Traditional Icelandic food and drink
Some of our Traditional food and drink.
Icelandic cuisine, the cuisine of Iceland, has a long history. Important parts of Icelandic cuisine are lamb, dairy, and fish, due to Iceland’s proximity to the ocean. Popular foods in Iceland include skyr, hangikjöt (smoked lamb), kleinur, laufabrauð and bollur. Þorramatur is a traditional buffet served at midwinter festivals called Þorrablót and containing a selection of traditionally cured meat and fish products served with rúgbrauð (dense dark and sweet rye bread) and brennivín (an Icelandic akvavit). Much of the taste of this traditional country food is determined by the preservation methods used; pickling in fermented whey or brine, drying andsmoking.
Modern Icelandic chefs usually place an emphasis on the quality of the available ingredients rather than age-old cooking traditions and methods. Hence, there are a number of restaurants in Iceland that specialise in seafood and at the annual Food and Fun chef’s competition (since 2004) competitors create innovative dishes with fresh ingredients produced in Iceland. Points of pride are the quality of the lamb meat, seafood and (more recently) skyr. Other local ingredients that form part of the Icelandic chef’s store include seabirds and waterfowl (including their eggs), salmon and trout, crowberry, blueberry, rhubarb, Iceland moss, wild mushrooms, wild thyme, lovage, angelica and dried seaweed as well as a wide array of dairy products.
Animal products dominate Icelandic cuisine. Popular taste has developed, however, to become closer to the European norm, and consumption of vegetables has greatly increased in recent decades while consumption of fish has diminished. Fresh lamb meat remains very popular while traditional meat products, such as various types of sausages, have lost a lot of their appeal with younger generations.
The roots of Icelandic cuisine are to be found in the traditions of Scandinavian cuisine, as Icelandic culture, from its settlement in the 9th century onwards, is a distinctly Nordic culture with its traditional economy based on subsistence farming. Several events in the history of Iceland were of special significance for its cuisine. With Christianisation in 1000 came the tradition of fasting and a ban on horse meat consumption, but the event which probably had the greatest impact on farming, and hence, food, was the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 14th century. This severely limited the options of the farmers who were not able to grow barley anymore and had to rely on imports for any kind of cereal. The cooling of the climate also led to important changes in housing and heating where the longhouse of the early settlers, with its spacious hall, was replaced by the Icelandic turf houses with many smaller rooms, including a proper kitchen, which persisted well into the 20th century.
Usually the Reformation in 1550 marks the transition between the medieval period and the early modern period in Icelandic history. Until the agricultural reforms, brought on by the influence of the Enlightenment, farming in Iceland remained very much the same from the 14th century to the late 18th century. A trade monopoly instituted by the Danish king in 1602 had a certain impact on culinary traditions although the influence of the cuisine of Denmark was most felt in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. In the early 20th century an economic boom based on fishing caused a slow transition from traditional dairy and meat-based foods to fish and root vegetables, which was at the same time a transition from the dominance of preserved foods towards greater emphasis on fresh ingredients.
When Iceland was settled by immigrants from Scandinavia and Viking colonies in the British isles they brought with them the farming methods and food traditions of the Norse world. Research indicates that the climate was much milder in Iceland during the Middle Ages than it is now and sources tell of cultivation of barley and oats. Most of this would have been consumed as porridge or gruel or used for making beer. Cattle was the dominant farm animal, but farms also raised poultry, pigs, goats, horses and sheep. The poultry, horse, sheep and goat stocks first brought to Iceland have since developed in isolation, unaffected by modern selective breeding. Therefore they are sometimes called the “settlement breed” or “viking breed.”
Fermented shark, hákarl, is an example of a culinary tradition that has continued from the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century to this day.
