January Ideas: Thorrablot and Traditional Icelandic Food

Thorrablot is a big event in Iceland that takes place in January each year. The Thorrablot is basically a great feast where people come together and eat traditional Icelandic food—which is by some considered the strangest food in the world.

One of the highlights of local culture in January is the beginning of Þorri (Thorri, in English spelling). According to the old Norse calendar, Þorri is a month that starts “on a Friday in the 13th week of winter“, generally around January 20th. The name comes from an ancient Norwegian king, and in old Norse it is synonymous with frost.

Although the old Norse months are not observed anymore they do coincide with some traditions that are still widely celebrated. The first day of Þorri, for example, is Bóndadagur (Husband’s day), on which wives give their husbands flowers, while the first day of Harpa is also the first day of summer.


Shark (hákarl) hanging to dry outdoors.

Hákarl hanging to dry. Photo: Chris Wronski/Flickr


Since the 19th century the month has steadily grown to be synonymous with Þorrablót, a mid-winter festival originally centered around sacrifices to Þorri. With 19th century romanticism Þorrablót was revived as a festival dedicated to traditional food and drink. Today it is a time for Icelanders to bring out the worst of the viking cuisine (be it salted, dried, fermented or rotten) and get filthy drunk while at it. A traditional Þorrablót dish might consist of some of the following:

  • Hákarl (putrefied shark): A Greenland shark is hung to dry for four to five months, producing strong ammonia smell and a fishy taste.
  • Blóðmör (blood suet, filled sausage/black pudding): A type of blood pudding made from lamb blood and suet, mixed with rye and oats.
  • Hrútspungur (ram’s scrotum with testicles): The testicles are pressed in blocks, boiled and cured in lactic acid, often using whey.
  • Lundabaggi (sheep’s fat): Lamb loins wrapped in meat are pressed and cured in lactic acid.
     

Sheep heads in a pile.

Svið. Photo: Stefán Birgir Stefáns/Flickr.

And the list continues...

  • Svið (burnt sheep’s head): A sheep’s head is cut in half and singed to remove fur and wool. The brain is removed (but not the eyes) and the head is then boiled. Often served with mashed potatoes and turnips.
  • Sviðasulta (svið-jelly): A form of head cheese made from svið.
  • Harðfiskur: Wind-dried fish, usually cod or haddock, served with butter and rye bread.
  • Hangikjöt (smoked lamb): Smoked lamb that is boiled and often served cold.
  • Selshreifar: Seal’s flippers cured in lactic acid.
     

Fish being dried.
Harðfiskur in the making. Photo: Ulrich Latzenhofer/Flickr

The lot is then generously washed down with ákavíti (Scandinavian aquavit) or brennivín (“burning wine”), a caraway flavoured schnapps, that has become Iceland’s signature distilled beverage.

Some restaurants serve Þorramatur, but availability varies between years. If you find yourself in Iceland in late January or early to mid February, ask around and try to get a taste of these dishes that can’t be found anywhere else.

Bon appétit!