Thorrablot (in Icelandic: Þorrablót) takes place in the coldest dark days of the year, and it is interesting to keep in mind that many of the foods served are actually the smoked/pickled produce of the previous year. It is a Scandinavian tradition on with lots of Viking history.
Every culture has its own unique traditions and the foods specific to them. Iceland is no exception. Around Lent and Easter alone Shrove Monday is bolludagur (cream puff day), Shrove Tuesday is Sprengidagur (bursting day) where one is encouraged to stuff themselves with pea soup and salted meat, Ash Wednesday is Iceland’s answer to Halloween with children dressed up and singing for sweets/goodies at shops, and Easter is marked with the small nation chowing down on more than 700.000 sweet-filled chocolate eggs! And if you’ve been in Iceland on the 23rd of December you’d have noticed the distinct aroma of fermented skate, which Icelanders boil and devour for Þórlaksmessa. Yum yum ?
Then there’s the entire month of Þorri, the fourth month in the Icelandic pagan calendar (running from mid-January through mid-February) marked annually with a Þorrablót, or a large feast. Some have nick named it the ugly feast !
Direct translation/meaning: Þorrablót is an Icelandic midwinter festival named for the month of Þorri of the historical Icelandic calendar and blót, literally meaning sacrifice.
The first known celebration was reportedly organized by the association of Icelandic students in Copenhagen in 1873.
The festival gained wide publicity in the 1960s. This was due to a Reykjavík restaurant, called Naustið, starting to offer a platter with a selection of foods that had previously been common in the Icelandic countryside, but had become rare by that time. The food was arranged in slices on a wooden trough made in the likeness of old troughs on display in the National Museum of Iceland. The restaurant advertised this platter as Þorramatur, thereby linking it with the tradition of the Þorrablót.
In post-World War II Iceland the Þorrablót tradition was resurrected in the form of Icelanders gathering together to mark Þorri by feasting on foods that were traditional in the Icelandic countryside but which were falling out of fashion by a population that was becoming more urban. Not that we can see why these foods, or “þorramatur,” would be falling out of fashion… I mean, have a look for yourself at 6 foods that are a staple of every þorrablót:
- HÁKARL – ROTTEN SHARK
OK, so “rotten” is a strong word. It prefers to be called “fermented.” Hákarl is Greenlandic shark that is buried in a shallow, gravelly pit and left for 6-12 weeks under heavy rocks for all fluids to be drained out. The shark meat is then cut into slices and hung to… ferment… for roughly 7 months. Don’t worry if you can’t hold back your grimace or gag reflex upon tasting hákarl for the first time. There’s good reason Icelanders chase their bites with shots of the strong spirit brennivin.
- SÚRSAÐIR HRÚTSPUNGAR – SOUR RAM’S TESTICLES
Everything was kept and pickled/salted in the old days!!. Sour. Ram’s. Testicles. This one is a simple little dish: the testicles are washed, boiled, pressed into moulds and cured with lactic acid. The end result is a loaf of sour ram’s testicles that can be sliced down much like a loaf of fresh bread. Only it’s not fresh bread. It’s sour ram’s testicles!
- SVIÐ — BOILED SHEEP’S HEAD
Svið is a delicacy that is eaten year-round by some and is not much of an acquired taste once you move beyond the initial shock of seeing a seared sheep staring up at you from your plate. To prepare svið, the sheep’s head is singed to remove all hair and well cleaned. It is then halved and boiled until cooked, but not so long that the meat has begun to fall off the bone — presentation is everything in the culinary world, and seeing the singed profile of a sheep on the dinner table really makes the meal. The meat is very tasty, and Icelanders even eat the eyeballs. Pop!
- SVÍÐASULTA – BOILED SHEEP’S HEAD JAM
So there’s svið, and then there’s sviðasulta. “Sulta” means jam, so this is literally a jam or jelly made of svið. The meat from the sheep’s head and the gelatin rich juices from the skull are all pressed together into a mould and then left to cool. The juices solidify into a jelly and you’re left with a meaty head cheese to slice down and enjoy at your þorrablót feast.
- LIFRAPYLSA – LIVER SAUSAGE
Scots would be familiar with the concept of lifrapylsa, as it’s rather similar to haggis. The liver and fatty tissue of a lamb is ground down and kneaded together with rye flour and oats and then stuffed into the stomach lining, sewn shut and boiled to perfection. It’s a þorrablót staple, and fairly popular at other times of the year, too.
- SLÁTUR / BLÓÐMÖR – BLOOD SAUSAGE
Blood sausage exists in many cultures, so this isn’t something unique to the Icelandic Þorrablót, but is still worth a mention as it may come as a surprise to some visitors. It’s the same concept as lifrapylsa, but the liver has been swapped out for lamb or sheep blood, giving blóðmör a dark, almost black colouring to it. The texture is course and the taste is… indescribable.
Today Þorrablót are common events among Icelanders everywhere and can be anything from an informal dinner with friends and family to large, organised events with stage performances and an after-dinner dance. These large Þorrablót celebrations are usually arranged by membership associations, associations of Icelanders living abroad, and as regional festivals in the countryside.
If you are invited to a Þorrablót celebration, there will often be other, more, um… normal foods offered for the squeamish/ Þorrablót virgins such as smoked salmon, rugbrauð (rye bread), and flatkökur, also known as flatbrauð or flatbread, the Icelandic version of unleavened bread which dates to Icelandic Settlement in 874AD.
Of course, if you have grown up with this kind of cultural thing, the nostalgia for it will be with you forever. But for the rest of us….
Try it at your own risk! Bon appétit!