Iceland > Return of the sheep heads

Posted On November 18, 2006

Filed under Festive Food, News Europe

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The Icelandic cuisine has been labeled bland… poor… even gross. Out of curiosity, tourists give it a shot, but Icelanders prefer pizza and pasta.

The younger generation does not appreciate the traditional Icelandic cuisine anymore: blood and liver pudding with mashed potatoes and boiled turnips, horse sausages covered in a sweet white sauce, steamed cod with melted sheep fat or scorched sheep heads.

In the last few decades a more international cuisine has invaded Iceland with hamburgers, pizzas, fajitas and all sorts of wok and pasta dishes, introducing exotic spices such as garlic and chili, offering variations to taste buds which only knew salt and sugar.

Until the second half of last century, Icelanders would eat whatever was available, and, because food was scarce, use every scrap of food there was, like every edible part of the sheep, including tongue, eyes, brains, and ram balls.

The rest of the sheep did not go to waste either. The wool and skin was used for clothing, intestines for stuffing sausages, fat for candles, bones for kitchen equipment or toys and sinews for threads.

Before the age of refrigerators, people had to come up with other ways to prevent food from going off: drying, smoking, salting, pickling and burying until partly fermented.

And in the absence of fruit and vegetables, Icelanders had to find an alternative source of vitamin C to prevent scurvy. In summer they would collect a special kind of moss from the mountains and dig up angelica roots, and in autumn pick blue and crow berries.

In the 50s and 60s, fruit and vegetables were still a rare sight. Apples and oranges were only available around Christmas. Although they can be bought year round today, both are still seen as an important part of Christmas.

In restaurants in Iceland, chefs are reinventing the Icelandic cuisine, merging the best of traditional recipes with foreign ingredients, but also using local herbs, berries and plants for innovative spices, sauces and salads.

Some foods never went out of fashion: Dried fish is a popular snack among young and old alike and smoked lamb has never been missing from the Christmas table. And now all sorts of traditional meals have returned to Icelandic dinners tables.