In the summer of 1809, a young British botanist, William Hooker, visited Iceland on the first botanical expedition of what was to become a distinguished career. Hooker chose Iceland on the suggestion of his older colleague Joseph Banks, one of Britain’s most prominent naturalists. Banks, a veteran of Cook’s first expedition to the South Pacific, was also a great “friend of Iceland,” having toured the country in 1772.
Like most foreign visitors over this period, Hooker was shocked by the poverty and extreme hardships faced by the Icelandic people.
Banks instructed Hooker to visit an old friend of his, former governor Ólafur Stephensen, at his home on Viðey island. Hooker went accompanied by the British soap merchant Samuel Phelps and the Dane Jørgen Jørgensen, who had come to Iceland on the same ship as he, and would go on to stage a short-lived and improbable revolution in Iceland later that summer.
Ólafur, then 78 years old, greeted the threesome dressed in the magnificent governor’s uniform—a coat of “scarlet cloth, turned up with green, and ornamented with gold lace,” goldtrimmed blue pantaloons, and a threecornered hat with gold tassels and trimmings and a long white feather—and proceeded to treat them (or perhaps force is a more appropriate word) to a multi-course dinner, which surely amounts to one of the most extravagant feasts in recorded Icelandic history.
From Hooker’s travelogue, Journal of a Tour in Iceland in the Summer of 1809, published in 1811:
The dishes are brought in singly: our first was a large turenne of soup, which is a favorite addition to the dinners of the richer people, and is made of sago, claret and raisins, boiled so as to become almost a mucilage. We were helped to two soupplates full of this, which we ate without knowing if anything more was to come.
No sooner, however, was the soup removed, than two large salmon, boiled and cut in slices, were brought on, and, with them, melted butter, looking like oil, mixed with vinegar and pepper: this, likewise, was very good, and, when we had with some difficulty cleared our plates, we hoped we had finished our dinners.If at any time we flagged in drinking, “Baron Banks” was always the signal for emptying our glasses, in order that we might have them filled with bumpers, to drink to his health.
Not so, for there was then introduced a turenne full of the eggs of the cree, or great tern, boiled hard, of which a dozen were put upon each of our plates; and, for sauce, we had a large basin of cream, mixed with sugar, in which were four spoons, so that we all ate out of the same bowl, placed in the middle of the table.
We petitioned hard to be excused from eating the whole of the eggs upon our plates, but we petitioned in vain. “You are my guests,” said he, “and this is the first time you have done me the honor of a visit, therefore you must do as I would have you; in future, when you come to see me, you may do as you like.” In his own excuse, he pleaded his age for not following our example, to which we could make no reply.
We devoured with difficulty our eggs and cream; but had no sooner dismissed our plates, than half a sheep, well roasted, came on, with a mess of sorrel (Rumex acetosa), called by the Danes scurvy-grass, boiled, meshed, and sweetened with sugar. It was to no purpose we assured our host that we had already eaten more than would do us good: he filled our plates with the mutton and sauce, and made us get through it as well as we could; although any one of the dishes, of which we had before partaken, was sufficient for the dinner of a moderate man.
However, even this was not all; for a large dish of waffles, as they are here called, that is to say, a sort of pancake, made of wheat-flour, flat, and roasted in a mould, which forms a number of squares on the top, succeeded the mutton. They were not more than half an inch thick, and about the size of an octavo book. The Stiftsamptman said he would be satisfied if each of us would eat two of them, and, with these moderate terms we were forced to comply.
For bread, Norway biscuit and loaves made of rye, were served up; for our drink, we had nothing but claret, of which we were all compelled to empty the bottle that stood by us, and this, too, out of tumblers, rather than wine glasses.
It is not the custom in this country to sit after dinner over the wine, but we had, instead of it, to drink just as much coffee as the Stiftsamptman thought proper to give us. The coffee was certainly extremely good, and, we trusted it would terminate the feast.
But all was not yet over; for a huge bowl of rum punch was brought in, and handed round in large glasses pretty freely, and to every glass a toast was given. If at any time we flagged in drinking, “Baron Banks” was always the signal for emptying our glasses, in order that we might have them filled with bumpers, to drink to his health. […]
We were threatened with still another bowl, after we should have drained this, and accordingly another came, which we were with difficulty allowed to refuse to empty entirely; nor could this be done, but by ordering our people to get the boat ready for our departure, when, having concluded this extraordinary feast by three cups of tea each, we took our leave, and reached [Reykjavík] about ten o’clock; but did not for some time recover the effect.
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