We have refrigerators these days
I can name that tune in two words: Tradition and respect. There are some whose living relatives had to eat this stuff or die. It's that simple. I have a couple friends who say they don't and won't eat the stuff. My buddies in Keflavík told me never to let them know who these people are. They're truly offended by this lack of respect. They know how lucky they are to have been born in an age where eating sour-preserved food is no longer a necessity.
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The old Icelandic month of Þorri begins on a Friday, usually the third Friday in January, and ends on the third Saturday of February, normally the coldest time of year in Iceland. The Þorrablót is a mid-winter feast that Christianity could no more wipe out than the similar European festivals which became "Christmas". The origins of the name are in question, but many believe it comes from Þor (Thor) and was originally a feast in his honour.
Party on! Excellent! LOL WTF?!
Normally served buffet-style, the old-fashioned knife and wooden board have been replaced by plates and cutlery. I don't know why; there are a lot of Bavarians who still eat with the knife and board, mainly blue collar and trades workers and most often for the Brotzeit, or mid-morning break. Most people come and sit in groups. I didn't notice anyone who'd come alone, but then again, I was at the Ásatrúfélag (OW'sah-troo-fye-la(g), the Pagan Society) and they're a bit more hardcore. Families and groups of friends were the norm. From conversations with some friends, it's almost always like that. Maybe the þorrablót is to Iceland what the square dance is to the US or Morris Dancing is to the UK, but without the silly costumes. But what do I know? I'm an idiot.
Þorramatur (the food)
OK, there's nothing here that any non-Icelander has ever thought to eat. I mean nothing. The closest to anything edible is the Grisasulta, a pork jelly which is similar to German sulz but has more meat-like bits in it. The sour-preserved version, however... no. The two things I noticed about the sour preservation are: 1) you can't miss the very pervasive characteristic sour flavour; and 2) it makes everything grainy or mealy. The only exception to the graininess is the Surir Bringur, but that's a sort of Icelandic preserved spare ribs rather than processed meat.
Get on with it already!
I need a good laugh
My first Þorrablót was at the Ásatrúarfélag (Pagan Society). Here's my plate:
Clockwise from the top, based on my incomplete notes:
- Flatkökur, a flatbread much like thin pita
- Sur Rullapylsa, (I think this was just another name for Lundabaggi, VERY fatty)
- Súr Lifrarpylsa,
- Sviðasulta (inside at 3 o'clock position)
- Súr Blóðmör,
- Sylt, (some tomato-y stuff. Not traditional. Bad notes.)
- Blóðmör, (non-sour version and not much better)
- Hangikjött, (This might be Lappir, just chunks and slices of lamb, didn't write about it below; it was salty as hell)
- Kuntakjött, (more lamb meat)
- Kartofflur, (spuds)
- and in the middle, some chunks of non-sour lamb in a nice gravy.
Súr sviðasulta, Soor SVEE-the-suhl-tuh
(Sour-preserved lamb jelly)
Tastes pretty much like normal sviðasulta, with a very slight hint of sourness. If you don't know sulz and couldn't be bothered to read what I wrote before, it's basically a gelatin filled with meat and other non-vegetable scraps by boiling heads for hours, then letting them set after removing the bones and skin and other not-so-easily-eaten bits. It's a lot easier to eat if you don't think about how it's made, but that's pretty much true for all meat products. The only difference between this and the normal or "fresh" version is the sour whey flavour. The sour preservation only adds the slightest graininess to it but the richness of the jelly makes it hard to discern unless you're really busy trying to describe the stuff.
Súr grísasulta, Soor Grree-suh-suhl-tuh
(Sour-preserved pork jelly)
Why this stuff isn't called "súr svínasulta" I don't know. Both svín and grís mean "pig" or "pork", but the sour-preserved þorrablót version uses "grisa" and the normal "fresh" version uses "svin". Perhaps an Icelander will read this and enlighten me.
Unlike the sour lamb version of sulz, the sourness in this is much more pronounced, perhaps because pork doesn't have as strong a flavour as lamb or perhaps just as an accident of processing. Compared to the normal "svinasulta" which is very similar to the lamb version, the meat content of the sour version is much more granular; the bits of meat are cut smaller and the gelatin isn't as smooth as the "fresh" version. While not unpleasant, it certainly tastes like it's been sitting around longer and takes a few bites to get used to. On further inspection, there appears to be a lot less gelatin in general. Whether this is an artifact of the preservation process or a difference due to the different producers I can't yet say. If I had my druthers, I'd take the "fresh" any day.
Súrir Hrutspungar, Soor-eer Hrroot-spung-er
(Sour-preserved sheep goolies)
This one is as hard to get by mentally as the hákarl (rotten shark). Cutting slices off is even worse because as you can see in the photos, it's more or less the goolies pressed into a sort of cake, but each individual ball has an outer membrane. My knife wasn't the sharpest in the world so a bit of trailing tissue remained. Yuck.
