Icelandic cuisine and culinary traditions

A culinary tradition encompasses many elements shaped by natural features, the place itself, the availability of ingredients, knowledge and know-how, imports and the nation’s economy at the time. In the Arctic the summers are short and the winters long. Most foods were only available in the summertime and reserves had to be preserved until the next spring.

Icelandic cuisine was characterized by a considerable consumption of animal products and unique modes of preservation like pickling, fermentation, drying of fish, air drying and smoking, which later used sheep dung due to lack of firewood. Later we learned to bury meat and fish, from our cousins in Scandinavia. One can admire how much people were able to utilize in the past. Everything that could stave of hunger was inventively put to use. Beinastrjúgur is emblematic of this; every available bone was collected, they were then boiled and stored in a pickle until they became soft and edible.

Preservation techniques essential due to long winters
Geographical isolation and the cold weather from the late Middle Ages until the 19th century put its mark on Icelandic cuisine. A close examination reveals that shortages forced people to find different ways to survive. A good example is the salt and meal shortages. The lack of salt was a consequence of deforestation, as there was no fuel available to extract salt from the sea.

Icelanders made up for the lack of salt by pickling foods in lactic acid. This long-term preservation of food by pickling appeared to be unique to Iceland. Pickling was a known method in the other Nordic countries, but it was less frequent there due to the availability of salt. Meats pickled in sour whey are considered healthy and easily digestible owing to the vitamins and minerals that are absorbed from the whey.

Our good old skyr and breadmaking
The cooling climate caused meal shortage. Barley production most likely ceased before the year 1600. The meal shortage was striking. Foreigners that traveled the country noticed it and numerous accounts exist in foreign languages. Instead of bread, dried fish was the everyday food, and the good old skyr was never far away. Iceland moss, dulse or carragheen replaced grains, and every part of the angelica was used. Without baking ovens, meal and firewood, breadmaking took a different path in Iceland and generated a unique product development: Flatbread, various pancakes, dumplings, leaf bread and pot bread or bread cooked in hot springs are still to this day our specialties.

Sources of animal protein
During the first centuries of settlement Icelanders raised cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hens, and pigs. The existence and importance of the species were reflected in changes of the land due to natural disasters, changes in climate or the value of produce at each point in time. There are historical mentions of poultry farming, but industrial poultry production started around 1960. Two attempts were made to import musk oxen to Iceland around 1930, but they proved unsuccessful, and the oxen died from livestock diseases. From the outset, meat was cooked on skewers over an open fire, and during the first centuries of settlement, cooking took place by a long fire or a fireplace in lodges where no external kitchens were in place.

Natural disasters & climate change
Skaftáreldar is the name of a volcanic eruption that took place in southern Iceland in 1783-1785. This volcanic eruption considerably affected every inhabitant of our island. Vast amounts of volcanic ash were carried from Iceland to Europe. This caused a period of cold weather and crop failure that afflicted the daily lives of people and livestock in Europe, as well as in North America, Africa, and Asia. The eruptions lowered the temperature of the whole northern hemisphere. Today this climate change is considered to be a contributing factor in starting the French Revolution. Three-quarters of the Icelandic livestock were killed, and a fifth of the Icelandic population perished.

A systematic planting of vegetable gardens at most of the country’s farms followed this catastrophe. From 1800 to 1813 the number of vegetable gardens at estates rose significantly. However, the aftermath of volcanic eruptions is not always detrimental. The tephra and volcanic ash contain chemicals that aids the growth of vegetation as long as it does not completely suffocate it. As the times change and new crises surface, Icelanders have again started growing their gardens. Modern-day cultivation is thriving with a variety of new vegetables being experimented with. Time and time again, when the going gets tough, we set our mind to growing our gardens.

Today vegetables are grown outdoors and around the year in greenhouses. Natural preservations and pure Icelandic water are used in cultivation. Geothermal heat allows us to cultivate certain varieties in greenhouses that would not grow outdoors. In 1904, three companies were founded in the north to grow potatoes with heat from hot springs. Today it is used in vegetable farming.

Changing consumption habits
Icelandic cuisine changed substantially at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. Urban areas grew at the expense of rural areas, and the import of foods increased in both amount and diversity. A carbohydrate revolution took place as a result of increased import and consumption of cereals and sugar. Baking ovens and cooking stoves arrived around 1900 and cakes, biscuits and sweet pastries became popular. In the 1930’s cream cakes took over the nation’s dessert tables as the mark of housewives’ talent and creativity. The first refrigerators arrived around the same time. New preservation methods like canning and freezing replaced the old ways and changed the nation’s diet.

Liquor ban on Wednesdays
Production of white ale, which later developed into malt ale, started in 1914. The whey protein drink Cabesco appeared later, and the Icelandic sodas Póló, Spur, Miranda, Sinalco, and Appelsín were often drunk with a licorice straw. Beer was first made legal in Iceland in 1989. Only ten years prior, a liquor ban on Wednesdays was lifted and bars were allowed to keep longer hours.

Great opportunities lie in local food production
It’s satisfying to witness the change in mentality that is taking place in this country. More and more people are reviving the wisdom of previous generations, using it to create new and innovative products. Drying huts, smoking houses, farm-made cheese, microbreweries, salt manufacturing, sausage production, jam making, and plant and mushroom drying are all examples of how one can relate the product to a specific area, farm, history or family, etc.

Most of us have a desire to be able to relate what we consume to some origins and meaning. Sitting at a restaurant in Öræfasveit with a view over the magnificent Vatnajökull, drinking a beer brewed from the glacial water, or having a bite of warm rye bread cooked in a hot spring topped with cold smoked trout in Mývatnssveit are just two examples of how food can relate to land and history.

Great opportunities lie in local food production and processing, and we should strive to support and promote innovation in this area. An increase in tourism raises the likelihood of such production being sustainable. Our culinary culture thus becomes richer.