Fish was stored in salt and before the Black death Iceland exported stockfish to the fish market in Bergen. However, salt seems to have been less abundant in Iceland than in Norway and saltmaking, which was mostly done by boiling sea water or burning seaweed, gradually disappeared when overgrazing caused a shortage of firewood in most parts of the country in the 14th century. Instead of curing with salt the practice of preserving meatin fermented whey became dominant in Iceland. This method was also known from Norway but acquired little significance there. Archeological digs in medieval farms have revealed large round holes in storage rooms where the barrel containing the lactic acid was kept. Two medieval stories tell of men who save their lives in a burning house by staying submerged inside the acid barrel. Like the Norwegians, medieval Icelanders knew the use of fermentation for preserving both fish and meat, a method that greatly alters the taste of the food, making it similar to very strong cheese. Fermentation is still used to cure shark (see hákarl), skate and herring. Fermented eggs are a regional delicacy, rarely found nowadays. The practice of smoking and drying meat and fish was also practiced, although the drying of meat was seen as somewhat of a last resort, the preferred method being pickling in acid.
Cheese was made from goat and sheep milk as well as cow milk. Skyr, a soft yogurt-like cheese eaten with spoons, was originally a tradition brought to Iceland from Norway but has only survived in Iceland. The whey left over when making skyr was made to go sour and used for storing meat. It is likely that the predominance of skyr in Icelandic cuisine caused the disappearance of other cheesemaking traditions in the modern era, until industrial cheesemaking started in the first half of the 20th century. Cheesemaking made necessary the practice of seter-farming (seljabúskapur), living in mountain huts in the highlands in late spring where the kids/lambs were separated from their mothers while they were milked. Cheesemaking would sometimes take place directly in these huts.
Cooking and meals
Two Icelandic drinking horns from around 1600 in the Danish National Museum.
In the longhouses of the first settlers there was usually a long fire in the center to warm the house. Around it there were holes dug in the floor that were used as earth ovens for baking bread and cooking meat by placing it in the hole, with hot embers from the fire, and covering tightly for the time needed. Boiling was done in wooden staved churns by putting hot stones from the fire directly into the liquid (a practice that continued to the modern age). Low stone hearths were also used, but mostly the cooking was done on the floor. The longhouses were gradually replaced by Icelandic turf houses in the 14th century. These would have a kitchen with a raised stone hearth for cooking called hlóðir. At the same time the cooling of the climate during the Little Ice Age made it impossible to grow barley and sheep replaced the more expensive cattle as dominant livestock. Iceland became dependent on imports for all cereals. The shortage of firewood meant that peat, dung and dried heather became standard heating materials.
In medieval Iceland there were two meals during the day, the lunch or dagverður at noon and supper or náttverður at the end of the day. Food was eaten from bowls. Wooden staved tankards with a hinged lid were used for drinking, but these would later develop into the bulging casks, called askar used for serving food. Elaborately carved drinking horns were used on special occasions by the upper class. Spoons were the most common eating utensil, made of horn or bone, and often decorated with carvings. Except for feasts, where tables would be laid, people ate their food from their lap, sitting on their beds which lined the outer wall of the longhouse. An important role of the farmer’s wife was to correctly portion the food. In richer households this role was entrusted to a special butler called bryti.
Early modern period
The thing that defined Icelandic subsistence farming from the middle ages well into the 20th century, was the short production period (summer) compared to the long cold period. Apart from occasional game, the food produced in the three months of summer had to suffice for nine months of winter. It has been estimated that using these methods of subsistence Iceland could support a population of around 60,000. During all these centuries farming methods changed very little and fishing remained confined to hook and line from rowboats constructed from driftwood. As the boats were owned by the farmers, fishing was also limited to periods when the farmhands weren’t needed for farm work. Fish was not just a food, but could also be readily exchanged for products brought by foreign merchant ships, especially cereals, such as rye and oats, transported to Iceland by Danish merchants. Surplus fish, tallow and butter would be used to pay the landowner his dues. Until the 19th century, the vast majority of Icelandic farmers were tenant farmers on land owned by the Icelandic landowner elite, the church or (especially after the confiscation of church lands during the Reformation) the king of Denmark.
