Svið & sviðasulta – Icelandic singed sheep’s heads & brawn

Continuing with the Þorri food, here is a popular Þorri dish, one that is also widely eaten outside the Þorri season.

Sheep’s head jam is a traditional meat product that can be found in any Icelandic supermarket. It is usually eaten fresh, but during the Þorri season you can also get whey-pickled head jam. There is also a pig’s head version, svínasulta, which is spiced. This variety food is known as head-cheese or brawn in English.

Some recipes include gelatine, but it is generally not necessary if the cooking liquid is allowed to thicken during cooking (by not adding water unless it seems to be completely evaporating).

6 ea. sheep’s heads, singed (see instructions below)
as needed water and salt

How to singe and otherwise prepare sheep’s heads for cooking:
Take the fresh heads and singe them with fire until all the hair is burnt. Use a stiff brush to clean the heads under running cold water. Clean the area around the eyes and inside the ears especially well. Saw the heads in half lengthwise and remove the brains (less messy if you freeze them first). Cook them with the skin on.

Pack the heads into a cooking pot, sprinkle with coarse salt and add water. It’s not necessary to let the water cover the heads completely. When the water boils, skim off the scum. Cook, covered, until the flesh begins to separate from the bones, 90-120 minutes at the least if the heads are meant for jam. Heads that will be eaten without further preparation generally need only 60 – 90 minutes cooking, and should only be cooked until the flesh is cooked through, but has not started to separate from the bones.

To make the jam:
When the heads are cooked, remove from the cooking liquid. Heads that will not be made into brawn are put on a platter and served right away, or allowed to cool and served cold. Heads that will be made into jam are taken and the meat cut off the bones and into coarse pieces. You can include the skin or leave it out as you wish. Put the pieces in a loaf pan and put a light weight on top. Allow to cool at room temperature and then put it in a refrigerator to set completely. To make more of the jam, include some of the cooking liquid in the mix. The cooking liquid will set better if singed sheep’s legs are cooked with the heads.
When the brawn is set, it can be eaten fresh or preserved in whey.

Serving suggestion:
Sheep’s heads are served either hot or cold. Either way, they are usually served with plain, boiled potatoes, rutabagas ( cooked with the heads) and white sauce. I hear lemon-sauce is also good with sheep’s heads.

Brawn, fresh or preserved, is usually served buffet-style with several other kinds of variety meats, fish, bread and potatoes. Thinly sliced fresh brawn can be used as a topping for bread or a filling for sandwiches. My personal favourite is fresh brawn with potato salad.

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Hangikjöt – Icelandic smoked lamb (instructions)

Still in keeping with the Þorri theme, here is a popular food that is a favourite main dish for Christmas and Sundays, as well as being an essential part of the Þorri buffet.

Hangikjöt is an old favourite of the Icelanders. For centuries, we have smoked, pickled and dried food for preservation, and hangikjöt is one of the most delicious of the smoked products. Much like in olden times, hangikjöt is not an everyday food, except when used as a topping for bread, skonsur and flatbread. It may be eaten either hot or cold, and is traditionally served with cooked potatoes, white (béchamel) sauce, peas and pickled red cabbage. What follows is a description of the old method used for smoking lamb/mutton to make hangikjöt.

Smoking food, general information:
Smoking is an ancient food preservation method, which leaves the food tasting delicious. The smoke dries the food, and contains preservatives which prevent the food from spoiling. All food that is to be smoked must be salted first.

The smoke room:
The best facility for smoking food is a small shed or room with a high ceiling and a chimney. There should be a fireplace in the centre of the floor, and rafters up close to the ceiling for hanging the food. If only a small amount of food is to be smoked, a barrel smoker can be used. This is made by stacking two barrels on top of each other. A small fireplace is made in the bottom one, and the food is hung in the top one. Sometimes the smoke is piped from one barrel to another through a flue. This cools down the smoke and prevents it from cooking the food. The food must never be hung so close to the fire that the heat reaches it.

The smoking materials:
The best smoke comes from wood, especially birch, willow and juniper, but you can also use heather or sawdust. Dried, pressed sheep dung mixed with straw from the floor of the sheep pens is used by some Icelanders, and sometimes dried peat was used.

The fire must be covered to make sure it does not flare up and burn too high. The aim is to get the maximum of smoke with the minimum of fire. The temperature of the smoke as it reaches the food must not be higher than 20-25°C. Smoking times can only be given in approximates, as it depends on the volume of smoke, size of the food pieces and various other factors.

