on the side with the main courses. 

Drinks:

Brennivín - caraway schnapps, locally known as Svartidauđi - "Black Death". These days many people will rather drink vodka and/or whisky - which they claim taste better. 
Mysa - whey. Yes, it can also be drunk. Before the arrival of carbonated beverages, this was the refreshment of choice. Unfortunately, it is not much used as a drink anymore. 
The taste? It is reminiscent of dry white wine, and mysa can actually be used instead of white wine in cooking, without anyone noticing the difference. 
Bjór - beer, and it's relatives, Malt (brown ale) and Lageröl (pale ale). During the beer-less years (several decades), the only ale allowed in Iceland was the low-alcohol Malt and Lageröl. Since we have been allowed to drink beer again, it has become "the drink" for many at Ţorrablót feasts. These days you can even buy special Ţorri beer. 
Soft drinks - for those who don't like ale or strong spirits. 

Stuff that is sometimes served, but shouldn't be:

Many people, especially young people, don't like the Ţorri food, but like to participate in the Ţorrablót. In order to accommodate these (in my opinion) unfortunate people, non-Ţorri food is sometimes served (especially at restaurants). Therefore we now have: 
Ţorri chicken - grilled Ţorri steak - Ţorri pizza, and other such stuff. This is not really Ţorri food, of course, and in my opinion, people who come to Ţorrablót to eat this stuff would be better off going out to dinner and seeing a show - they are missing out on the special feel of the Ţorrablót.
Ţorri update 2001:
There is a recently established League Against Spoiled Food (Samtök gegn skemmdum mat) which dedicates itself to fighting against the eating of whey-pickled food, skate and skark. In my opionon, they should count themselves lucky to have been born in the 20th century, when they at least have a choice as to what they eat, a luxury our ancestors didn't have. The old-fashioned" food of today is much healthier than the same kind of food used to be. Here I am not just referring to the traditional Ţorri food, but also for example to sour and mouldy butter, rotting meat and bread with lots of extra proteins due to maggots and insects in the flour. People had no choice but to eat this kind of food, or else starve.