Uno von Troil: cattle

Uno von Troil says “Next to fishing, the principal support of the Icelanders is the breeding of cattle.
“Their beeves are not large, but very fat and good. It has been reported by some, though without foundation, that there are none among them with horns: it is however true that they seldom have nay.”
“The large cattle are kept at home in their yards the greater part of the year, though some have places appropriated for them in the mountains which they call fatr, where they send their cattle during the summer, till the hay harvest is over. They have a herdsman to attend them, and two women to milk them and make butter and cheese. It is common to meet with oxen running wild about the mountains, which are however drove home in autumn, as everyone knows his own by a particular mark put upon them.
“The principal food of the cattle is hay, and they reckon that a stack of  hay for a cow’s winter provision; a stack consists of thirty cocks (kapal) of hay, grown on manured land, and forty cocks kapal grown on un-manured land. When there is a scarcity of fodder, they feed them in some pars with steenbitr, a kind of fish, which, together with the heads and bones of cod, is beat small, and mixed with one quarter of chopped hay. The cattle are fond of it and yield a good deal of milk after it; but yet it is said to have a bad taste, and they only make use of this food in time of need.
“Their cows yield four kanne of  milk a day, though they have some that give from eight to fourteen in four-and-twenty hours. A cow that yields six quarts is reckoned a good one, and must not stand dry above there weeks before she calves.
“A young calf is fed with milk for ten days or a fortnight, afterwards the milk is mixed with water and chopped hay, and at last they give it whey instead of milk
“The usual price of a cow, as well as of a horse, is one hundred and twenty ells, thirty of which make a dollar. However, sometimes the better sort of horses are sold for eight or ten rix-dollars. They have less trouble with their horses than their cows; for though some saddle-horses are kept in stables during winter, the greater number of them are obliged to provide for their own subsistence, and when they cannot find this on land, they go in search of sea-weeds on the coasts; but when a great quantity of snow has fallen, the natives are obliged to clear it away for them.”
To get this stack of hay needed for each cow to survive the winter, every farm worker (and the small farm owner), has to scythe an area 180 ft. by 180 ft. every day. That’s on the tún where the soil is manured and where the grass grows more thickly. To get that stack of hay for each cow from unfertilized meadows, a man has to scythe a square 240 ft to a side every day. The women working in the fields have to rake as much hay as three men can mow. Every day. The hours were long, The work hard. In Paradise Reclaimed, after the farm at Steinahliðar has been destroyed and Steina has been sent by the parish council to work on a farm, the narrator says, “She was worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days of toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” 
Uno von Troil writes about life in Iceland in 1772. Laxness sets Paradise Reclaimed around the year 1874. We know this because the Danish king comes to visit. Little, if anything, has changed.
In 1874, there has been no mechanization. The cattle depend on harvested grass for the winter. The grass was still cut with a scythe and, although there are many tales of witches who can command a host of scythes to cut her grass, the reality is that one man can only wield one scythe. The grass has to be raked. It has to be dried. It has to be stacked. An experienced farmer can look at his stacks of hay and his herd and calculate how long the hay will last and whether or not, before the year is over, he‘ll be feeding his cattle hay mixed with hammered fish bones and sea weed. In a good year, the milk will taste sweet and in a bad year, it will taste of fish. In a very bad year, there‘ll be no milk to taste.
Cows, in a way, were regarded as a luxury because they required more grass than sheep for an equal amount of milk. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses resents it when he is given a cow unasked. With the milk from the cow, the health of his family improves but only at the cost of less feed for his sheep.

When their cow is starving for lack of hay, Bjartur’s wife, Finna asks him to visit some of the other farms to borrow some hay. He refuses and says,
“No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years work to get my stock together. I worked twelve more years to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing.” That one thing is to kill the cow which he does quite happily.
Not all farmers, however, were like Bjartur. The original settlers had brought over dairy cattle before 1000 AD. The cattle though perhaps not as efficient users of grass as the cows, were still efficient. That was good because no grain ripened in Iceland after the Little Ice Age began. Importing grain was prohibitively expensive even for human consumption. There was no tradition of growing vegetables to feed animals. The climate made it increasingly difficult to grow vegetables and those who did or tried to were mostly Danes.
In spite of the preference for sheep, the settlers in New Iceland followed the tradition of raising dairy cows. In the New Iceland area, just outside of Gimli, the tradition is still carried on by the Narfason family. In 1915, Magnus Narfason was selling fluid milk to the City dairy in Winnipeg from a farm he established in 1897. His sons Elli and Mundi took over the farm after Magnus died in 1931. Oli Narfason, who is Elli‘s son, became involved in the farm in the late 1940s. His son Clifford took over the farm when Oli retired. Today, in 2012, that‘s 115 years of commitment to those cows that Bjartur saw as competing with his precious sheep.
My great grandfather, Ketill, after working as a labourer on the railway and in Winnipeg, saved enough money to start a large dairy business in Winnipeg in 1894. He bought a parcel of land on the N. W. Corner of Simcoe St. And Ellice Ave. What is now in the heart of the city was grazing land. He carried on business there until 1903.
Cows. Hay. Milk. Survival. A way of life. Transferred to North America. First just to provide the milk that was a staple in the diet of the Icelandic settlers but, gradually, as many settlers took other opportunities, there came the possibility of producing milk for the community.
Today, there is little evidence of the critical role dairy cattle played in the survival of both the Icelanders and the North American Icelandic settlers but no history of either group is complete without an understanding of how the cattle Uno von Troil describes were critical to our ancestor‘s survival. Gimli has a large viking statue. We all like it. We take relatives and friends to stand in front of it for pictures. Perhaps, what there should be is a statue of an Icelandic dairy cow, our own Bukolla. The Viking raids left nothing for following generations   to eat. Their plunder disappeared. The cows were more faithful. They have fed us for over a thousand years. Maybe a statue of an Icelandic cow standing beside the Viking, as large as he is, would recognize what we owe to whom.
Perhaps, when we reach for the skyr, we should pause for a moment and think of people scything grass long into the night, raking hay in the rain, pounding fish bones and collecting seaweed to mix with hay, so that the milk, cream, butter and skyr would last longer than the winter.

