Time Travel: Food You’d Eat, 1772, Iceland

fishskeltonSo, there you are, a few drinks of Black Death have transported back to Iceland in 1772 and you’ve wakened hungry. What’s to eat? You start walking and what you get, if you get anything, because that will depend whether or not it is a time of plenty or a time of famine.

Surprisingly, if you do get something to eat, traditional food has changed so little since 1772, that you would recognize some of it from Thorrablots.

You’d be served milk, warm from the cow or cold, and sometimes, boiled. You might be served butter milk, straight or diluted with water.


If you get any bread, it will probably be sour biscuit imported from Copenhagen but there isn’t much of this because it is expensive. You might get some rye bread if your host was able to get some from the trade ship because all the rye flour comes from Copenhagen. Your host’s wife will have mixed the flour with some fermented whey (syra) and kneaded it into a dough. She’ll then have made a flat cake about a foot long and three inches thick. She’ll have boiled this dough in water or whey and then dried it on a hot stone or an iron plate. If you host has an iron plate.

If you are lucky enough to be offered butter (fat of all kinds is always in short supply), you’ll get sour butter. The Icelanders seldom ate fresh or salted butter. The advantage of that it that it kept for as long as twenty years. According to von Troil, the Icelanders thought so highly of sour butter that they figured one pound of sour was worth two pounds of fresh.

You might get served mysost. Or, you might get beinga-ftriug, that is the bones and cartilages of beef and mutton, and bones of cod that have been boiled in whey until they are so soft and fermented that they can be served with milk.

If you are fortunate, you might get a piece of dried cod with a bowl of sour butter.

If you are on the coast, you’d probably get a drink of blanda, that is water mixed with one twelfth syra which is quite acidic. If it is winter time, you might get some black crow berries in your blanda. That would be good to stave of scurvy.

You might get a drink of sour milk. Our host would have paid two-fifths of a Danish rigs dollar for a cask. If you were visiting a well off farmer you might get a drink of beer imported from Copenhagen or he might have brewed some of his own. If you were lucky enough to be at one of the important farmsteads where the farmer owned a lot of land and sheep and cows, you might get coffee. If you were at an ordinary person’s house, you’d likely get a kind of tea which they’d make from the leaves of Speedwell which they could collect wild.

Iceland was no different than any other country then or now. If you were an important farmer, you could afford to eat meat, butter, shark and whale. If you were a crofter or hired help, indentured servant, you had to make do with fish, blanda, milk pottage made with rock-grass (Icelandic moss), and boiled and fermented bones.

Most of the time, the diets were very monotonous, the ingredients unvarying but adequate. However, Iceland suffered tremendous famines. Large numbers of people died of hunger. According to von Troil, these came about because the ice from Greenland came in great quantities into the harbours and prevented the grass from growing and kept people from fishing.

What he thinks of the Icelandic diet, remember this is a person from the upper class on an expedition financed by a wealthy nobleman, can be seen in that they drank “port, and several other sorts of good wine, and a French cook prepared for us some savoury dishes, and excellent puddings.”

They did ask a wealthy Icelander to provide them with a supper made from Icelandic ingredients. The fish and lamb were wonderful. The dried fish and sour butter were only tasted but the rotted shark drove them from the table.

So, there you have it, what you’ll get to eat if you try time travel, Icelandic style.

One thing is for certain, unless it was a time of famine, although food was often short, even the poorest people would give you something to eat. When people entered a home, they invoked god, and although we may have fallen away from the church, they took their religious lessons seriously and did as the Good Samaritan for the stranger even though he was of a different faith.

The Christmas Party

There was wind. There was threatening rain. There was a storm on the ocean, a storm strong enough to keep our guest speaker from Seattle, David Johnson, from joining us. Two days in a row, the Clipper catamaran’s run between Seattle and Victoria has been canceled. However, he sent a message encouraging us all to attend the INL weekend of fun and frolic in Seattle this coming spring. I made a short speech encouraging people to attend. I’ve found that attending INL conventions has increased and changed my knowledge and opinions about my Icelandic heritage.

However, none of us local members had to come by crossing the ocean. We came laden with good food. Much too much good food. Enough good food for a vast number of people. We could  have fed the multitudes on the Mount.

There was Riverton rúllupylsa, cookies that were in the shape of a Viking boat with its sail up, rosettes. I just about felt like I was back in New Iceland. There were cakes and fruits and more cookies and desserts I did not know the names of. You can tell we come from a culture where eating and celebrating went together.

Trish’s viking ship cookies.

Kladia Robertsdottir brought the laufabrauð that I made at her house the other day. Although they were not as pretty as Kladia and Trish´s, they got eaten. Kladia also had made one with the initial W on it for William. I accidentally included it in the basket on the table. However, it was retrieved. It´ll get eaten at the family Christmas dinner.

Kladia’s rosettes. There was a time when, I could have eaten a dozen topped with whipped cream and a bit of strawberry jam. Of course, in those days, I had a 28 inch waist.

Trish Baer told us a bit about her Phd dissertation on images in the Eddas. She gave a presentation in Sweden this summer, is going to give another at the University of Victoria and is, I believe, going to give a presentation at the INL conference. Her dissertation has been submitted and is being read by her committee.

