A Pot-Porri of Fermentation - The Thorramatur Festival in Iceland


Photo by Bruce McAdam — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

This week we are going to focus on a food festival that celebrates the glorious age of pre-refrigeration. The Icelandic festival known alternatively as Thorramatur or Þorramatur is celebrated from mid-January to the end of February and pays homage to the naturally preserved (read, unrefrigerated) food and drink the Vikings ate throughout the winter.

Although traditional Porri edibles appeared on the tables of student organizations and regional associations from the late 1800’s onwards, it took the daring minds behind the popular Naustið restaurant in Reykjavík to turn the traditional menu into a trend. By allowing both tourists and native Icelanders to rediscover the gastronomic traditions of the Vikings, the owners breathed new life into an otherwise comatose season in the restaurant industry and revitalized an interest in what many mainstream Icelanders consider to be an indigestible part of their heritage.

The traditional Porramatur menu isn’t for everyone, and it would be madness to take part in the festivities without a bottle of Brennivin by one’s side. The individual dishes are sliced into bite-sized portions, arranged on wooden troughs and served with toothpicks in a buffet style. Among the traditional selections, hakari has appeared on several intrepid food programs such as Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (his motto? “Eat without Fear”) and Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods”. Hakari is referred to as “fermented shark” in guide books, but it is noteworthy to add that Greenland shark is poisonous when fresh, becomes “edible” after being buried underground for six weeks and smells like ammonia when it’s ready for consumption. Moving on…

Harðfiskur is a poetic dish that involves curing cod, haddock or seawolf in the wind. It’s served with butter — which is a very good thing. Lactic acid makes an appearance in at least four different Porramatur dishes, including Súrsaðir hrútspungar (ram’s testicles), Svið (jellied sheep heads), and Sviðasulta (singed head cheese). Blood pudding rolled in lard and sewn up in the stomach, liver sausage, blood-fat and seal flippers are several other treats that make the Thorrablot festival a truly unforgettable experience.

Well! The good news is that Rúgbrauð (rye bread) and Brennivin (Icelandic schnapps) are readily available on the buffet spread and over-consumption of the latter is heartily encouraged. You really have to hand it to the valiant Icelanders — not many people would continue to celebrate foodstuffs that even natives advise eating with a pinched nose.

Iceland has a lot to offer besides fermented shark. For other (more traditional) festivals in Iceland, click here.

- Courtney Maum

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3 Responses to “A Pot-Porri of Fermentation - The Thorramatur Festival in Iceland”

  1. Alejandro
    December 29th, 2008 08:32

    I’ve been looking for a festival like this my whole life. There is nothing like nurturing the memories of traditions and cultures that even our ancestors may have wished they’d forgotten.

    In all seriousness though, I’d try every bite of Harðfiskur.

  2. Helene Kahm
    January 4th, 2009 06:30

    Sounds just like home!I just indulged myself this Christmas up in northen sweden with smoked reindeer heart and rotten herring. Accompanied by a good amount of Brännvin, usualy made in the basment at home in northen Sweden as a protest against the state liquor monopoly, it all tastes quite fine to me as a Swede. Good to hear that there are other northerners with sentimental food cultures celebrating the lost ages of the Vikings!

  3. Josh Wujek
    January 4th, 2009 19:35

    jellied sheep’s head…. i believe we’ve found the origin of zombies. let me express my appreciation for this lovely posting, and also the fact that i’ve never had to winter with vikings.

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