From Iceland — Þorramatur


Published February 10, 2006


The pagan holiday of Þorri, which begins on a Friday between the 19th and the 25th of January and ends on a Saturday between the 18th and 24th of February, still survives today in the form of þorramatur – a banquet of foods that many find questionable at best, inedible at worst. Just mention some of the items on the menu – ram’s testicles, putrefied shark, and lamb face – and most people will think you’re joking, and that this must indeed be the foulest stuff on earth.
Not so. Once you get past what the food is actually made of, þorramatur can be extremely enjoyable, especially for those who enjoy meat – the only veggies on the menu are boiled rutabagas and, occasionally, mashed potatoes. To this end, we give you the following introduction to þorramatur.
Svið. The centrepiece of any Þorrablót (a Þorri celebration offering the food) is svið; seared lamb heads. While every part of the head is edible, including the eyes and ears, the tastiest part by far is the jaw muscle. Not that the eyeballs are without their charm – done right, their taste resembles a slightly chewier version of boiled eggs. Svið is often available all year.
Sviðasulta. The meat from svið, compressed in gelatine. For those too squeamish to eat food that stares at them.
Hrútspungar. Ram’s testicles, usually soaked in mýsa (whey – which has a sharp, citrusy flavour). As the mýsa is usually the only thing you can taste, you’re left instead with the soft, crumbly texture of the nads themselves. Not entirely unpleasant, but nothing to push people out of the way to get, either.
Svínasulta. Pork compressed in gelatine. This is also usually soaked in mýsa. If it isn’t, the taste is pretty sweet.
Slátur. There are two types of slátur: lifrarpylsur (liver sausage) and blóðmör (blood sausage). The former is ground liver mixed with rye meal boiled in a sheep intestine casing; the latter is the same, only substituting the liver with blood. Lifrarpylsur naturally tastes like liver, which you either love or hate, whereas blóðmör has a wheaty, slightly beefy taste to it. Some people sprinkle sugar on these items. These people are regarded with scorn and disdain.
Lundabaggar. Various and sundry internal organs from sheep, rolled up into a net, boiled, and soaked in mýsa. This is a pretty fatty dish, one that should be savoured. Fans of the Scottish dish haggis will find this especially appealing.
Bringukollar. OK admittedly, this stuff is pretty foul. It consists of bones with fatty tissue still clinging to them, soaked in mýsa. I can think of no workable reason to even try this.
Magáll. This is my personal favourite – fatty, smoked sheep stomachs pressed to the hardness of wood. Akin to hangikjöt, with a more powerful flavour.
Some foods served at a Þorrablót can be found all year. Apart from svið, there is also hangikjöt (smoked lamb), harðfiskur (dried haddock), flatbrauð (flat bread), rugbrauð (rye bread) and hákarl (putrefied shark). All hákarl has an ammoniac flavour to it, thanks to the ureic acid in shark flesh, but the white flesh – as opposed to the brown, marbled portions – are a lot easier to take, as while the flavour is stronger, the texture is softer than the marbled pieces.
Approached with an open mind and an empty stomach, there is no reason why pigging out at a Þorrablót can’t be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. This is especially true if you engage in other Þorri traditions along with the food, such as dancing poorly and drinking brennivín. As an added bonus, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’re taking part in one of the few surviving purely Icelandic traditions left. If you want a taste of true Icelandic culture, this is a great place to start.

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