You may not have it marked in your calendar but tomorrow is the start of Þorri, the midwinter month from the old Icelandic calendar. A period when many Icelanders host Þorrablót, where they feast on traditional foods.
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Þorri (pronounced Thorri, with a rolling hard-R) is the personification of frost in old Norse mythology. It’s also the name of the fourth winter month, according to the calendar used in Iceland before we started using the Gregorian system. Þorri begins on a Friday in late-January and lasts till mid-February when the month of Góa begins.
Historically Icelanders celebrated blót (English: Sacrifice), where the participants offered sacrifices, recited poems and made speeches in honour of the Norse gods, for example Þór (Thor).
In modern day Iceland, it’s uncommon for natives to hold god-honouring speech nights, but what is still practised are the quirky, strange and often out-of-this-world culinary art forms.
This tradition primarily lives on in the form of Þorrablót. These are dinner parties held in the month of Þorri. They are get-togethers where friends, families or co-workers come together to lighten the load of the coldest time of year. The celebrations revolve around eating the traditional food that this country has become somewhat infamous for.
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Iceland has, in the past, had a very close relationship with bad weather and famine. To preserve enough food for the winter Icelanders of yore had to dry, ferment and pickle their food. There are even recipes in the Icelandic Sagas for soup made out of moss. This suggests that these food items came into existence simply out of necessity and resourcefulness.
To get you in the mood for Þorri we’ve prepared a list of traditional foods served during a Þorrablót. For many Icelanders, these dishes jump-start a trip down memory lane. For the rest of us, these culinary options might seem incredibly alien and even downright disgusting. Prime your stomach with some dutch courage, clamp your nose and possibly put on a blindfold before trying these old-fashioned delicacies.
Svið – Sheep’s Head
Singed and boiled sheep’s head, sometimes cured in lactic acid, is a favourite on the Þorrablót table.
Nothing says ‘top of the food chain’ more than eating something that can make eye contact with you. While this dish is not one for the squeamish amongst you, Svið is undoubtedly one of the most popular choices during Þorrablót.
The tradition of eating the head of the sheep may have been born out of necessity – Icelanders had to use every bit of the animal to survive – but there’s no denying that it’s delicious. Picking the soft meat right off the skull is a treat. The best bit is of course: eating the eye!
Sviðasulta – Sheep Brawn
On the subject of using every last scrap of the meat, Sviðasulta is a dish made of scraps of meat from the aforementioned Svið. The scraps and the gelatin-rich juices of the sheep skull are pressed into a jelly. It’s also sometimes cured in lactic acid.
A dish best (only) served cold. A slice of sviðasulta is a great day-after-Þorrablót snack. One could possibly look at this as the leftover turkey sandwich that Americans enjoy for weeks after Thanksgiving.
Lifrarpylsa & Blóðmör – Liver & Blood Sausages
Another popular option is collectively known as slátur. Slátur literally translates to ‘slaughter’ but here means the sausages made from the innards of sheep. There are two types; Lifrarpylsa and Blóðmör.
Liver sausage is basically a pudding made from the liver and raw, hard fat of a sheep, kneaded together with rye flour and oats. Very high in iron, liver sausage is a massive plus for health fanatics visiting the country.
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Blóðmör is Iceland’s take on blood-pudding. This type of pudding is made from lamb’s blood and fat mixed with rye flour and oats. This is similar to blood puddings found in other cultures, like the Scottish haggis. The Icelandic type, however, has none of the spices found in haggis. We recommend trying Blóðmör warm with a bit of sugar, trust us.
Harðfiskur – Dried Fish
Un-salted fish, usually cod, haddock or catfish, hung to dry in the cold wind is one of the most loved things served at Þorrablót. It’s also one of the few Þorri-foods eaten year round. It’s a hit with Icelandic children, perhaps because it’s best enjoyed with a big clump of butter.
Harðfiskur is also good for animal dental health because it’s tough, chewy and dogs and cats love it.
Hangikjöt – Smoked Meat
Hangikjöt is traditional Icelandic smoked meat. Its name translates directly to ‘hanging meat’ because it hangs when it’s being smoked. Sometimes the meat even goes through the smoking process twice. Normally, the meat is boiled, but it’s sometimes eaten raw.
Hangikjöt is not only a favourite during the month of Þorri but it is also one of the most popular Christmas dishes as well. As a festive food, the smoked lamb meat is served with Béchamel sauce and usually with potatoes, green peas and red cabbage. However, it is also great as sliced lunch meat on top of flatkaka, an Icelandic bread.
Lundabaggi – Wrapped Loins
Sheep’s meat, usually loins, that has been wrapped in sheep intestines and often cured in lactic acid, sometimes salted and smoked.
A dish that has the colon of a sheep in the recipe might not sound appetizing, but we swear it doesn’t taste of colon. It tastes like the dairy by-product that been cured in Mysa (or whey). In Iceland, you can even get Mysa to drink, if you happen to like drinking a liquid so sour that the smell makes some people feel sick.
Kæstur Hákarl – Fermented Shark
Greenland Shark which has gone through a process where it’s left to ferment for months is a traditional dish, which Icelanders love feeding tourists. The cured shark meat has an incredibly strong ammonia smell and immediately fishy taste, making trying it something of a crucible for visitors to Iceland.
It is normally paired with a kind of Icelandic schnapps called Brennivín. A shot of the liquor – sometimes called ‘Black Death’ – is necessary for some to be able to swallow a pungent bite of the shark.
Súrsaðir hrútspungar – Pickled Ram Testicles
Yes, you read that right: Testicles. Ram testicles are pressed in blocks and cured in lactic acid. Then people cut slices off the blocks of sour sheep’s balls and eat them.
For those of us who aren’t biologists, lactic acid occurs naturally in the body. If you’ve felt a burn in your muscles after spending time with a personal trainer, that’s lactic acid building up in your body.
Lactic acid is very prevalent in many of the foods on this list. Perhaps the next time you’ve overdone the chest press at the gym, think on Súrsaðir hrútspungar and about how you’ve almost turned yourself into an Icelandic delicacy.
Rófustappa – Mashed Rutabaga
The essential side-dish of Þorrablót is rutabaga mash, a dish which could be mistaken for sweet-potato at first glance. This curious vegetable is a sweet-tasting cross between turnips and cabbage. Due to its high vitamin-c content, it has been nicknamed ‘the orange of the north’. In the United Kingdom, this delicious concoction is known as swede.
Perhaps the only item on this list we can confidently describe as nice-tasting. This one almost seems like it doesn’t belong on the list but you should always include some veggies in your meal, right? And the vitamin-c means you won’t get scurvy, a great benefit.
If you would like to learn more, read Food in Iceland | An Introduction to Icelandic Cuisine or alternatively, take The Reykjavik Food Walk to experience the finest restaurants and authentically Icelandic meals in the city.