Þorrablót 2014

Well hello there, blog!  Long time no see.  We have a lot to catch up on, but I figured I would start with the most recent happenings and work my way backward.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend my first Þorrablót celebration.  Þorrablót, for the uninitiated, is not just a really odd-sounding word, but also an Icelandic mid-winter feast usually celebrated with large quantities of traditional (and mostly disgusting) Icelandic foods, drink, dancing, and general merriment.  The Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle hosted this year’s event at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard.

I drove up to Seattle on Saturday afternoon, and despite my GPS system’s best efforts to thwart me, safely arrived at the museum with plenty of time to spare.  I sat at a table you could call “Snorris and Friends,” if you felt the need to give the table a dorky name (which I kind of do).  Our company included myself; my fellow 2012 Snorri Amanda and her mom, who was visiting from Hawaii; my Snorri Plus friend David; Greg, an Iceland Airwaves enthusiast/addict and KEXP volunteer; Crys, aspiring 2014 Snorri, and her friend Annea; and Rúnar and Guðrún, an Icelandic couple visiting Seattle for the first time.  Greg and I chatted about Icelandic music and discovered we had been at a couple of the same concerts last year (Sigur Rós in Bend and Ólafur Arnalds in PDX).  I also spent a lot of time talking to Rúnar, who is an author, translator, and professor of creative writing at the University of Iceland.  He and Guðrún are both from the Westfjords.  Áfram Vestfirðir!

As mentioned previously, the vast Þorramatur spread included a number of foods that are really best described as disgusting, many of which I tried in Iceland, including hrútspungar (those tasty soured ram’s testicles), hákarl (the infamous fermented shark), and sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam).  Having tried these foods once, and having a distinct memory of walking up and down Óðinsgata after our Taste of Iceland dinner feeling extremely unwell, I felt no inclination to partake in the soured-meat-eating portion of the evening.  I maintained a vegetarian (read: safe and non-stinky) plate, including salad, veggies, potatoes, mashed rutabagas, rúgbrauð með smjör, and pickled red cabbage.

Those who tried the hákarl reported that it really wasn’t bad at all.  This leads me to conclude that all rotten sharks are not rotted alike, because I am still a bit haunted by the sheer strength of the smell that emanated from our little container of hákarl cubes in Iceland.

Dessert was much safer – pönnukökur með rjóma and skyr with blueberries.  And coffee – of course, coffee.

But the part of the evening I was most excited about was the music.  Several months ago, I got an email from David telling me about some of the plans for Þorrablót.  I was reading this email in my car (I was at a red light, promise!) and I just barely glanced at a sentence that said something about a hip Icelandic band coming to play at Þorrablót.  The thought immediately flashed into my mind – wouldn’t that be crazy if it was Ylja coming to Seattle?  Ylja is the band I saw play at my beloved kaffihús in Patreksfjörður.  After I returned from Iceland, they released an album and rapidly gained popularity.  Well, what do you know, when I had safely parked my car and could finish reading the email, I was surprised and excited to see that it really was Ylja coming to play at Þorrablót!

The first song Ylja played was my very favorite song (Á Rauðum Sandi) about one of my very favorite places in Iceland (Rauðasandur).  It took me right back to July 2012 and made me so incredibly homesick for that time and place.

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Ylja played a great (if a bit short) set of songs from their album, plus a cover and one or two new tunes.  Then they led the crowd in a singalong of a few traditional Icelandic songs (only one of which I vaguely knew – Ó María, Mig Langar Heim, which one of the locals sang at our kvöldvaka in Hofsós).

After that, the DJ started spinning some classic dance tunes (Billie Jean, Love Shack, Dancing Queen – you get the picture) and a couple dozen attendees, inhibitions loosened by the Brennivín, perhaps, took the action to the dance floor.  What surprised and entertained me the most was that the dancing crowd was not exactly composed of the younger adults in attendance.  Hey, more power to them!

Anyway, it is always a joy to spend time with my Icelandic family, friends new and old who love Iceland as much as I do.  Big thanks to the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle for throwing a great event, to my tablemates for the great conversation, to Chef Kristín Ósk Gestsdóttir for the food, and to Ylja for a beautiful glimpse back at a time and place I miss so much and cherish so dearly.

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Recap: Edible Oddities Consumed in Iceland, plus What’s On the Menu Next Time

Soon after I returned to the States, I joined some friends at my church’s family camp.  Everyone was excited to see me and hear stories from my trip, and apparently people had been reading my blog, because more than one person asked me about/applauded me for all the interesting (and often disgusting) foods I tried.  I think I have written about everything I tried, but they’re spread out over several blog entries, so I thought it might be interesting to compile the list now.  So, without further ado, I present to you the list of…

Edible Oddities I Consumed in Iceland

(Plus several non-oddities…)

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Kjöt, Fiskur, og Egg (Meat, Fish, and Eggs)

  • puffin – Yes, the cute little black-and-white bird.  Can’t say I enjoyed it much; it’s very strong, almost gamey, and I wasn’t feeling well the day I ate it anyway, but if/when I marry Helgi, I suppose I’ll have to get used to it.

  • sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam) – This is what happens when you scrape out all the ooey gooey bits and pieces from inside a sheep’s head and smoosh it together into a gelatinous cube.  Just about as terrible as it sounds/looks.

