WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Cuisine of the Vikings

By on January 26, 2016

Join the author for an Icelandic celebration of sheep testicles, rotten shark… and other sour delights.

An Icelandic spread of sour meats and fish has the author feeling like a true Viking.

An Icelandic spread of sour meats and fish has the author feeling like a true Viking.

Jackson, WY – Before coming to Iceland, my only knowledge of the Icelandic tradition of Þorrablót (THOR-ah-bloat) was from the popular Sigur Rós documentary “Heima.” In the scene, a large group of Icelandic adults were sitting at long tables in front of a stage. A shot of a buffet table showed various pale, unidentifiable meat products and bread, while beer cans and Brennivín bottles sat in front of the guests. One item in particular that creeped me out was a sheep head severed in half, complete with teeth, a nose and an eyelid fused shut.

I never thought I would be in a situation where I would be eating the meat off a sheep’s face – called svið (SVEETH) – but sure enough, I was invited to participate in this year’s Þorrablót celebration. And the first thing on the menu? Svið.

The tradition of Þorrablót has officially only been around since the mid 19th century, but its customs date back as far as the 10th century during the settlement of Iceland. The Vikings didn’t have a lot of food opportunities during the winter, so they would pickle meats and organs to preserve them for the demanding winter months. Þorrablót is named for Þorri, the mid winter month on the historical Icelandic calendar that took place between mid January and mid February. Part of the tradition included making sacrifices to the thunder god, Þórr, and the term blót is in reference to a heathen celebration.

Þórrablót is a private ceremony and one must be invited by a farmer’s family to attend the event. We sat at long tables in front of a stage, where, throughout the night various comedy sketches and speeches were performed. Every so often we would link arms and sway back and forth singing traditional farming songs. I did my best to follow along in the songbook, but as I’m sure you’ve already gathered, the Icelandic language is a bit tricky to master.

Placed in front of us at the tables were wooden troughs full of the foods I first saw in “Heima.” In addition to the svið, there were strips of dried codfish, rotten shark, sour sheep’s testicles, blood haggis, sour pig’s liver, sour whale blubber, smoked lamb, boiled potatoes, rye bread, flat bread and plenty of butter to slide it all down. Our only utensil was a knife.

I decided that I would take full advantage of this opportunity and try everything at the table. There was no going back. The first thing I placed on my plate was the sheep’s head and began scraping meat off the dead animal’s cheek. The head is sawed in half (long-ways), singed by fire (to get rid of the hair) and then boiled for a few hours. I have to say the taste was surprisingly good, although the entire time my mind was trying to convince my stomach how disgusting this all was.

The sheep’s testicle and the other sour meats were among my least favorite. I kept having to tell my body that, “this is food, it’s going to be OK, this is food,” because my tongue was not having it. Think of the strongest cheese you’ve ever eaten and then pair it with that rancid vinegary smell that wafts from an old trash bag, and you’d be close to imagining just how foul it tastes.

But I remained brave. My boss ended up taking the sheep head, carving out the eye and serving it to me on a plate. The blue pupil stared up at me like in a horror movie and my whole body convulsed, telling me not to do it. But I grabbed it with my fingers and shoved the whole orb into my mouth and chewed as quickly as I could.

I never thought I would have to compare the flavor of whale fat to a sheep eyeball, but now that I have that experience, I can say I prefer the latter. After a few more songs, we packed up the chairs, moved the tables, and the hall turned into a drunken dance party. Just when I thought the worst was over, an older woman I got paired up with pulled herself close to me and breathed sour testicle breath across my face.

I’ve never felt more nauseous. Or more Icelandic. PJH

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