Icelandic food through history

Trish Baer and Sigrun Davidsdottir (photo credit, WDValgardson)
Sigrun Davidsdóttir gave a lecture called “Icelandic Cuisine: from poverty to pizza” on Sunday, 26 February, at the University of Victoria. Her visit was arranged and sponsored under the auspices of The Richard and Margaret Beck Trust which is administered by Patricia Baer and Dr. John Tucker. Trish Baer is completing a Phd on images in the sagas. Dr. Tucker is a member of the Medieval Studies department and an avid supporter of all things Icelandic.

Sigrun is making her first visit to Canada. She left Iceland in 1988 and lives in London, England. She works as a professional journalist but, like many Icelanders, is successful at many different tasks. She has written novels, children’s stories, worked for radio among other things.

This visit is particularly meaningful because, besides having relatives who immigrated to Canada, she is the sister-in-law of Kladia Robertsdottir, a long-time resident of Victoria.

With an audience that ranged from Icelanders who have immigrated to Canada to people who know little or nothing about Iceland, Sigrun left nothing to chance.

She started by explaining that in spite of its name, Iceland is neither very hot nor very cold. This climate has shaped everything to do with food in Iceland. With salt, the normal preservative of hot climates, too expensive for everyday use in preserving food, the Icelanders had to find some way of preserving food. They used whey. Iceland is the only place in the world where this method is used.

The sagas, 12-14th C., have some references to food but not many. Food was, even in those days, for surviving, not enjoying. There are references in Egill’s saga: fish, eggs, whales, and livestock. In Grettir’s saga there is a verse in which an immigrant to Iceland bemoans having left behind grain fields for wasteland.

In the early years of the settlement, the weather was still mild enough that barley and oats could be grown. Around 1400 the climate grew colder. The growing season became shorter. From that time grain would not ripen.

There was only fresh meat in autumn. There was a small tradition of cheese but that disappeared because skyr was more efficient.

For a long time fishing was just for local consumption. Only small amounts of fish were exported. There was no tradition of Gravlax, or pickled herring or of curing and smoking salmon.  There was no seafood tradition. There was no bread tradition because of the cost of imported grain. Flat bread and rye bread were made but that was all.

Something that kept an elevated food tradition from developing was the lack of an aristocracy. There were no wealthy local merchants.

The lack of variety in the Icelandic diet lasted into the 20th C. The diet was very limited until after the war.

Sigrun gave an example of an uncle of hers who had been born in 1920. His father died and his mother was left with nine children. The mother farmed out six children and kept the three youngest. The uncle was sent to live on a farm. He worked as an errand boy. His job was to bring food, porridge and skyr, sour blood pudding, to the people working in the fields. His clothes were wet all the time. He was never dry. Life like this was not considered poverty. It was just normal life. Although Sigrun didn’t mention it, Bjartur of Summerhouses, in Independent People, says that he has been wet all his life and it hasn’t hurt him.

In the 20th C fishing takes over on an industrial scale. This brings more money into the economy and with it better food. There was no food language in Icelandic. They borrowed it from the Danes. They also copy the Dane’s in creating housewife’s schools where young women can learn how to do domestic tasks, including cooking.

Fifty years ago, a group of foreign politicians, including a Bulgarian, visited greenhouses in Iceland. The visitors were given tomatoes that were grown in the greenhouses. The manager of the greenhouse said to them that these were the vest tomatoes in the world. The Bulgarian was amused. So was the audience.

At one point, Sigrun needed to earn more money and, being resourceful, realized there was a real  need for some cookbooks. Inspired by her sister-in-law, Kladia Robertsdottir, Sigrun wrote the cookbook, A Cookbook for Young People of All Ages. In it, she tried to show Icelanders what they could do with local ingredients. However, her culinary language was Danish and she had to relearn or recreate an Icelandic culinary language.

She did things like suggesting using wine and spices when making head cheese and serving blood pudding with cooked apples and pears.

If foreigners go to Iceland in winter, they get to experience Þorramatur. This is not an ancient feast or ritual. It was created by a restaurant owner in the `1960s. By offering food in the old way of cooking, he was such a success that you now can find these items anywhere.

Today, Icelandic cooking is international. However, since the Kreppa, there has been a new emphasis on local food.

The Icelandic diet today is much better than it was in the past but the other side of that is a large problem with obesity.

Of all the Icelandic foods, the one that has the greatest international success is skyr.

She highly recommended two restaurants: Dill and Sjávarétta-Kjavarinn. Oh, and as a reminder, there are now beer micro breweries in Iceland and the beer is excellent.