Icelandic Food and Culture

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Food and culture in Iceland

Foods in Iceland | Domestic Life and Special Occasions | Meals and Customs | Food Glossary


Ingolfur Arnarson guided his Viking ship towards a northerly land and threw some logs overboard. Wherever they would drift would be the location of his settlement. Whether it was the will of the gods or simply the drift of the tides, Arnarson found that his logs had drifted ashore at a place he called Reykjavik. That was in the year 874 C.E. Today the city is the capital of Iceland and with a population of about 103,000 it claims one-third of the country's population in its treeless, dogless but sun-filled streets.


Although the name "Iceland" is a misnomer, it ensures a pleasant way of life for Icelanders and means they avoid the influx of tourists and new settlers that many other countries experience. Moderate winters, cool summers, and only one-eighth of the country covered with glacial ice indicate that the name is inappropriate. Since only 1 percent of the land is arable, the main harvest is from the sea, while meat is obtained from the sheep and cattle that nibble seaweed and mosses from between lava rocks.


Iceland is located just south of the Arctic Circle and there is evidence that before people arrived with their sheep and goats, their fire and their axes, there were woods of birch trees. Mostly because of people, but also because of wind erosion and volcanic eruptions that scorched the earth with fiery lava, vegetation is minimal despite efforts at reforestation.


The Vikings, however, were not the first to step on this land. There is evidence that adventurous Irish were there first. These early Irish were said to be Celtic monks in search of solitude. As the Viking settlements grew, they brought with them not only logs and provisions, but also animals for food (there were no herbivorous animals on Iceland) and Celtic women and bondsmen. It is said that the Norse and Celtic strains remained without change for a thousand years. Later, very small groups of other immigrants came to the land and intermarried. But all continue to live in a tolerant and classless society.


Early Icelandic history matched the pattern of the country and its climate. Tribal blood feuds, fiery volcanic eruptions, silent snowy winters followed by glacial floods, the plague of the Black Death, the ravaging raids of English and Algerian pirates, and finally cattle disease and famine gradually took their toll of hope and life. The Black Death in the early 1400s killed two-thirds of the population, but it was not until the "greatest recorded eruption and lava flow in history" in 1783-1784, a horror that decimated live-stock as well as people that the first groups of emigrants left Iceland for North America. Many of those first settlers made their homes in Saskatchewan and it is said that today more Icelanders reside in Manitoba than in Iceland's capital.


It is understandable that their history would give Icelanders an empathy for the suffering of others, as well as a fierce desire to maintain their independence. Offers of aid from other countries are met with the reply, "We'll do it ourselves when we are able." And so they have. They have built roads, highways, and huge greenhouses heated with piping hot spring water. In fact, the heating of all homes in Reykjavik is by the same system of harnessing the heat and water of the many underground springs. Where else in the world can one turn a tap for instant hot water and enjoy hot-water heating all supplied from deep underground springs?


Another characteristic of Icelanders, whether in their native land or abroad, is their insatiable love of books and reading. The humblest home proudly displays a well-stocked bookshelf, and Iceland reputedly has more publishers, more published hooks, and more daily newspapers than any other country in the world.


The Icelanders' capacity for alcohol does not quite match that for books, but it is considerable. Icelandic wives dutifully bring the black coffee it is still a mans world in Iceland. This is clearly visible in the after-dinner separation: men in one corner to talk, while women gather in another to "chat." Many parties finish only in the small hours of the morning, for the men take great pride in "finishing the bottle."


Icelanders adapt well into almost any society and live in almost every Canadian province. Their rapid integration has made them a valued part of the Canadian lifestyle. The deep importance in their daily lives of hooks and their profound desire for self-education has always placed them on an elevated intellectual level even though they may make their living at humble tasks. Most Icelandic families enjoy the custom of evening and Sunday reading. Icelanders are also said to have the healthiest and wealthiest society in the world, but visitors are apt to be shocked at the high prices of lodging and meals they encounter.