You can't help noticing the pinkish grey colour of the stuff as you prepare to try it and then instead reach for another shot of Dutch courage (or Icelandic Courage if you happen to have some Brennevín agailable). Despite preparing myself, I grabbed the Brennevín bottle and did a bit more preparation.
Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit. Considering that I've had the hákarl and survived and that I've eaten other worse things, it's really not so bad, it's only the idea of what exactly it is you're eating. So how is it?
Meh. Sour like the name says. Slightly earthy. The main component isn't quite so grainy but it is soft, kind of like cod roe. It's not as smooth as liver but it's not in any way chewy like rubber or meat. Between the individual components there's the outer tissue, again somewhat off-putting. But really, the stuff has no real taste. I can see how this made the þorrablót menu: you eat it to survive because it's something, but there's nothing more to it, really. Waste not, want not. I bought the smallest piece I could find and it's a lot more than I want, especially not having any ketchup around. Thank Óðin for the not-quite-tasteless cracker bread.
Súr lundabaggi, Soor Loon-duh-ba(h)gee
(Sour-preserved lamb roll)
A roll of "meats" which has -- surprise, surprise -- the same sour whey taste that all the rest of the sour preserved items have. However, the meat has lost very little of its texture character and is similar to any roll meat. Except it's mostly meat by-products. Think "colons". The sour taste remains thankfully in the background. Eating lundabaggi with a bit of the flatkökur (flat bread somewhere between pita and naan) takes the edge off both the sourness and the fattiness, a Good Thing if you're eating in public and can't sit there stripping the meat from the fat.
Why all the fat? Up until fairly recently, Icelanders ate to live and never lived to eat. There's not much of a national cuisine beyond hearty and warming food which didn't waste a thing, hence the traditional lamb soup. Fat is energy and you ate as much of it as you could get your hands on. Only recently is this no longer a question of whether you'll make it to the next year, and Iceland now has a problem with obesity, primarily due to their favourite fast food, the ever-present pylsa (hot dogs), the availability of food in general and modern conveniences such as good heating and less manual labour.
Left: Súr Blóðmör, Soor Bloath-mör
(Sour-preserved blood sausage [black pudding])
Eh. Even if you like blood sausage (and I don't), the souring process turns this stuff into a mealy, sour glob of stuff that tastes like nothing other than that sour flavour. It has rye flour in it. If there's a bit of gravy from, say, a dish of non-sour-preserved lamb stew that you might have accidentally also put on your plate, this is what you need it for.
Right: Súr Lifrarpylsa, Lifrarpylsa
(Sour-preserved lamb roll)
I've been told that you either love or hate normal lifrapylsa, a sort of liver sausage. I like liver. I like lifrakæfa and many other Icelandic liver-based foodstuffs. But not this one. Bleah. This is the one sour-preserved item which, to me, tasted better sour. It also has rye flour in it. Not because of any great flavour explosion resulting in two negatives making a positive. Rather, the more tolerable sour flavour beat the basic lifrapylsa flavour back with a rusty, 10th-century sword, overpowering the worst the lifrapylsa had to offer and emerging vitorious.
There's not much to write about, really. By the time I was eating this, I'd had a few shots of Brennevín and a few beers. I also lost some of the notes I wrote. It wasn't bland, but it only had a sort of earthy flavour not really reminiscent of liver. It was, not surprisingly, grainy.
Súrar Bringar, Soor-er Brring-er
(Sour-preserved lamb ribs)
Ribs. Sour. And according to the package, about 36% fat. One side is a layer of fat, but this is normal even in standard western spare ribs. The sour preservation softened the bone and it can be cut through with a dull knife although it remains slightly flexible. The layers of fat are easily separated and the meat flakes apart, but is thankfully neither mealy or too stringy. I find it tastier warm and that's how it's supposed to be served. I also find Brennevín shots between tastings quite the palette-clearer.
Of all the sour-preserved foods, this is the one that I could actually eat more than once in a lifetime and not complain too much about. Because of the fat, I recommend eating some of the flat bread (it's not sour!).
(root vegetable mash)
Made primarily out of rutabaga, this orange-ish mix is a mash of mixed root vegetables with a few bits left in to break up the mushy monotony. The label wasn't too helpful but a search was. It's not sour (thank Óðin) but has a strange sort of sweetness to it. Yes, there's sugar, but it's not that. It's more like that sweetness you get when you chew a cooked parsnip or rutabaga for about five minutes. I couldn't eat more than two mouthfuls before running for some of the sour meat as a break. You can eat this stuff (and a couple vitamins may have survived the processing), but you probably don't want to. The flavour is flat and boring.
