Þorrablót and þorramatur – the Icelandic food feast!

The mid-winter feast Þorrablót is held in the month of þorri, but the first day is called bóndadagur or husband day. The day is dedicated to the husband. The first day of þorri begins on a Friday between the 19th and 25th of January.

Bóndadagur

Traditionally, women went to the door the night before and welcomed þorri like a guest. However, in Jón Árnason’s folktale collections, the husband was supposed to wake up before everyone and welcome þorri. They were supposed to get up without a shirt, no shoes and only one leg of the trousers. Then they were supposed to go to the door, hop one-legged around the farm and drag the trousers leg behind them. Then they were supposed to invite other farmers from the district to a feast. This is, however, the only source for this weird custom, so it is not known if the storyteller was just fibbing or not!

Þorrablót

Þorrablót are mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas. However, as with so many things that happened a millennia ago, it is unknown how they were celebrated. But it is clear from the saga’s that they included a lot of food and wine.
During the Romanticism movement and the Icelandic independence movement in the late-19th century, Icelandic students in Copenhagen met to eat traditional food, recite Icelandic poems and have a thoroughly Icelandic celebration. The Reykjavík Archaeology Association then held a þorrablót in 1880.

Þorrablót, as we know them today, didn’t become a thing until the 1950s when a Reykjavík restaurant began holding them.

What delicacies are served at þorrablót?

 

Svið – Singed lamb’s head

Svið (literally “singed) consists of a sheep’s head, cut in half, singed to remove the fur and then boiled with the brain removed. Sometimes it is cured in lactic acid.

Svið hails from a time when people used everything from a sheep. Initially, it was just a part of Icelander’s diet, but these days, it is mostly just eaten during Þorri and especially at Þorrablót.

Some people also eat sviðasulta, where bits of svið is put in gelatinous loaves and pickled in whey.
Many consider the eye to be the best part of the head.

svið, Icelandic food, þorramatur, þorrablót
Photo: Bændablaðið

To cook svið, it is put in a pot with salt and partly covered with water. When the water starts boiling, the scum is skimmed off. The head can then be boiled fully covered in water for 60-90 minutes or until the flesh is fully cooked through (but before it starts separating from the bone). Svið can be served both hot and cold.

Folklore regarding svið

For some, eating the ears is a bit of a taboo. There was a superstition that the eater would be accused of theft if the ears were removed with the owner’s mark on them.
Another belief was that if the small bone underneath the tongue was not broken, a child that cannot yet speak would be mute forever.

 

Súrir Hrútspungar– Sour ram testicles

Sour ram testicles. It is precisely what the name would suggest. The ram’s testicles are removed, washed, boiled, pressed into moulds and cured with lactic acid. Then you slice them like a loaf of bread.

They are a bit like marmite; either you like them or don’t. Many do not dare to taste them.

Hangikjöt – Hung meat

This is a delicacy few deny themselves. Hangikjöt means hung meat, and the meat is either smoked lamb, mutton or sometimes horse meat. It is usually boiled and served either hot or cold in slices. Traditionally it is eaten with potatoes in béchamel sauce and green peas. Laufabrauð is often eaten with it as well.

During þorrablót, hangikjöt is most often served on flatkaka (flatbread).

 

hangikjöt, icelandic food, þorramatur
Hangikjöt on flatkaka (flatbread)

Flatkökur – flatbread

Flatkaka (pl. flatkökur) is an unleavened rye flatbread. It is round, flat, thin and dark from being fried on a pan. Originally the bread was cooked directly on the embers of the fire. Later small but heavy cast iron frying pans were used.

Keen home bakers today sometimes bake it right on a hot plate. The difference between homemade flatkaka and store-bought is that the latter variety includes wheat flour.

It is believed that the flatbread tradition dates back to the settlement in the 9th century. Toppings are usually butter, mutton paté, hangikjöt, smoked salmon or pickled herring.

 

Blóðmör- Blood suet

This is a type of blood pudding made from lamb’s blood and suet kneaded with rye flour and oats. Not dissimilar to the Scottish haggis. The blóðmör with lifrarpylsa is colloquially called “slátur” or “slaughter.

Traditionally, blóðmör was made by cutting the lamb’s stomach and making a bag filled with suet, rye, oats, and blood. These days people often use bags from synthetic materials.

Blóðmör is known from the settlement, and a version of it is known in many countries, but pig’s blood is usually used instead of lambs. Occasionally, spices and raisins are added to the blóðmör, called raisin blood suet. If it is served hot, mashed turnips are usually served with it.

blóðmör, lifrarpysla, icelandic food, þorramatur
Blóðmör and lifrarpylsa – Slátur. Navaro, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lifrarpylsa – Liver Sausage

Lifrarypylsa or liver sausage is made the same way as blóðmör except for the blood, minced liver, and sometimes kidneys are used instead.

Despite blóðmör and lifrarpylsa often eaten together and both are called “slátur”, lifrarpylsa seems to be much younger or from the 19th century.

Slátur is available all year round these days.

 

Bringukollar -Brisket

This is the fat meat of the chest of the sheep. It is boiled like other food which is lain in whey.

 

Harðfiskur – Fish jerkey

Harðfiskur is dried and beaten fish usually worked from haddock, catfish or cod. Sometimes coalfish, blue whiting and halibut are used as

well. Harðfiskur was for a long time the food Icelanders ate the most of, usually with butter or dulse. It is an excellent source of protein as it is about 80-85% protein.

harðfiskur, fish jerky, þorramatur, icelandic food
Harðfiskur – Richard Eriksson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Only fresh fish is used for harðfiskur, but there are three main ways to cure it: warm and cold air or outside. The fish is always filleted by hand, then cleaned, and all visible bones and blood removed. Then they’re bathed in brine (2-5% depending on which way it is cured) and hung up. When cured outside, it takes about 4-6 weeks. When curing with warm air, the fillets are first frozen, cut down and then put in a drying room where the warm air evaporates the water in the fish. This takes 36-48 hours. When cured in cold air, the fish is put in a room with -5°- 0°c warm air.

