Getting a taste for Icelandic traditions at an Ásatrú Þorrablót
At the end of January, mere weeks after most Icelanders have packed away their Christmas decorations and returned to the daily grind, the midwinter festival of Þorri arrives to bolster spirits and brace stomachs.
A celebration of bygone traditions and an opportunity to indulge in some of the country’s more challenging culinary history, the food served at a Þorri feast, or Þorrablót, is the stuff of many foreigners’ most elaborate fears and suspicions about Icelandic cuisine. And basically, that’s part of the fun. Over the course of the month-long Þorri season, Icelanders are expected to eat 200 tons of Þorri food, but you’d be hard pressed to find many residents bolting down sour sausages and pickled ram’s testicles during the rest of the year.
BYOB: Bring Your Own Bravery
Every year, Iceland’s Ásatrú Association, an officially recognised religious group whose members practice a modern form of Norse paganism steeped in Icelandic traditions and mythology, hold their own Þorrablót on Bóndadagur, or Husband’s/Farmer’s Day, the first day of Þorri. They invited us to join their celebration and experience a real Þorrablót first-hand.
I’d just gotten off the bus and was walking to the banquet venue when I got a text message from one of my dining companions. “Uh oh,” it read. “Looks like it’s BYOB.” (A good rule of thumb in Iceland: always bring your own.) While maintaining a clear head is never a bad idea while “on assignment,” the knowledge that all of the night’s delicacies would have to be sampled without anaesthetic gave me a moment’s pause. I’m no fan of Brennivín—Iceland’s caraway-flavoured schnapps which has, as far as I’m concerned, fully earned its “Black Death” honorific—but I’d been warned that the caustic burning of a Brennivín shot is key to surviving some of Þorri’s more potent dishes. Alas.
The ammoniac odour of hákarl, that “putrefied shark,” preceded us upstairs to the hall, as did the more inviting scent of smoked lamb. My companion and I were then greeted at the door by a young man wearing a long green wool tunic and brown wool breeches tucked into soft leather boots, overlain by a real chain mail shirt and a decorative collar. Jóhanna Harðardóttir, the Ásatrú Association’s Deputy High Priestess—herself in a simple but festive red linen dress with bell sleeves—then invited us to take a seat.
There were ten tables set on either side of the room, with somewhere around 70 guests in attendance. The crowd was distinctly mixed—a few family groups with several generations sitting together, smaller groups of friends, probably in their thirties and forties, a few children.
Although certainly in the minority, a handful of the other guests were also wearing period clothing. As Jóhanna explained, although Icelanders do have an official national costume—it was actually designed in the mid-19th century as part of the campaign for Icelandic independence—many Ásatrú members think that more traditional medieval clothes, made from natural materials such as linen and wool, are a better representation of Iceland’s cultural history. Plus, she laughed, “they are really comfortable.”
We planted ourselves across from two long-time members of Ásatrú, who generously accepted my laboured, grammatically-tragic Icelandic and would, throughout the night, provide a general commentary on the evening’s proceedings. On our other side was a group of friends and new Ásatrú members in their early twenties—bearded and multi-pierced with runic tattoos and a jovial, if slightly irreverent, approach to the evening.
The Meat Rainbow
Guests settled in as Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, Ásatrú’s high priest, came forward with Jóhanna and Eyvindur Pétur Eiríksson, the Ásatrú goði, or chief, representing the Westfjords. Raising an ‘oath ring’ and drinking from a sacred horn, the trio sanctified the gathering with a toast to both the Norse god Þór (who serves as a sort of patron of the feast) and Mother Earth.
Following this short ceremony, two members, a man and a woman, were invited to stand and deliver humorous speeches, each about the opposite gender. “This is traditional,” Jóhanna said. “A man talks about women, and vice versa. They are always funny and sarcastic, but they end happily.” The speeches are also accompanied by songs. First, the men stand and sing for the women, and later in the evening, the women return the favour. Song pamphlets were laid out on the tables, although everyone—including the new recruits at my table—seemed to know the words by heart.
After the singing, we were invited to help ourselves to the buffet-style feast. Making my way around the table, I was given many little bits of advice. Make sure to get plenty of hákarl—it’s good for digestion. Spread lots of butter on the harðfiskur (“dried fish”). The eye is the best part of the svið (“sheep’s head”).
Filling my plate, I ended up with a veritable rainbow of sausages and pressed meats: pink, red, brown, grey, and a queasy marbled white. Not wanting to look greedy—and honestly, a little unsure that I would make it through the full plate—I skipped the svið the first time out. By accident, I also missed the slices of pressed ram’s testicles. (Full disclosure: I did end up trying the former—it’s…chewy—but skipped the latter. No regrets there.)
