The old Icelandic calendar had six ‘short day’ months, Gormánuður, Ýlir, Mörsugur, Thorri, Góa and Einmánuður. Then there are six ‘nightless’ months, Harpa, Skerpla, Sólmánuður, Heyannir, Tvímánuður and Haustmánuður.
These don’t tie up with our calendar and the old months have long fallen into disuse, although a few holidays and festivals are still reckoned from the old calendar, such as the first day of summer is the first day of Harpa, reckoned as the first Thursday after 18th April, even if there’s still snow on the ground.
This time of year is Thorri, when Icelanders descend with glee on their traditional food. There are thorrablót winter festivals held all around the country as people dress up and get together to have a good time at the darkest point of the year. Especially in rural areas, people look forward to the winter festival and it becomes one of the social high points of the year.
In fact, Thorri began last week with bóndadagur – husbands’ day, always a Friday, when the man of the house gets pampered and looked after. The following month, Góa, starts with konudagur – women’s day (always a Sunday) when the ladies get their pampering.
Iceland’s traditional food is something I’ve touched on before without overdoing the detail. The staple items that shock foreigners are the pickled rams’ testicles, the scoured sheeps’ heads and the pièce de résistance, shark. This isn’t shark as you might find it elsewhere, as the Greenland shark is so loaded with ammonia that eating it would hardly be a healthy option. So it has to be cured. This was traditionally done by burying it on the beach just below the tideline for a few months to let the acids leach out before the stuff was hung to dry. It has a distinctive aroma, which is a polite way of saying that just cracking open a jar of this stuff can clear a room of people within seconds.
Then there’s all the other stuff, the brawn made from head meat, the black pudding and the liver sausage that’s a close relative of haggis, wind-dried fish, smoked lamb and pickled seal flippers. People eat this stuff from wooden trugs, often slicing and dicing with a pocket knife, and incongruously washing it all down with Coke or beer, both far from traditional bevvies.
A decent amount of the local liquor, brennivín, also tends to be consumed at these gatherings and the uncharitable would say that a slug of the hard stuff is what you need to get even a small a chunk of cured sharkmeat past your tastebuds. In fact, Icelanders really only touch brennivín at these winter festivals. The liquor that comes in a bottle decorated with a skull is mostly drunk by tourists or by those unfortunates who just want a quick fix of something with a kick and are more concerned about price than any aesthetics of taste.
This thorri food gets popular during the winter and it can even be bought from supermarkets in a plastic tray with all the ingredients ready to be spooned up if you fancy a solitary thorri festival of your own. There’s a scene in the excellent film of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City where Erlendur buys just such a tray at a drive-by kiosk and is filmed eating it with a pocket knife in his down-at-heel apartment. It’s the scene of the film that everyone comments on.
Iceland’s thorri stuff is the genuinely authentic Icelandic food. The taste and presentation all go back to the relatively recent times before refrigeration when anything to be stored later had to be smoked, salted, dried or pickled in whey, all of which provide flavours and textures that are at odds with our 21st century palates.
On the other hand, everyday Icelandic food for many years borrowed heavily from solid Danish cuisine with its sticky Danish pastries (known as Vínarbrauð – Vienna bread), smoked pork, sauces thickened with much flour, and plenty of potatoes with everything, until American-style fast food started to become widespread in the eighties and the arrival of McDonalds, etc.
Personally I mourn the loss of the old truckstops at Staðarskáli and Brú on the roads leading north out of Reykjavík to the places where I feel most at home. These used to offer old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes, fish-and-potatoes or meat soup meals prepared from proper ingredients by people who had learned to cook at home. Instead there now are just the same salty, sugary burgers and fries that you can see anywhere, and it’s a loss, as much for the atmosphere and character that these places had as for the workmanlike grub.
So with all this unappetising sounding food, why do I like Iceland so much? The answer’s simple; it’s the fish. There’s nothing to beat it and I’ll unerringly sniff out the fish dish every time. Until recently it was haddock, catfish or occasionally halibut. Cod wasn’t eaten and many people had an aversion to it, but most likely is that cod was what made saltfish in the old days (and still does) and was worth money, therefore wasn’t to be eaten when there was something else available. But even that has changed now.
However, in the same way that beef and two veg has long been supplanted by a tandoori or a korma as Britian’s national dish, Iceland’s national dish these days has to be pizza. I’ve even seen pizzas topped with chunks of traditional smoked lamb and interspersed with pineapple pieces, in a bizarre fusion that tasted as rough as it sounds. So, haddock pizza, anyone?