A lot of regional variation existed in subsistence farming according to whether people lived close to the ocean or inland. Also, in the north of the country the main fishing period unfortunately coincided with the haymaking period in the autumn. This led to the underdevelopment of fishing compared to the south where the main fishing period was from February to July. Some authors have described Icelandic society as a highly conservative farming society where the demand for farmhands in the short summers led to fierce opposition among tenant farmers and landowners, to the formation of fishing villages. As fishing was considered risky compared to farming, the Alþingi would pass many resolutions restricting or forbidding the habitation of landless tenants on the coast.
Cooking eggs and small game and even baking in hot springs is a peculiar feature of Icelandic cuisine.
Another result of the dominance of subsistence farming in Iceland was the lack of specialisation and commerce between farms. Interior trade seems to have been frowned upon as a type of usury even from the age of settlement as testified in some of the Icelandic sagas. Trade with foreign merchant ships was lively, however, and vital for the economy, especially for cereals and honey, alcohol and (later) tobacco. Fishing ships from the coastal areas of Europe would stop for provisions in Icelandic harbors and trade what they had with the locals. This would include stale beer, salted pork, biscuits and chewing tobacco sold for knitted wool mittens, blankets etc. Merchant ships would also arrive occasionally from Holland, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain, to sell their products, mainly for stockfish, prominently displayed in the royal seal of Iceland. In 1602 the Danish king, who was worried about the activities of English and German ships in what he saw as his own waters, instituted a trade monopoly in Iceland, restricting commerce to Danish merchants who were, in turn, required to regularly send merchant ships to Iceland carrying trade goods the country needed. While illegal trade flourished in the 17th century, stricter measures were taken to enforce the monopoly in 1685. The monopoly remained in vigor until 1787. One of its results was the predominance of rye grown in Denmark, and the introduction of brennivín, an akvavit produced from rye, at the cost of other cereals and beer.
A quern-stone from Scotland. Similar stones were used in Iceland for grinding corn into flour.
Different types of bread were considered a luxury among common people, although they were not uncommon. The corn bought from the merchant would be ground using a quern-stone (called kvarnarsteinn in Icelandic) and supplemented with dried dulse (seaweed) and lichens. Sometimes it was boiled in milk and served as a thin porridge. The porridge could be mixed with skyr to form skyrhræringur. The most common type of bread was apot bread called rúgbrauð, a dark and dense rye bread, reminiscent of the German pumpernickel and the Danish rugbrød, only moister. This could also be baked by burying the dough in special wooden casks in the ground close to a hot spring and picking it up the next day. Bread baked in this manner has a slightly sulphuric taste. Dried fish with butter was served with all meals of the day, serving the same purpose as the “daily bread” in Europe.
Cooking and meals
The preparation of food took place in the kitchen where cooking was done on raised stone hlóðir with hooks suspended from above for holding the pots at the desired height above the fire. Ovens were rare, as these required lots of firewood for heating, so baking, roasting and boiling were all done in cast iron pots, usually imported. The two meals of the medieval period were replaced by three meals in the early modern period; the breakfast (morgunskattur) at around ten o’clock, lunch (nónmatur) at around three or four in the afternoon, and supper (kvöldskattur) at the end of the day. In the Icelandic turf houses people would eat sitting on their beds, with the food served in askar, low and bulging wooden staved casks with a hinged lid and two handles, often decorated, with the spoon food served in the cask and dry food placed on the open lid. Each household member would have his personal askur to eat from and was responsible for keeping it clean.
Móðuharðindin, arguably the greatest natural disaster to have hit Iceland after its settlement, took place in 1783. Ten years earlier, a ban on Danish merchants residing in Iceland had been lifted and five years later the trade monopoly was ended. This meant that some of the Danish merchants became residents and some Icelanders became merchants themselves. The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) led to a shortage of provisions as merchant ships stopped arriving and Icelanders had to rely on themselves leading to the increased popularity of locally produced garden vegetables. 19th century nationalism and schools for women were influential in shaping modern Icelandic cuisine and formalising traditional methods.
The first written cookbooks to be published in Icelandic were collections of Danishrecipes published in the 18th century and their purpose was to introduce the cuisine of the wealthier classes in Denmark-Norway to their peers in Iceland. The recipes would sometimes have a “commoner version” with less expensive ingredients for the farmhands and maids. The influence of the cuisine of Denmark was, however, felt long before that due to the influence of the Danish merchants. When some of these became residents in Iceland after a ban on their settling was lifted in 1770, they often ran a large household characterised by a mixture of Danish and Icelandic customs. The growth of Reykjavík, which had become a village by the end of the 18th century, also created a melting pot of Icelandic and Danish culinary traditions. Fishing villages formed in the 19th century, many of them situated by the trading harbours which previously had been nothing more than a natural harbour with perhaps a locked warehouse nearby. The Danish influence was most pronounced in pastry-making where there were few native traditions to begin with. Bakers of Danish origin operated around the start of the 20th century in both Reykjavík and Akureyri and some Danish pastry-making traditions have survived longer in Iceland than in Denmark.
The first vegetable gardens were constructed as agricultural experiments in the late 17th century but growing vegetables did not become common until the Napoleonic Wars when merchant ships stopped arriving. Usually the first to start growing vegetables were resident Danes who brought this tradition from Denmark. Popular garden vegetables at first included hardy varieties of cabbage,turnip, rutabaga and potato. These entered Icelandic cuisine as boiled accompaniments to meats and fish, sometimes mashed with butter.
In the first half of the 20th century, many home economics schools, intended as secondary education for women, were instituted around Iceland. Within these schools, during a time of nationalistic fervor, many Icelandic culinary traditions were formalised and written down by the pupils, and published in large recipe compendia which started appearing in print a few years later. Later emphasis on food hygiene and the use of fresh ingredients was a novelty in a country where culinary traditions had until then revolved around preserving the food for a long time, but where a modern economy was now booming, based on the export of seafood. Many rejected thus outright the traditional food and embraced the new bywords of “freshness” and “purity” associated with ingredients from the sea, especially when marketed abroad. A revival of old traditions came with regional associations of Icelanders who had moved to Reykjavík during the urbanisation boom of the late 1940s. These associations organised popular midwinter festivals where they started serving “Icelandic food”, traditional country foods served in a buffet that was later called Þorramatur.
In the beginning of the 20th century, farmers living near the towns would sell their products to shops and directly to households, often under a subscription contract. In dealing with the effects of the Great Depression in 1930, the government of Iceland instituted state monopolies on various imports, including vegetables, and gave the regional farmers’ cooperatives, most of them founded around the start of the 20th century, a monopoly on dairy and meat production for the consumer market. This meant that smaller private producers were out of business. The large cooperatives were seen as a way to implement economies of scale in agricultural production and were able to invest in production facilities meeting modern standards of food hygiene. These cooperatives still dominate, almost unchallenged, agricultural production in Iceland. One of the things pioneered by them was the creation of a new cheesemaking tradition based on popular European varieties of gouda, blue cheese, camembert etc. Cheesemaking (apart from skyr) had by then been practically extinct in Iceland since the 18th century. They have also driven product development, especially in dairy products, with e.g. whey-based sweet drinks and variations of traditional products such as “Skyr.is”, a creamier, sweeter skyr, which has boosted the popularity of this age-old staple.
Fishing on an industrial scale with trawlers started before World War I. This meant that fresh fish became a cheap commodity in Iceland and a staple in the cuisine of fishing villages around the country. Until around 1990 studies showed that Icelanders were consuming much more fish per capita than any other European nation. This has changed in recent years though, in part because of steeply rising fish prices.
Types of food – Fish
Fish dishes in Iceland are Icelandic fish which is caught in the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. Fresh fish can be had all the year round. Icelanders eat mostly haddock, plaice, halibut, herring, and shrimp.