Only about 10% of the original fish is sellable, which explains the high price.

 

Lundabaggar – cured roll of lamb flank

Lundabaggar is an old Icelandic dish that is popular in þorrablót. To make lundabaggar, you need to take the intestines, cut them lengthwise and clean them as well as you can. Next, you take the fillets and the meat from the neck of the lamb. This should also be washed. Then you put the meat into the intestines with a bit of salt. This is wrapped in the rest of the intestines.

Next, you take the diaphragm, wrap it tightly around the sausage-like lundabaggar and sew together. It’s best if they’re boiled right away, but if they have to stand overnight, you should sprinkle a bit of salt on top. It can be eaten fresh or cured in whey or smoked. If you don’t have a diaphragm, it is possible to use the stomach or rumen.

A diaphragm was most often seen around the coil, but it could also be a stomach or a rumen. It was boiled and boiled while it was cooling. Lundabaggar were sometimes eaten fresh but usually sour. In some parts of Iceland, it was common to salt and smoke them. It was also known to half-boil lundabaggar before they were hung up in smoke, in the same way as magála (smoked belly flesh of sheep).
This was the best and most expensive of the foods people made.

 

Kæstur hákarl – Fermented shark

The shark in question is a Greenland shark or other sleeper shark that has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months. It has a strong ammonia smell and fishy taste.

There’s a good reason for that ammonia smell – sharks don’t pee. So when hunted, it is actually poisonous to eat. So to be able to eat it, the shark has to be buried for 6-12 weeks, depending on the season, to ferment it. Then it is cut into strips and hung for four to five months because it needs to be more rotten to eat.

This is a definitive acquired taste. It is traditionally eaten with a shot of Brennivín. It should be noted the smell is much worse than the taste, and many do consider the shark to be a delicacy.

kæastur hákarl, fermented shark, Icelandic food, þorramatur, þorrablót
Kæstur hákarl (fermented shark) – Audrey from Seattle, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Laufabrauð – Leaf-bread

Laufabrauð is also sometimes called snowflake bread in English. This bread is most often eaten around Christmas but also at þorri. It

originated in north Iceland. The first written source of laufabrauð is the oldest known Icelandic recipe book from the late 18th century. It was likely it was written for wealthy people since the recipe calls for wheat flour, cream, and butter – three things most Icelanders had no access to. Rye flour or barley was likely used instead of wheat flour and fat instead of butter.

You can read more about Laufabrauð here!

 

Magáll – smoked belly flesh of sheep

The fattest bits were used for this. The belly is boiled but only for about 15 minutes or less. Some people put salt in the water, but it is possible to use the fat that floats to the top of the water for baking if you don’t. The belly was usually smoked, but it was sometimes hung to dry in the West Fjords. It is the only known source of Icelanders making jerky.

Pottbrauð – Rye bread baked in a pot on a fireplace

Pottbrauð, as the description says, was baked in a pot. Before cookers, it took great skill to keep the fire or embers evenly warm so the bread would be evenly baked. No sourdough was used for the bread, but they were often wetted with whey or lactic acid instead of water.

An iron plate was put on top of embers, then the dough was on top. A pot was then placed on top of the dough, and then more embers around the pot to keep it evenly warm.

Rye bread, pottbrauð, rúgbrauð, Icelandic food, þorramatur, þorrablót
Rúgbrauð – Pottbrauð – Rye Bread

The bread was often decorated on one side, which women did with a spoon handle. Sometimes the bread was put in bread moulds that had mirrored writing, so it was possible to read sayings or even parts of stanzas.

Rengi – Blubber

Whale blubber is a traditional dish at þorrablót, but it has been difficult to get since Icelanders stopped whaling.

Rófustappa – mashed turnip

This is simple. Boiled turnips that are then mashed. 

Selshreifar – seal flippers (often cured with lactic acid)

As the name suggests, it’s seal flippers (often cured). Another type of þorramatur that is difficult to get since seals isn’t hunted professionally. The only seals that are sold have accidentally got caught in nets.

Súr sundmagi – sour air bladder

Air bladder from fish is cured in lactic acid. 

Sviðalappir – singed lamb’s feet

Same as svið, just the feet instead of the head.

Svínasulta – jellied pork

Pig shanks are used in this jelly dish. The meat is kept in water overnight, then you change the water for cold and boil, removing the fat regularly. This is boiled with onion and spices until the meat drops off the bones. The meat is then cut into pieces. Put it in a bowl, pour the water over it and cool until it jellies. This can also be cured with lactic acid.

Sviðasulta – jellied sheep’s head

Sviðasulta is made in a similar way as svínasulta. It can also be cured with lactic acid.

Drinks:

Þorrabjór – Þorri beer

This year there are 22 types of þorri bjór for sale at the Vínbúð. It is a relatively new tradition for breweries to brew beer for þorri, but we are all for it!

Brennivín

Brennivín is a strong liqueur distilled from potatoes and flavoured with caraway. It is best-served ice cold, and like so many other Icelandic things you eat or drink, it is an acquired taste.

Brennivín, þorramatur, Icelandic drink, þorrablót
Brennivín and hákarl – Bapak Alex, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Other dishes:

Heilapylsa – brain sausage
Súrsaður kálfshaus – sour calf head
Siginn silungur – half dried trout
Kæst egg – Fermented eggs

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