25/01/2008

Þorrablót or Thorrablot (Icelandic midwinter feast)





Þorri begins today, so I moved this post from last year to the top. Here you will find some information about the traditional Icelandic foods eaten at the Þorri feasts. The links will take you to recipes or instructions for making some of these foods.

Þorri is one of the old Icelandic lunar 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 Þorri 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. The flowers are a fairly new custom, introduced by flower shops in order to sell more roses. (They are trying import Valentine's Day for the same reason).

The tradition of a Þorri feast is an ancient one. It has its roots in the old midwinter feasts of the pagan era, the Þorrablót, 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 Þorri 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 Þór (Thor), and that this was his feast during the pre-Christian era in Iceland.

Whatever the origin of the feast of Þorri, 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 Þorri that people will eat many of the old-fashioned foods. 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 fermenting.

A typical Þorrablót takes place at any time during Þorri. The season for it now extends into the following month, Góa, but the feast is then usually dubbed Góugleði. 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 Þorrablót. 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 Þorrablót,
comments courtesy of your host.

Traditional Appetizers:

Hákarl:
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 its 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 Þorri food.

Harðfiskur:
Dried fish, usually haddock, cod or catfish, beaten to soften it. Delicious with or without butter. In olden times harðfiskur 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 harðfiskur tucked away in his luggage).

Modern Entrées:
At many Þorri 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
Click this thumbnail to see full size image.
gravlax.



Main courses:
This is where the menu begins to get really interesting. Almost everything you find on a typical Þorri 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 its 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 whaling ban being lifted. Fresh whale blubber is stringy and tough, but pickling it makes it soft and more 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 fatty.
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 Þorri staple for many, and is by some preferred over the real thing. I think that now whale blubber is available, this will probably disappear soon, unless whaling stops again.
Click on the thumbnail to see full size image:



Sour and non-sour:
Slátur. Of this there are two types: Lifrarpylsa or liver sausage and Blóðmör or blood sausage. Both are 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 or milk, as the rye meal causes a souring action similar to whey.
Sviðasulta - sheep's head jam (headcheese; brawn). This is quite good when pickled, and delicious fresh. It is made by cutting up the meat from cooked sheep's heads (svið), pressing into moulds and cooling. The cooking liquid turns into jelly when cold, and keeps the whole thing together.
Svínasulta, or spiced pigs' head jam/headcheese. A recent addition to the Þorri 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 Þorri season as well, and is really delicious.
Magálar - heavily smoked sheep's bellies. Eaten like hangikjöt.
Svið - 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 Þorri season.

Side dishes:
Kartöflustappa - mashed potatoes. This hopefully needs no explanation.
Rófustappa - mashed rutabagas. These are boiled until soft, mashed and sweetened with sugar.
Flatbrauð - flat bread, served with butter.
rúgbrauð - 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 Svartidauði - "Black Death". These days many people will rather drink vodka and/or whisky - which they claim tastes 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 its relatives, Malt (non-alcoholic 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 Þorrablót feasts. These days you can even buy special Þorri beer.
Soft drinks - for those who don't like ale or strong spirits.

Stuff that is sometimes served, but strictly speaking is not traditional:
Many people, especially young people, don't like the Þorri food, but like to participate in the Þorrablót. In order to accommodate these people, non-Þorri food is sometimes served (especially at restaurants). Therefore we now have:
Þorri chicken - grilled Þorri steak - Þorri pizza, and other such stuff.

Afterword:
Every year, I hear people, especially young people and those who like to consider themselves cosmopolitans, grumbling about the Þorri feasts. They go on about the food being horrible and the tradition outdated and cheesy, and ask why we should eat all this horrible, fattening preserved food (which must be horrible to everyone because they don’t like it) when we can get it fresh. In my opinion, they should count themselves lucky to have been born in the modern era, 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 Þorri 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. Many people had no choice but to eat this kind of food, or else starve.

5 comments:

Freyja said...

Not to mention bread with sand in it, because of wicked merchants.

Stuttfótur said...

..and then you have madwomen like me who travel with harðfiskur AND shark in their luggage. Luckily I have yet to be arrested for attempted chemical warfare! :)

Bibliophile said...

Hehe, Stuttfótur, if you ever get stopped in customs I would like to listen in when you explain to them what you are carrying...

aferaefrqe said...

Where's the rancid shark meat?

Bibliophile said...

aferaefrqe, it's there. Take a better look.