The Vikings would hold parties that went on for days with feasting, drinking, story telling, negotiating, buying, selling, and just about anything you can think of and, when it was over, they gave their guests rich presents. That´s when things were good. Crops were good, and if they needed a bit extra, they went off and killed people, burned down their homes, looted their storehouses and demonstrated how good they were at this sort of thing by giving away a lot of what they´d stolen. That meant no one criticized them for their business  methods.

However, the Vikings ran out of wood for making ships,faded away,  became sheep farmers, lost their independence to Norway and then Denmark, and times became tough and then tougher. The weather changed. No more cereal crops. Not much to trade. However, they kept up the tradition of feasts as best they could.

The bishops may have been able to stamp out dancing but they couldn´t stop people from eating. The Icelanders did their best with what they had. During the hard years of famine, a sheep´s head was a feast. Nowadays, with Icelandic prosperity, there´s the Jólahlaðborð, the Christmas buffet. Some people go to two or three or more. That doesn´t surprise me. I remember, as a teenager, eating a full Christmas dinner at Fjola and Brinky Sveinsson´s and then their son, Robert, and I walking into town to my parent´s place to eat another full Christmas dinner. Little did we know that we were carrying out an Icelandic tradition.

Then there´s the Jólaglögg. Often made of wine and vodka, it stimulates the appetite and weakens the knees. With the harsh liquor laws in BC, one drink is all you are allowed before you risk losing both your driver´s license and your car and being forced to stand on a street corner with a sign saying you are an irresponsible glogger.

Also in Iceland, there´s Þorláksmesa, celebrating Iceland´s patron saint, Þorlákir helgi. I don´t remember us celebrating any saints. As a matter of fact, I didn´t know we had any. We just ate our way through Christmas day, dined on left over turkey and whatever on Boxing Day, struggled through boxes of chocolates and left over shortbread cookies for a week or so, then partied on New Years. New Year´s parties were about drinking, dancing, smooching, yelling, singing and having a hangover the next day . When there was food, it was more along the lines of dinner and dance food. Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic haggis, that sort of thing.

Times have changed. Old age has snuck up on some of us. Where did that hair go, we ask ourselves when we look in the mirror? Where did this stomach come from? Icelandic perogis, Icelandic hollopchi, Icelandic chow mein, Icelandic fried chicken, plus kleinur, vinarterta, hangikjöt, pönnukökur and rosetttes. Etc.

We can´t eat and drink as much as we used to but we can still talk as well as ever and at the Christmas party we did talk, we conversed, we visited, we enjoyed ourselves. When we were leaving, we felt better for our conversations about now and about our past, often a past that began in New Iceland, for, like the Vikings, we´re travelers, many of us having traveled across oceans and over continents earning a living. Most of us are far from home.

Gleðileg Jól, Gleðileg Jól, to one and all, wherever you are. We´re with you in spirit. May your Christmas party be as enjoyable as ours.


Vinarterta by M

At the heart of the heart of Icelandic North American culture is not Vikings, or horses or sheep, or fishing or Black Death or language, no, they are not the centre of our culture, nor is religion, Lutheran, Unitarian, nor the sagas, no, nope, the centre of all things Icelandic North American is vinarterta. Traditionally, it is a seven layer prune torte, with thin biscuit layers, sometimes iced, sometimes not.

In the old days, people were buried with a copy of the Passion Hymns. Nowadays, they’re buried with a slice of vinarterta to take to heaven with them.

There are sides, like the North and South in the American civil war, like Irish catholics and protestants, but the sides aren’t political or religious, they’re whether you eat your vinarterta iced or not iced. No icer has ever been known to convert to being a non-icer, although there have been rumours that a non-icer has been known to convert to being an icer.

It was discovered in recent years, that Icelanders in Iceland sometimes use a rhubarb filling. This is aposty of the worst sort. This is the betrayal of Icelandic culture to the same degree as comparing the sagas to Classic comics. There is a reason for everything and it may be that during WWII it was impossible to obtain prunes. Desperation can drive people to cannibalism or worse, to rhubarb filling.

That vinarterta is so culturally embedded made it all the more surprising that Melissa Macauley of Shorepoint Village was proudly standing behind a table laden with vinarterta. Not only that but people like her vinarterta so much that she sold all three dozen yesterday and had spent the evening and night making 15 more. If you have ever made vinarterta, mixing the dough, spreading the layers, cooking them to just the perfect texture, spreading them with prunes, building the layers, you will know that making 15 more vinarterta was an Olympic feat.

She says her husband is of Icelandic background. It’s amazing the magic marriage can do. There are rumours of local women of Icelandic background who can make peroghis that stick together when they are boiled. It doesn’t seem possible but the rumours are persistent.

Melissa says that making vinarterta is a labour of love. That certainly must be the case because as I stood at the table, customers came and went and she cautioned them that since the vinarterta was made only hours before that it needed to sit and ripen a bit before it was at its perfect best. But, from the look in the eyes of the customers, ready or not, the vinarterta was going to disappear with a mug or two of coffee.

Melissa is serious about her baking. She has a site on the internet www.sweetsbym. Ca  She also makes birthday cakes and wedding cakes but those don’t underpin an entire culture, don’t bring men to blows over whether their cake should be iced or not iced or, heaven forbid, it should have cardamom in it.

Personally, I’m icer and no cardamom. When I was a teenager, a quarter of a cake (now 8.00) could disappear with two cups of coffee. Those were, of course, the days when I had a twenty-eight inch waist and a bottomless stomach.