Back at the table, my dinner companion gustily carved into her sheep head and explained to me the best method of eating ear cartilage. I took her word for it and tried to show my sympathy when she discovered that her svið was, in fact, missing its most delicious eye. We swapped various unidentified meats. Feeling appropriately decadent, I made a return circuit of the buffet, filling up again on some of my familiar favourites—smoked lamb, salted lamb, and a dark red sausage of a jerky-like consistency. If the woman on my right had not caught me mid-bite and summarily informed me, while daintily cutting up her headcheese, that she did not eat horse “on principal,” I’d have never known the difference.
Try The Sour Whale
All at once, the party began to both pick up and simmer down. At one end of my own table, a woman accidentally doused her date in red wine and dissolved into giggles while her friends gathered the various bones and discarded sausage shreds into a small pyramid next to their empty beer cans. On the other side of the room, conversation muted to a low hum while the mid-feast entertainment began: Eyvindur Pétur Eiríksson performed a long, rhythmic oral poem accompanied by drumming on the body of a handy banjo. Accompanied by three friends, a young man performed an a cappella version of the folksong “Krummavísur” (“Raven Rhymes”) while playing his chain mail with a spoon, like a washboard.
It was at that point that my taste buds suffered their only real shock of the evening, in the form of one of the many sour dishes. “The trick [with sour Þorri food],” writes Icelandic food blogger and translator Jóhanna G., “is to get it sour enough to tell where it’s been, but not so sour that you can’t tell what it is.” This bit of wisdom had been buzzing around in my head as I sampled the various dishes, finding, happily, that most were decently satisfying.
“Here,” my companion said, putting a disk of something cold, soft, and whiteish on my plate. “Try the sour whale.” Word to the wise: if you come to Iceland in search of whale, let it not be sour. The flavour of this one, experimental bite stuck with me, reasserting itself unexpectedly for over 48 hours, three teeth-brushings, several cups of coffee, and a beer. Give me a sheep’s face any day, just oh god, please no more sour whale.
Something Old, Something New
As the feasting portion of the evening came to a close, we leaned back, refilling our water glasses. The evening’s main entertainment—a musical comedy duo called “Hundur í óskilum” who specialise in wholesome, but frankly pretty hilarious novelty songs about Icelandic history and saga heroes, as well as all manner of absurdist music-making—flutes made out of orthopaedic walkers, recorders played with belly-buttons and noses—quickly had the whole room in stitches.
Meanwhile, my tablemates had one last coup de grâce to finish off the meal: a shot of tequila accompanied by a slice of orange sprinkled with cinnamon. Somehow, I could wrap my head around whey-pickled meat, but not tequila without salt and lime. Seeing the skepticism on my face, one of the men poured me a small shot and handed over the affronting accompaniment. “Here,” he said. “Here’s something new you can try now in Iceland.”
Photo by Alísa Kalyanova
The Modern Day Origins Of A Medieval Feast
“In the old days,” Ásatrú’s Jóhanna Harðardóttir says, “Þorri was celebrated because it fell in the very middle of winter, with the same amount of time between winter solstice and the equinox.” With spring on its way, people didn’t have to keep up their winter food stores and so they had a feast with their leftovers (a sort of day after Thanksgiving, Viking-style). As time passed and the Icelandic diet became less dependent on preserved foods, however, the Þorri traditions abated somewhat. “Maybe people still ate this food in their homes,” Jóhanna said, “but not as part of a big feast.”
In fact, the Þorrablót feasts of today are a twentieth century phenomenon, as cookbook author and food historian Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir explains in ‘Icelandic Food and Cookery.’ “Even though Þorri feasts were held at midwinter in pagan times,” she writes, “there is really nothing that connects them to the present day feasts of the same name.”
The large catered Þorrablót banquets of today owe their resurgence and popularity to Naustið (“Boathouse”), a restaurant that was located on Vesturgata in downtown Reykjavík from 1954 until the early 2000s and is widely credited with offering the first Þorri menu in 1958. Following traditional serving methods and encouraging patrons to dig in with their bare hands, “the food was served in long wooden trays alongside sharp knives and hand basins,” writes ethnologist Árni Björnsson.
“The food served at Naustið included, among other things, sour svið (sheep’s heads), lundabaggar (pressed sour lamb sausage), hangikjöt (smoked lamb), hrútspungar (ram’s testicles) pickled in sour whey, hákarl (fermented shark), bringukollur (fatty breast of lamb, served on the bone with pickling brine), flatbread, and rye bread. Following this, the consumption of traditional Icelandic food products at Þorri greatly increased.”
Read more about Þorrablót: