Food Culture and Tradition

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Foods in Iceland


A glass of fresh cold milk is a common accompaniment to almost every meal, and soups made with milk and dried pureed fruits are often enjoyed. But the favorite dish of all and an Icelandic staple is skyr. It is made from pasteurized skim milk fermented with rennin. The resulting curd is eaten with a sprinkling of sugar both as a snack and a dessert. The slightly soured whey is used to preserve many types of meats and fish. A brownish, smooth-spreading cheese called Mysostur is eaten as a spread on bread much as peanut butter is used in North America. Other cheeses are sliced and enjoyed in open-face sandwiches or as part of the cold buffet. Cream is used in cookery and whipped cream is a part of many cakes and desserts.

Wild berries and rhubarb grown locally and imported dried fruits such as raisins, prunes, and apricots are used. These may be made into preserves with sugar, sugared fruit soups (with added cream or milk), or dessert puddings that are sweetened with sugar and thickened with potato flour. Fresh fruits are scarce.

Use of imported and canned vegetables is increasing, but potatoes are the staple vegetable and are served daily often at more than one meal. Salads are all but unknown.

Icelandic lamb, the staple meat, is sold ground, in fresh cuts, spiced, smoked, salted, and served in the form of many varieties of sausages and frankfurters. It also comes in a meat paste made with ground mutton or lamb blended with potato flour. This paste is used to make fried meat patties.

Smoked, salted mutton is a Christmas tradition, while blodmor, a sausage made from salted sheep’s blood thickened with barley or rye flour and boiled in the cleaned sheep intestines, has been made from earliest times. Another sausage called lifrapilsa is made from sheep’s liver. Still another traditional dish that is often the Sunday dinner is svid — smoked or fresh whole lambs heads served boiled. Svid is sometimes prepared into headcheese – meat from the lamb’s heads jelled in its own aspic.

Cattle are mainly used for dairy products, rarely for beef. Pigs are all but nonexistent; pork is rare and expensive and said to have a fishy taste because of the pig’s diet. However, horsemeat is a frequent part of the menu and is more available and more tender than beef.

Icelandic fish is of excellent quality, relatively inexpensive, and abundant. Herring in many forms – salted, fried, pickled, smoked, raw, baked – form an important part of many meals and especially the cold buffet table. Whole baked stuffed fish and Icelandic fish cakes called fiskibollur, made with minced fish, eggs, and seasonings fried to golden brown patties, are special treats. Hardfiskur is a traditional Icelandic dish of wine-dried fish, usually haddock. This fish is not cooked, but is pounded until it reaches a soft crumbly texture, then it is dipped into butter and eaten with the fingers.

Still another uniquely Icelandic fish dish is hakarl – cured shark meat. Shark meat is not considered edible until it has been cured. The meat is cut in strips and laid in clean gravel beds for several weeks. Finally it is washed and air-dried in special sheds. As is the case with most pungent but delicious foods, the taste is an acquired one; however, it is widely agreed that washing it down with icy Icelandic Brennivin (brandy) adds to the pleasure.

Icelanders have a deeply rooted objection to eating birds of any type, so the poultry that is raised supplies eggs but not meat to the Icelandic table. Eggs are often served with smoked mutton in the same way that bacon and eggs are used. Eggs are also used widely in the many fine baked products and also blended with sugar and milk or cream to make a type of eggnog soup. Dried legumes and nuts are used minimally.

Grains in the form of porridges, flour for thickening, and baked goods comprise a large and important part of the Icelandic diet. Oatmeal together with bread and butter is an almost daily breakfast, while breads made from wholegrain wheat flour, barley flour, rye flour, or white wheat flour are present at every meal and often accompany coffee.

Homemakers pride themselves on the many breads, cakes, and cookies they bake and there always seems to be “a little something baked” to go with coffee, no matter the hour. Potato flour is used for thickening soups, gravies, sauces, and puddings. Rice is used seldom and then only in the form of a milky dessert pudding.

Much fat is consumed in the form of cheeses, coffee and dessert cream, ice cream, and also in many fried foods where any fat – from margarine and butter (all unsalted) to sheep’s fat and horse fat – may be used. Icelanders like the rich taste of fat fish and meats and seldom skim soups or gravies.

Icelanders do not hedge about their love of sweets. They add granulated sugar to almost everything from appetizers to soups and even in mashed potatoes. They sweeten their many daily cups of coffee and enjoy them with a great variety of sweet baked and fried cakes, often adding an extra sprinkle of white or brown sugar on top.

The Icelandic spice shelf is a minimal one. Salt, pepper, and onions are the few added seasonings; most food is enjoyed for its natural fresh or smoked flavor. Salt is seldom added, and to most other tastes, Icelandic food often seems like part of a salt-free diet. But it should be remembered that Icelanders enjoy many salted meats and fish so that the contrast of bland dishes is a welcome one. Fresh cream and fresh unsalted butter are frequent additions, but most often sugar is used to heighten natural flavors, and with a liberal hand.

Young and old enjoy a glass of cold milk with almost every meal, but there is little doubt that good strong coffee with cream and sugar is the number-one beverage. While milk accompanies meals, coffee does too, but goes on to be the snack beverage as well as the drink to discuss business, chat over old times, and entertain friends.

Icelanders, together with most Scandinavians, also share a predilection and capacity for alcohol seldom equaled elsewhere. The idea of a “good time” is never complete without the other idea of “finishing the bottle,” and the men are quietly indulged by patient wives waiting with the sobering strong coffee. Imported wines sometimes accompany meals, though beer and ale are more common. The national drink is Brennivin, similar to brandy and taken straight and icy cold.

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