  • harðfiskur – Unsalted fish, dried to a straw-like crisp in the sun and wind.

  • hákarl – The infamous putrefied Greenland shark.  (Disclaimer: I didn’t actually swallow it, but considering that Gordon Ramsay threw it up and Anthony Bourdain described it as the single worst food he’s ever eaten, I think that even keeping it in my mouth for 5 seconds counts as a success.)

  • horse meat sausage – I don’t think it was entirely horse meat; it actually tasted like lamb to me.  Anyway, I didn’t know it contained horse meat until after I had eaten it.  It was really quite good, although I’m still not much of a red meat person.

  • pylsa – Icelandic hot dog made with lamb, topped with crunchy fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, mustard, and remoulade.

  • lamb – I know this isn’t exactly an exotic food, but I don’t normally eat red meat and actually I don’t think I had ever eaten lamb before.
  • hangikjöt – Smoked lamb, thinly sliced and served with flatbrauð and smjör.  Not bad, but a little too smokey for my taste.
  • lax – I tried smoked and cured varieties, but they were both too raw for me.  I’ll stick to cooked smoked salmon.
  • this weird egg – I don’t remember what kind of bird this is from, but my host parents insisted they are SO much better than hen eggs.  That might be true, but I was too disturbed by the translucent white and the too-orange yolk to really register the taste.

  • súrsaðir hrútspungar – Soured ram’s testicles.  Actually one of the least heinous of the disgusting-sounding traditional foods.  Just a little sour.

  • fiskibollur – Like meatballs made of fish.  Not bad, not good.  I don’t think fish should be quite that chewy.
  • fiskbúðingur (fish pudding) – I could have translated the ingredients on the can (yes, it comes in a can), but I figured it was safer not to know.  It comes out of the can in one big cylinder, then is sliced and pan-fried.  Like the fiskibollur, it was a little too chewy for comfort…
  • steinbítur, ýsa, karfi, og meira fiskar – I ate a LOT of fish, and I didn’t always know what kind it was.  I do know that I loved the steinbítur and karfi, but found the monkfish rather questionable.

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Brauð (Bread)

  • rúgbrauð – A dense, dark, sweet rye bread made with molasses.  One of my favorites.  I need to find a recipe.
  • pönnukökur – Icelandic pancakes.  Basically a crepe.  Served with rhubarb jam and whipped cream or simply with sugar. I need to attempt these at home.

  • hveitikökurFlat white bread, similar to pita bread.  I ate it for breakfast with smjör and cheese.  Mmm.
  • flatbrauð – Not sure how to describe this.  As the name suggests, it’s very flat, it has a mildly sweet taste, and it’s often paired with smjör and hangikjöt.

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Sykur (Sugary Treats)

  • rababarasulta – Rhubarb jam.  I don’t usually like rhubarb jam in the States, but I think it’s the official jam of Iceland, and it’s very good.  Seems to be served with just about anything, from pönnukökur to meatballs.
  • hjónabandssæla (‘happy marriage cake’) – Oatmeal cake with jam filling.  I tried some from a bakarí in Reykjavík, enjoyed the one Ásta made in Hvolsvöllur, and ordered some on my flight home (the flight attendant was extremely impressed that I could pronounce it correctly).
  • hrísgrjónagrautur (rice pudding) – I tried three versions of this.  One was already prepared and just had to be heated on the stove; one was homemade by Hrafnhildur, and one came in a little individual-serving container with a side of caramel sauce (hrísmjólk með karamellusósu).  They were all magical.

  • Prince Polo bars – Okay, so they’re actually Polish, but they are well-loved in Iceland, and I can see why; they’re pretty tasty.  Too bad they’re made by Kraft.

  • skyr – A thick dairy product, similar to Greek yogurt.  Love love love it!

  • Nói Síríus chocolate – Yum yum, although I much prefer the dark varieties (which you have to find in the baking section; apparently your average Icelander thinks chocolate over 45% cacao content is not suitable for direct consumption).
  • black licorice – Eh.  I tried the sweet kind and the salty kind and the in-between kind and while it no longer makes me want to gag, it’s far from my favorite.

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Drykkir (Drinks)

  • Icelandic moss tea –  Mild flavor; nothing too exciting.
  • kaffi kaffi kaffi – Mmm.  Icelanders don’t know what weak coffee is, and that’s exactly how it should be.
  • Egils appelsín (orange soda) – Not much of a soda drinker, but this was pretty good.  It was also good in combination with maltextrakt (the mix is known as jólaöl).

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Although that is quite the list and I am certainly proud of it, I did miss out on a few important items of Icelandic cuisine.  Oh darn. Guess I’ll have to go back.

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On the Menu for Next Time:

  • whale meat – I actually had the chance to try this but I didn’t take a piece in time and then it was all gone.  One of my few regrets.
  • svið (sheep’s head) – I could have tried this at our Taste of Iceland dinner, but I refrained, which was good, because as it turns out, our particular sheep’s heads had not been cooked…

  • ástarpungar – A round doughnut-like pastry with raisins.
  • brennivín – Icelandic schnapps.  The name literally means ‘burning wine.’
  • Icelandic moss soup – I don’t think this is exactly common dinner faire any more, but I’m assuming you can find it in some tourist-serving restaurants…

That’s all I can come up with.  Can you think of anything else I missed that I should add to my list?