Saving Our Heritage: Food

Food, more than any other element of ethnicity, helps define an ethnic group. It helps create and maintain identity.  When we want to celebrate, the first question we ask is what shall we eat? When we want to praise our Icelandic heritage, we most often praise our distinctive, celebratory foods.
When we have a celebration such as a Thorrablot, we often take people of non-Icelandic background with us as guests and say things like, wait until you taste this, try this. We revel in the unique taste of a vinarterta but also in the grossness of hakarl and revel in the telling of how it is made.
Food matters. It matters because the ingredients, the taste, the smell, the feel, all contain memories of the food’s origin.
When we eat dried cod with butter, although we now eat it as an appetizer, not as a staple in our diet, or even as a main course in our celebrations, we are recognizing and appreciating how central it was to our ancestors.
At one time it was possible to grow barley in Iceland but with the beginning of The Little Ice Age, grain would no longer ripen. All grain had to be imported and, with the cost of transportation plus the Danish trade monopoly, grain was expensive. Dried cod took its place. Because there was no fat in the dried fish, it was served with sour butter.
Shepherd, visiting Iceland in 1862, says, “”ling and cod are the most desired sorts (of fish). When caught, they are split open and hung upon lines, or exposed on the shore to the cold winds and the hot sun; this renders t hem perfectly hard, and they keep good for years. In this dried state it is called stock-fish. It is impossible to eat it until it has been well pummeled on a stone anvil, with a sort of sledge-hammer, formed by a round stone with a hole drilled through it for the handle to pass through….Butter and stock-fish form the ordinary Icelandic dinner.”
The hay growing season, and hay was the only crop, was three months long. During that three months, enough food had to be prepared and stored for the nine coming months. Iceland doesn’t get cold enough for freezing to be used to keep meat. Salt was too expensive to use for most things. Ingeniously, our ancestors figured out that climate that never got very hot and seldom very cold for any length of time that they could preserve meat in whey. They had lots of whey because they made a lot of skyr.
Nothing was wasted. Hunger always stalked the land. That meant that every part of an animal was used. We recognize that when we eat rúllupylsa, rolled and spiced sheep flank. We recognize it when we eat hrútspungar, ram´s testicles pickled in whey or when we eat lifrapylsa or slátur.
There is no food in travelers tales of Iceland that is praised more than skyr. Today, we make it from cow´s milk but, in Iceland, it was made from both cow´s and sheep´s milk. Sheep were less expensive to keep, could survive on poorer ground, and provided the bulk of the milk that was used.
In 1882, Coles says at “the farm of Mjófidalr…they set before us some capital skyr, black bread, and coffee.“
Icelandic moss was a major part of the people‘s diets. It was  nutritious and could be used in many different ways, in porridges, puddings, bread or soup. C. W. Sheperd says in his book, The North-West Peninsula of Iceland, 1862, says Part of our supper consisted of Icelandic moss soup. In those parts of the island where this moss is to be found, it is collected and dried. It grows on the low moorlands, and is to be found in great abundance about Ljósaövatn in the north-eastern part of the island. When used as food, it is boiled in milk and served up like soup. It is not unpleasant, being a soft, glutinous substance but its flavour is rather sickly.“
We don‘t see Icelandic moss soup at our Thorrablots or at our dinner tables anymore, nor do we make meals of dried Icelandic seaweed but we do eat rice pudding. Rice was inexpensive and was heavily imported to Iceland.
So, when we eat brunt brauð og rúllupylsa, have kaffe with pönnukökur and kleinur, help ourselves to vinarterta or have a slice or two of hangikjöt, we aren´t just eating, we´re sharing the past.
The immigrants went through a very rapid change in their diets. Women were the keepers of the Icelandic food tradition and they had two important tasks.  One, to keep the memory of the tradition left behind and reinstate it in their new community. Two, to adapt, as quickly as possible to new ingredients and new methods of preparation and preservation.
By creating a colony called New Iceland, that is a new Iceland, just like the old Iceland, but in a different location, the Icelandic immigrant identified themselves as cultural conservatives. The role of women in recreating an Icelandic diet in a new location or at least approximating it, provided some familiarity in an otherwise totally foreign environment.
Those early immigrations of 1874 and 1875 began a process that resulted in both tragedy and triumph. Lives were enveloped in change. The one controllable factor was the ability of the women in the community to provide familiar food or its approximate. That food provided security and comfort but it also contained and exuded memory.
By learning to make and eat many of these traditional Icelandic foods, by sharing them, by passing  them down to our children and our grand children, by explaining what they are and why we make and eat them, we can do a great deal to preserve our heritage.

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.