It’s a brisk September day and despite the winds Icelandic housewives, mothers, aunties, grandmothers have come out in droves and are queuing in the food section of Hagkaup. I’ve never seen so many women in a single Icelandic supermarket at the same time. The queue seems that much longer as they’re all lining up with empty shopping carts, bumper to bum. I ask Great Aunt Freyja what we’re lining up for and what’s the rush.
“Offal”, she says, “on a limited once-in-a -year-offer”.
“Beg your pardon?”.
“Sheep offal: guts, intestines, stomach lining, tripe, kidney, liver, heart, some cubes of fat and a bag of frozen blood, to be more precise”.
A few ladies have made it to the front of the queue, rolling their carts—now full with white shoeboxes piled one on top of the other. One of them squeaks by with a bag of frozen sheep heads. The sheep eyes glare as she passes.
“You’re not really expecting me to eat that, are you?”.
“Just you wait”, says Aunt Freyja. “With a little elfin magic, offal tastes like ambrosia. And even you’ll like the jellied sheep head”.
You see, she plans to turn much of this slátur (this offal box) into Icelandic liver sausage (lifrapylsa) and blood pudding (blóðmör); and then, as she tells me later, since due to the economic crisis, we’ve got to cut our luxuries, we’re to eat this with rice pudding every Saturday for next few months.
You can’t imagine my horror—or maybe you can. Do you eat the liver sausage and the blood pudding on the side, or what?
More recently I had a conversation with Solla, Iceland’s resident vegan foodie, in which she told me that as a child growing up even she ate rice pud-ding most Saturdays (one wonders why she became a vegan). Aunt Freyja tells me that her family didn’t eat rice pudding every Saturday, possibly every second. “Sometimes, on Saturday, we ate salted cod”, she says with a smile. I get the feeling that she gets a kick out of my unease.
I ask her: “Freyja, you’re kidding about the rice pudding with liver sausage, right?”.
She gives me the raised eyebrow then says very seriously, “You know we can get twenty meals or more out of this box. Since those bankers lost everything, we’ve got to start tightening our belts”.
Apparently Uncle Guðmundur eats it on top. That’s right, sweet rice pudding with reams of cinnamon and brown sugar, and a couple of slices of liver sausage and blood pudding plonked on top. The savoury-sour balances the sweet; and all of it, the rice pudding, the sausage and the blood pudding are so packed full of protein that our hardy Icelandic fisherman and farmers can handle Iceland’s winter winds—or so Uncle Guðmundur tells me when he arrives from Minnesota the following January, knife and fork at the ready for þorrablót (the traditional mid-winter festival).
One woman somewhere near the head of the queue starts shouting. There’s about to be a discounted-offal-free-for-all but Aunt Freyja, sensible as she is, tells me to wait with the shopping cart. Things have soon died down.
“What did you tell her?”.
“I told her that there was enough for everyone. The rule is everyone only gets one offal set”.
I look behind us, and the queue of women and supermarket carts is now around the corner. There clearly isn’t enough for all. The white boxes will soon be finished. We make it to the front of the line by the skin of our teeth. There are only five boxes left. Aunt Freyja takes the lot. Then looks back at the heavy-set woman behind us, smiles and puts three back.
“Here take this”. She hands me one. “You go into a separate line”, she whispers, and swooshes along the canned goods aisle, throwing in a few cans of Ora peas, a jar of Danish red cabbage. On the way home, we stop in at Vínbúð and pick up a three bottles of Brennivín (Icelandic aquavit or schnapps).
I can already start to smell the defrosting blood. “You’d better put on some old clothes for this”, she says, rolling up her sleeves and pulling out a semi-coagulated plastic bag full of blood.
Three shots of Brennivín later, the whole thing doesn’t seem quite that repulsive. I mean, Scotland has haggis, England and Ireland have black (blood) pudding and the Spaniards fry blood in the pan or mix it in with scrambled eggs.
I’m designated the blood pudding maker. All I have to do is sieve the blood, mix in a bowl with salt, pepper, rye, oats and a generous portion of chopped sheep fat; then comes the best part: you mix this stuff together with your hands until it’s the right consistency to be poured into a sheep’s stom-ach. Aunt Freyja takes on the job of sewing the stomach up with cotton, boiling the Frankenstein-looking balls, and dunking them in the sour whey mixture. Months later in January, the morning before Uncle Guðmundur’s arrival, Freyja takes me on another shopping spree. On this trip, she picks up a little sour whale blubber, a jelly-loaf-pate made with ram’s testicles, a tub of fermented shark or hákarl (believe me, an acquired taste), some head cheese, and a few bags of harðfiskur (wind-dried fish)—her particular preference is haddock for its hardier flavour.
I believe we’re nearly ready for Uncle Guðmundur’s arrival feast, but Aunt Freyja tells me we need to stop off one more place first. We end up at a friend’s home in the middle of nowhere, and you won’t believe it, but somewhere from the larder this friend produces something else jellied.
Back in the car, I ask Aunt Freyja, “What did you just pick up?”.
“Selshreifar”, she says. “You can hardly get it anymore”. Jellied seal fins. I can only shake my head.
Of course, it is understandable that all this weird food comes from the old days when Icelanders had to make do with whatever was available. During the years when merchant vessels couldn’t get to the country a bit of jellied seal flipper might have been just the ticket, but now? Why in God’s name would you eat it now?
“We’re creatures of habit”, says Aunt Freyja, pouring me a shot of Brennivín and handing me a desert fork to spear myself a cube of fermented shark—an Icelandic tapas-style appetizer.
Freyja has laid on a buffet for Viking kings. Not only has she brought out the blood pudding and liver sausage that we made in September—now truly soured in whey, she’s defrosted and boiled the singed sheep heads and, as in the supermarket months before, they glare at me from the table. When Uncle Guðmundur arrives he surveys the table licking his chops, but pays particular attention to the sheep heads.
“Wait until everyone arrives!” shouts Aunt Freyja from the kitchen. “Don’t start picking, Guðmundur. I know what you’re like”.
But Uncle Guðmundur winks at me, and reaches over, plucks out one of the sheep’s eyes and pops it in his mouth. “That’s the best part”, he says, then pours himself a shot of Brennivín.
Next time: I find out the bitter truth about Iceland’s vegetables.