Súrt hvalrengi, Soort Kvahl-reng-gie
Súr hvalur, Soor Kvahl-oor
The most expensive stuff here (3000kr/kg) and the hardest to find. Despite both being blubber, they're firm, though the hvalur is much more firm with a smooth, rubbery texture. The hvalrengi is much softer and has a sort of grainy feel to it. Neither looks like anything I'd actually willingly eat, but then again, neither did the sheep goolies.
|Súrt hvalrengi: for fat it has quite a bit of connective tissue, but beyond the extremely mild sourness is the taste of what I can best describe as fat from a charcoal-grilled steak. It's not unpleasant except that it's fat. And from a whale. The ribbed side is soft with some connective fibres and the other side is almost like chewing gum. After a few chews, the sour flavour comes out but after a few more it disappears into the background again. After about 20 seconds, you're left with whale chewing gum. It's weird, but not unpleasant.||
Súr hvalur: you can see the striation in the pieces of the various types of tissue and each appears to have a different texture. I didn't like the bit from the soft edge at all. It wasn't rubbery like the hvalrengi, just... not nice. a bit mushy and no bite to it. The best thing about the flavour was the sour. Bleah.
The middle bit was better, with some chew and texture, but not much flavour beyond sour. It's something like soft gristle. The last part was similar but softer. I needed a couple shots of Brennevín to clear my palette in the middle of this test. It's not as bad as hákarl, but it's doing its damnedest to try. I may eat more of the hvalrengi, but the hvalur is oh-double-yah-tee out.
OMFG! this is the Nastiest! Shit!! EVAR!!! I downed the Brennevín and it didn't help. I didn't spit the hákarl out, but it took a lot of effort just to keep it in my mouth and chew a few times. I literally was choking it down. Ugh.
I decided to give it a second shot. Maybe it was just the initial shock of the smell. Maybe it was the anticipation. Maybe I just got one crappy piece. Or maybe I'm just an idiot.It was even worse the second time, and I had no more Brennevín to help wash that awful taste out of my mouth.
Despite the bad experience my first time around, and also in deference to my pagan hosts, I took a couple pieces of the hákarl. What I noticed is that it looked drier and flakier than the stuff I got in a bag. A few days later I noticed more of this type at a supermarket but saved myself the 600kr. They had the same kind at the student Þorrablót and this new review is based on these two samples.
It wasn't so bad. It wasn't "good" by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn't the hell that was my first experience. There was a very strong ammonia aroma but only a hint of real putrefication. This version also wasn't slimy, instead having some of the grain you'd associate with a pork chop. Still, I had the Brennevín on hand and before my senses of smell and taste could make up their minds, chased the little tidbit down with a double.
The ammonia flavour was still there hours later.
Harðfiskur, Harth-fiss-koor (soft "th")
This is how to survive a Þorrablót. Drying fish is probably the oldest food preservation method out there. The good stuff is air-dried ýsa (haddock), þorskur (cod) and steinbitur (ocean catfish). Done right, it retains a lot of flavour and is almost juicy once you've chewed two or three times. Icelanders eat it with a lot of butter. I brought some more home with me; don't tell customs.
Harðfiskur usually comes as an entire filet and you have to peel off the skin. Lower quality stuff is so dry that hundreds of fish threads come flying off. As I had some at home, my cat stood there begging me to share the goods. He wasn't much on the fish itself but the skin is one of his favourite toys and should provide him years of entertainment.
Despite attending a proper Þorrablót at the Pagan Society and another one for foreign students, I didn't get to try some items because they weren't available at the meals nor did I see them in any stores. The next search won't be for 11 months.
- Svið, singed sheep's heads. This one annoys me most since I'd seen it in shops but didn't buy it because I was certain it would be at one of the two þorrablót meals I went to. It wasn't, and I just didn't have time to buy one to sample. There's not a lot to eat in a sheep's head.
- Bringukollar, very fatty breast meat, boiled for a while.
- Lappir and Fótasulta, sheep's legs and sheep's leg jelly.
- Dry (or drier) hákarl from a slab
- Selshreifar: seal flippers
Only the strongest of survival instincts could get anyone through an entire winter of this stuff, and winter here is really about five months long.
The lowdown? None of this stuff tastes that good, but it doesn't taste that bad either. It's not something you (or most Icelanders) would eat regularly and in fact, some Icelanders won't eat it at all. This is upsetting and insulting to many of their fellow Icelanders who eat this in honour of their forefathers.
If you're adventurous and in Iceland at the end of January, some shops have a þorramat platter with a sampling of most of the items (definitely no svið or whale but the hákarl is there).You can taste the stuff, hate it, scrunch up your face and yell "EEEEEeewwwwwwww!" in the privacy of your hotel room, then throw the rest away, all for under twenty bucks. It's not the party that a real þorrablót is, but it's quicker and private and you can then tell your friends all about how the stuff is from first-hand knowledge, then send 'em to this page if they really want to know more.
Here's a site I found today about some Þorrablót food. It's in Icelandic but his pictures are much better. What can I say? I was there to have fun. And quaff.
If you're honoured with an invitation to a þorrablót, take it. Not many foreigners are invited, not even those who repeatedly express an interest in it. With an open mind and a lot of quaffing, you might enjoy yourself in spite of the fare on offer and you can always pick up a hot dog later. If you turn down such an invitation then you're an even bigger idiot than I.
For some reason, the photos are showing up very dark despite being fine locally. I'll try to clean them up at some point but I still ahve to write the rest of this week's dairies.
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