“I teach cooking when the regular teacher is sick, it’s my favourite subject to teach,” Margrét Sigfúsdóttir says. “I just love it, to teach, to cook, and to eat of course.” She chuckles.
The principal of the home economics school Hússtjórnarskólinn í Reykjavík for the last 14 years, Margrét sits headmistressly at her desk, a purple shirt poking out below her Icelandic sweater, her sheer white hair pulled back tidily. Don’t let the purple shirt and the chuckling fool you though, Margrét is no slouch in the kitchen and takes no shortcuts in the preparation process.
I’m sitting in an armchair in her spacious but homely office at the school, which has been educating young Icelanders in cooking, knitting and housekeeping for more than 65 years.
Today, her office has more the atmosphere of a classroom. She watches me like a hawk over her red spectacles, which balance at the end of her nose. She’s taking me through the process of preparing a traditional hamborgarhryggur for Christmas.
She reels off the ingredients, preparation hints and tips unflinchingly, which have all been committed to memory over the course of her illustrious career at the school.
First of all, what is it?
A hamborgarhryggur, or smoked rack of pork, is something of a Christmas tradition in Iceland. It has only gained its status in recent years however, gaining popularity around the 1940s and ‘50s. In the early days, Margrét tells me it was not so commonly eaten, as decent cuts of pork didn’t come cheap.
Much ‘Icelandic’ cuisine is heavily rooted in Denmark, but Margrét says hamborgarhryggur has been adopted as “Icelandic.” The smoked style comes from the fact that many Icelanders didn’t own fridges at the time it arrived here, so instead they’d let it hang over an open fire.
Without further adieu, I have my pen and paper ready, my chef’s hat on and my appetite about to be whet!
Ok, how do I make it?
Whoa, easy there my fair carnivorous student. First you need to buy the pork. And in order to do that, you need to know what kind of pork to buy.
“You can buy the pork anywhere,” Margrét says, “there just has to be a little fat on it. Otherwise the meat will get too dry.”
And how much time do I need to give myself?
Well if you start now, it’ll be ready in about one and a half or two hours. “But you have to know what you’re doing,” Margrét warns, eyebrows raised. I tell her I don’t. She shoots me a ‘yep, just as I thought’ look.
If you’re like me, it is recommended to get cracking around lunchtime. Margrét mentions you can always peel and boil the potatoes and even brown them in advance, rather than sweating like a pig in the heat of the moment. “It’s all about organisation in the kitchen,” she says primly.
Makin’ bacon (but not really)
So you’ve got your pork. What now? “You first have to boil it in water,” Margrét instructs. “Sometimes we put pineapple juice in it, sometimes red wine, sometimes a little bit of ketchup, it depends on what you want.”
“Umm, Ketchup?” I inquire, making sure I heard correctly. “Yeah, or mustard, that’s very good. Just something thick,” she replies, investing me with hope, now that we’re working with ingredients much more within my comfort zone.
“Let it boil softly for 45 minutes,” she continues, “then let it cool off for a bit.” I scrawl madly. “Then place it in a frying pan, stir in some brown sugar, and then a tiny splash of pineapple juice.”
I understand the pineapple juice mixes well with the brown sugar, lending a sweet and sour flavour. “Then you put it on top of the meat, on the fat side,” she says. I clarify that by that she means elegantly pasting it on with a brush. Wrong. You just smear it all over the thing with your hands. Then let it lay flat, preferably on some aluminum foil. Then into the oven it goes to get brown.
From here, keep an eye on it. When it looks nice and tasty and brown, usually after just 10 or 15 minutes, it’s most likely ready to be put on the table.
Gettin’ saucy (but not flippant)
“You can make the sauce like a gravy from the leftover liquid you boiled it in combined with the sauce from the pan,” Margrét assures. “That’s it?” I ask. “You may need to taste it and add this or that to it,” she adds.
Then come the potatoes: peel and boil them, then add some sugar to a pan. Be careful not to burn the sugar (I never knew you could), but rather melt the sugar and let it turn a glowing gold in colour. Margrét advises some Christmas cooks like to add a tiny bit of water, some people add a tiny bit of cream. “Depends on what you want,” she says once again.
Tip the potatoes into the gold sugar and creamy water concoction, and leave them to brown in it.
Margrét finishes these directions, then closes her eyes and adds enthusiastically of the browned potatoes, “I love it like that. It’s very good.” She tells me that most Icelandic people share her love for them. “My son in law, who’s from India, thought it was very strange at first, but now whenever he visits, he checks to make sure the potatoes are browned,” she cackles in delight.
I ask whether other ways of doing potatoes are acceptable. “You would never have baked potatoes with this,” she warns. “It would never fit. Not mashed either. In the U.S. they do, but not here,” she concludes proudly.
“Yes, it has to look nice, my god,” says Margrét, almost insulted by my question about presentation. “It’s no fun having a meal that looks awful. When people are like, ‘this doesn’t look nice’, who would eat that for dinner?” she asks herself before turning to play a new character. “Not me!”
Any tips for serving the pork?
It’s helpful to cut a bit of bone from the meat, and then leave it in the pan to add flavour. This way, when it comes time to serving the meat, it’s also easier to cut.
If you carve the pork in the kitchen, Margrét emphasises the importance of wearing new clean gloves. “It’s nice to open a new packet of gloves. You can’t handle it otherwise. Just try using a fork and knife to cut it,” she teases. “You need to have a good grip on it.”
She tells me to always make it look nice, but to remember, if you decorate the food, it has to be with something you can eat. “Do not put something inedible on it,” she quips, flexing her headmistress muscle. “Like basil trees. Sure, use it as a Christmas decoration, but not on a meal.”
Verði þér að góðu (Bon appétit)!
On The Sidelines
Now that the main attraction is in the cooker, it’s time to think about the sides. There are a number of good Icelandic sides that fit well with hamborgarhryggur. Which ones you use depends on your taste. Here are a few options:
Red Cabbage: An Icelandic staple. Cut a red cabbage in small pieces, but don’t shred it. Next, melt some butter in a pot, throw the cabbage in and stir regularly. Margrét says the water should leave the cabbage quickly. She suggests cutting one red apple up and adding it to the pot. Similarly add one deciliter of vinegar and two to three tablespoons of redcurrant jam. Lower the heat, put the lid on, stirring regularly. “It’s so good,” she leans forward and whispers to me.
Browned potatoes: Yumm!
Waldorf salad: A common sidekick to meat dishes in Iceland. It traditionally consists of celery, apples, grapes, and often sour cream or whipped cream. Margrét warns against using mayonnaise, which contains more fat and many more calories. Plus, sour cream is fresher.
Green peas: These come in a can.