A Viking’s Feast

Emigrés in Vienna Revive an Icelandic Tradition of Eating Sheep Heads and Lamb Testicles

Putrified Shark: For first timers the delicacies of an Icelandic pantry can often prove close to overpowering | Photo: Creative Commons / Chris73

Burned sheep heads, rotten shark and sour lamb testicles are not normally on a menu in Vienna. But for Icelanders, they consider it a treat to partake at the annual winter feast called Thorrablót, which took place this year on Mar. 3.

“Thorrablót was fantastic… or at least in the memory (referring to the drinking),” said Hulda Ros Bjarnadottir, an Icelandic student and continued: “The food was so good that although I had eaten enough I kept going to the buffet for more”

Thorrablót is a traditional Viking festival, celebrated in Iceland at the end of January. Originally a sacrificial feast dedicated to the thunder god Thor, Thorrablót was forbidden after Iceland was converted to Christianity and not revived until the 19th century.  Thorri starts in the 13th week of winter, somewhere between Jan. 19-25 and ends in late February. This is the darkest and coldest time of the winter.

This year, the feast was celebrated in beginning of March, giving them more time to deliver the food from Iceland. It was held on a Saturday night to give the participants time to recover from the effects of over-consumption that goes with it.

Icelandic flags and songs surrounded Café U.S.W on Laudongasse. Icelanders and guests paid €15 entrance and sat down along the u-shaped tables for a beer and a chat. After an hour the buffet was opened, burned sheep heads (svid), flat and thin rye breads eaten with butter (flatkokur), meat-rolls made of lambs-meat (lundabaggar), sour lamb testicles soured in mysa (hrutspungar), pudding made out of lambs liver (lifrarpylsa) rye bread (rugbraud) and more.

For snacks they ate dried fish eaten with butter (hardfiskur) and in the end of the night they toasted their  shots of brennivin, translated “black death,” a very strong Icelandic schnapps, and had a cube of shark with it.

The trick is to taste the food without knowing what it is, because most of it sounds pretty disgusting. I tried a bite of each thing but in the end settled for my favourites,  flatkokur and rugbraud with Icelandic butter, slatur and Prinz Polo,  a Polish sweet.

My family doesn’t celebrate Thorrablót, in fact my first Thorrablót was here in Vienna last year. But it was fun getting food from Iceland that is not possible to find here.

The origins of these dishes comes from history and geography. Between 872 and 930 AD around 10,000 Norse colonists settled in Iceland, and for the next few centuries,  few other ships or people ventured that far north and Icelanders received few imported goods.

Since nothing grows on our island, Islanders faced thousand years of tough times and general famine. Wheat was a scarcity. People had to consume whatever they could find and preserve it – either smoked, laid in mysa (a sour milk-product), salted, dried or as kaestur (allowed to rot slightly, to improve the flavor).

Icelanders usually drink beer on this feast, especially since Iceland’s 75-year prohibition of beer was lifted in 1989.

After the delicious dinner there was a lottery. For a €2 ticket, people could win prizes, ranging from Swarovsky jewelry to domestic appliances.

The biggest prize was a trip to Iceland. The winner was a middle age Icelandic woman who cried with joy as she had not been to Iceland in many years. It was time to go home.

Many Icelandic singers study here in Vienna so two sang arias for the occasion. “O sole mio,” with help of a politics student he had mistaken for a colleague. But nobody minded as they were taken by the charms of the singer.

Around 2 a.m., people gathered in a circle to sing traditional and not-so-traditional Icelandic songs as loud as they could to the sounds of the guitar. The singing continued until 5:00 when the celebration had to come to an end, because the proprietors wanted to go home. Otherwise, Icelandic celebrations will go on indefinitely.

Not all Icelanders celebrate the festival at home. The eating habits of the nation have changed a lot in the last hundred years, so it is only during Thorri that people sample this time-honored food.

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