North Atlantic fin whales are killed & exported from Iceland by the Icelandic company Hvalur
Traditionally, the main source of meat was the domestic sheep, the most common farm animal in Iceland. However, sheep were also used for their milk and wool and thus were worth more alive than dead. This meant that once a sheep was slaughtered (usually the young rams and infertile ewes) most or all of the carcass was used for making food, which was carefully preserved and cherished. Traditionally lambs are slaughtered in the autumn, when they are more than three months old and have reached a weight of almost 20 kg. Horses were not eaten after Christianisation except as a last resort, but this attitude started changing after the middle of the 18th century and horse meat, usually salted and served boiled or in bjúgu, a form of smoked sausage, has been common in Iceland from the 19th century onwards.
Icelandic beef is usually of top quality with good marbling due to the cold climate. Icelandic cattle are grass-fed and raised without growth hormones and drugs. However, the lack of tradition for eating beef (mutton being the dominant meat) means that lower quality meat is sometimes sold without distinction requiring careful choice from the buyer.
A puffin hunter in Vestmannaeyjar.
Small game in Iceland consists mostly of seabirds (Puffin, Cormorant and Great Black-backed Gull) and waterfowl (Mallard, Greylag goose and Pink-footed Goose). The meat of some seabirds contains fish oil and is therefore placed in a bowl of milk overnight to extract the oil before cooking. One species of wildfowl, Ptarmigan, is also found in Iceland although dramatically declining stocks in later years have led to a ban on their hunting. Ptarmigan, served with a creamy sauce and jam, is a traditional Christmas main course in many Icelandic households.
Seal hunting, especially the more common Harbor Seal, was common everywhere farmers had access to seal breeding grounds, which were considered an important commodity. Whereas mutton was almost never eaten fresh, seal meat was usually eaten immediately, washed in seawater, or conserved for a short time in brine. Seal meat is not commonly eaten anymore and is rarely found in stores.
A potential source of meat, systematic whaling was not possible in Iceland until the late 19th century due to the lack of ocean-going ships. Small whales were hunted close to the shore with the small rowboats used for fishing. Beached whales were also eaten and the Icelandic word for beached whale, hvalreki, is still used to mean a stroke of good luck. When Iceland started commercial whaling (mostly Minke Whales) in the early 20th century whale meat became popular as low-priced red meat which can be prepared in much the same manner as the more expensive beef. When Iceland withdrew from the International Whaling Commission in 1992, commercial whaling stopped but some whale meat could still be found in specialised stores coming from small whales accidentally caught in nets or beached. In 2002 Iceland rejoined the IWC and commercial whaling recommenced in 2006. Whale meat is thus commonly available again, although the price has gone up due to the cost of whaling itself.
Reindeer were introduced in Iceland in the late 18th century and live wild on the moorlands in the eastern farthing. A small number is killed by hunters each autumn and their meat, with its characteristic taste, can be found in stores and restaurants most of the year. Reindeer meat is considered a special delicacy and is usually very expensive.
Limits on meat imports
Minke whale on a stick, at the Sea Baron restaurant in Reykjavik Harbour area, Iceland
Importing raw meat to Iceland is strictly regulated and dependent on specific licenses issued to importers. This is due to the dangers of contamination as most of the stocks of domestic animals raised in Iceland have no resistance to some diseases that are common in neighboring countries because of their centuries-long isolation. The ban even applies to tourists bringing e.g. cured ham or sausage with them through customs. All items of this sort found by customs officers are confiscated and burned.
Dairy products are very important to Icelanders. In fact, the average Icelander eats about 100 gallons of dairy products in one year.
Fruits and vegetables
Vegetable production and consumption is steadily growing with production going from around 8,000 tonnes in 1977 to almost 30,000 tonnes in 2007. One of the benefits of the cold climate is less need for pesticides. Vegetables such as rutabaga, cabbage and turnips are usually started in greenhouses in the early spring and tomatoes andcucumbers are entirely produced indoors. Iceland relies on imports for almost any type of sweet fruit except sweet berries. Since the early 20th century it has been possible to grow barley for human consumption in a few places, for the first time since the Middle Ages.