From Iceland — What Icelanders Eat For The Holidays

What Icelanders Eat For The Holidays

Published December 12, 2014

What Icelanders Eat For The Holidays
Ragnar Egilsson
Photo by
Art Bicknick

Look, intrepid traveller! Here is a primer on the usual suspects and new additions to the ever-popular Icelandic Christmas buffets, found at various restaurants around the country. If you’re around in time for one of those, why not give it a whirl? You’ll certainly be immersing yourself in Icelandic culture, if nothing else.

The Kings of Meat Town

Hangikjöt should be the first word in any discussion of Icelandic holiday culinary traditions. A common misconception is that Hangikjöt can only be made from lamb, but the name only refers to the processing method of the meat as it literally translates as “hung meat” (colloquially known as Jon Hamm). The Vikings would be just as likely to use horsemeat as they would mutton. Traditionally, the meat is cured with nitrates and saltpetre, and slow-smoked with dried horse manure until it has lost over 30% of its weight. Modern Hangikjöt is usually smoked for a shorter amount of time, with or without manure, and will then need to be boiled before eating. Other recent innovations include double-smoked Hangikjöt and dried Hangikjöt (much like Spanish Jamón). With changing trends, the salt content has been reduced overall. Hangikjöt is also enjoyed all year around in the form of sandwich cold cuts.

A traditional un-processed leg of lamb is another holiday staple. Less rare of a treat in Iceland than it used to be, but likely to make an appearance at some point during the three main days of the Christmas celebrations.

Pork is the redheaded stepchild of Icelandic proteins, cheap by modern standards and rarely seen in the classic national dishes aside from our Danish-style hot dogs. It does, however, enjoy a brief moment in the spotlight during the holidays with the “Hamborgarhryggur.” The Hamborgarhryggur is often misspelled as “Hamborgarahryggur,” but has no relation to hamburgers. It consists of a large pork loin, which is salted and cured before being boiled, glazed and oven-roasted. It is very similar to what the Germans call “kassler.” The glaze differs from family to family, but usually includes mustard, muscovado sugar, and ketchup.

The alternative pork dish is “Pörusteik,” roasted pork, usually shoulder, with a thick layer of crisp crackling, usually served with brown sauce made from stock, roux, food colouring and some form of booze.

At last but not least is a dish almost exclusively associated with Christmas, the rock ptarmigan. For those about to rock ptarmigan, you may be in for a disappointment, as the hunting quota for this croaking, birch-fed game bird is at an all-time low. This has given rise to a vibrant black market in ptarmigan breasts, despite all ptarmigan trade having been made illegal. The bird has an intense game flavour not unlike that of the spruce grouse (who names these birds!?). If that sounds like something you would like, just keep an eye out for shifty men in suspiciously long trenchcoats leaving a trail of white feathers behind.

Pretenders to the Meat Throne

Poultry in general is a new thing in Iceland. Icelanders have never eaten as much chicken as they do now. A couple of generations ago, an average Icelandic family’s annual poultry consumption was likely to have been lower than the current monthly quota. With that change came the turkey, a bird that has been gaining territory rapidly at the expense of established meats like Hangikjöt and the Danish Hamborgarhryggur. The turkey is often served in the American Thanksgiving style, with a mound of stuffing, sweet potatoes, and a Waldorf salad. It corresponds quite comfortably with Iceland’s cultural allegiance shifting from Denmark to the United States over the last 100 years.

Wild game has been on the increase as well. Reindeers were imported into Iceland in the late 18th century and have become established in the east of the country. Mostly seen in holiday pâtés, they will grace the occasional main course listing come the 24th.

The roasted goose has also been a regular feature in game hunting households, usually stuffed with a triple sec cream sauce and the occasional piece of shotgun pellet.

The latest additions would have to be the vegetarian nut loaf and tofurkey, which have arrived with the growing community of vegetarians and vegans in Iceland. The restaurant Fjalakötturinn will be open over the Christmas holidays and they have offered an impressive vegetarian holiday menu in the past for those who haven’t felt up to the task.

Sweets & sides

Appetizers include the classic shrimp cocktail, langoustine tails in garlic butter, creamy langoustine soup and pâtés.

Among the sides you will get various combinations of the following: “Laufabrauð” (deep-fried, thin pancakes cut with geometric patterns), pickled red cabbage (canned or homemade with a stick of cinnamon), Ora peas, Ora mixed diced “vegetables,” creamy Waldorf salad, steamed Brussels sprouts, canned sweet corn, steamed broccoli, caramelized potatoes, boiled potatoes in béchamel, diced red beets and apples in whipped cream, and green salads.

The sweet dimension of the holidays starts with the usual variety of cookies, with the Sarah Bernhardt cookies being a particular favourite. Among the cakes, the “Lagkaka” and “Randalína” reign supreme. The Lagkaka (layer cake) consists of slabs of something like soft gingerbread layered with vanilla frosting, while its close cousin the randalína is slabs of yellow cake layered with rhubarb jam.

Desserts vary, but it is difficult to make it through the season without being confronted by the classic Scandinavian “Risalamande”—a rice pudding folded into whipped cream, almonds, vanilla and berry syrup.

Now you know. You cannot claim you didn’t know what you were getting into.


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