The start of the old Icelandic calendar month of Thorri was celebrated this weekend in Reykjavík. Opening with Bóndadagur or husbands’ day, which marks the first day of Thorri, this midwinter festival is renowned for its strange customs and even stranger food!
Feasting on the food of Thorri (Þorramatur) is the test of a true Viking, a test that Icelanders proudly partake in every year by devouring great quantities of this scary-looking fodder. Once upon a time, or so they say, the sour and putrid food of Thorri was the only food available in Iceland, as they often struggled for fresh supplies during the winter months. Now it seems they do it as a test of character and an opportunity to celebrate strange traditions and sing old Viking songs.
Although I’ve now been living in Iceland for many years and have grown to love this midwinter festival, I still remember my first encounter with Icelanders and their crazy Thorri food, which I was introduced to at a wild party called a ‘Thorrablót’ hosted many years ago by the Icelandic Society in England. I still hadn’t set foot in Iceland and yet there I was getting rather bladdered on something called ‘Black Death Brennivín’, a brand (sadly no longer available) of Icelandic schnapps, which came served in its own little wooden coffin gruesomely garnished in bones. Apart from all the singing, drinking and dangerous dancing, my most vivid memory of that first introduction to Icelandic culture was the frightening food, which formed a grey and pinkish banquet of suspicious-looking meat products, generating enough stink to challenge the mettle of even the most fearless of noses.Trying desperately not to look offended, I searched the table for something familiar and was immediately drawn — in shock and horror, I might add — to a plateful of familiar faces. There, forming the frightening centrepiece of the spread was a pile of boiled sheep heads (svið) with their faces still very much on! Eyes, ears, nose and teeth, with varied expressions too! Now I’m not a vegetarian, but coming face-to-face with your food, even in the knowledge that it’s definitely dead and cooked, takes some getting used to.
Before the night was over I’d received quite an education in Thorri culture and cuisine. I’d tried a variety of sour sausage, some sheep-shit smoked side of lamb (Magáll), and the famous prize in the horror-show of Icelandic Thorri food – putrid shark (Hákarl). Despite it being the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted, I chewed and swallowed! Can I be an honorary Viking now, please?