Small pieces can be smoked in a matter of hours in a barrel smoker. Meat should not be smoked for more than 2-3 weeks.

Making Hangikjöt:
Any meat can be smoked, like mutton/lamb, horse, pork, game bird breasts, etc., but only lamb/mutton and horse meat are called hangikjöt. Legs, thighs and sides of lamb are well suited for smoking.

Processing the meat:
Clean the meat well, and pickle in brine #1 for 2-4 days, depending on thickness of the pieces. Allow the brine to drip off the meat before smoking it.

Brine for pickling meat:
20 litres water
10 kg coarse salt
500 g sugar
100 g saltpetre (Note: This is an unhealthful chemical and is no longer used by modern hangikjöt producers).

This recipe may be halved for a smaller amount of brine.

Heat the water to boiling and mix in sugar, salt and saltpetre and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until the salt is melted. Strain and cool the liquid. This brine is strong enough for salting small pieces like rúllupylsa and also for salting meat that will be smoked.

Hang up the meat and start the smoking process. Make sure the fire never dies – the smoking must be constant. Taste check the meat in a week or so – the meat should taste smoky. If the meat is at all slimy to the touch, or has a rancid taste, it is spoiled and must not be eaten. Smoke for another week and taste the meat again. It should be reddish in colour with a pronounced smoky taste. For even smokier taste, give it another week, but no more than that, or it may become too dry.
When the meat is smoked, it should be hung in a cool, dry place. Meat that has been hung for a while is more easily digested than meat that has not been hung. Hangikjöt can be eaten raw, and is excellent served by wrapping thin slices around pieces of melon.

Cooking and serving:
Home-smoked hangikjöt sometimes needs to be salted during cooking, and sometimes not. Taste it raw to evaluate whether or not you need to cook it in salted water. Cook for about 40 minutes for each kilo of meat, less if you cut it up before cooking. When cooked, remove the cooking pot from the stove, and allow the meat to sit in the cooking liquid for about 30 minutes before removing it. This step may be skipped if the meat is to be served hot.

Serve in the traditional way: with potatoes, white sauce, cooked peas (or peas & carrots) and pickled red cabbage. For an authentic Icelandic Christmas meal, serve leaf-bread and butter on the side and drink the Icelandic Christmas mix with it..
Leftovers may be sliced thin and used as a topping for bread, or the meat and potatoes can be diced and added to white sauce along with the peas, warmed up and poured into small pie shells for serving.

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Harðfiskur – Icelandic hard (dried) fish

Continuing with the Þorri theme, here is the single most popular food you will find on the Þorri buffet. It is a popular snack in Iceland, and many people take some with them when they go abroad on holiday.

Of the traditional Icelandic foods, harðfiskur and skyr are probably the two which most appeal to foreigners. I have received several e-mails from people asking how to make harðfiskur or where to buy it abroad, and so I decided it was time to give a description of how it’s made.

Many kinds of fish dry well, but traditionally it is mostly cod, haddock and ocean catfish (wolf-fish) that are dried. Flounder also makes excellent harðfiskur, and in some areas of Iceland people also dry arctic char. 

Drying haddock, cod and flounder:
Wash the fish and scrape off the slime. Gut the fish and remove the head. Haddock and cod can either be butterflied or filleted before drying. Flounder is filleted. If you butterfly the fish, you must take care to keep the fish spread open while it is drying. To hang, cut a small slit through the flesh and skin of the tail end of the fillet, and thread a wooden dowel or a piece of string through it. The fish may be dipped briefly in brine before drying (recommended for flavour and prevention of spoilage during the drying process). Hang out to dry. To properly dry the fish, it should be done outside, in fairly cool (below 10 °C) and dry weather. The fish needs air movement to dry properly, and if it is windy, the wind will keep flies off the fish. Drying time depends on wind, air temperature and humidity.

Butterflied, dried cod’s heads.

When the fish is dry and papery to the touch, it should be ready for eating. Test it by breaking the thickest part of it, and if it breaks easily and is dry all the way through, you can eat it. The fish should now be beaten with a small mallet, a meat hammer or a rolling pin, until it flakes easily and can be torn apart with the hands. Eat it either as it is, or spread with butter.

Drying catfish/wolf-fish:
Ocean catfish (also known as wolf-fish), is fattier than cod or haddock, and needs to be dried faster to avoid spoilage. Fillet the fish and cut the fillet into two or four strips lengthwise, depending on size. Don’t separate each two strips completely, but leave about an inch of the skin uncut. Cut the flesh into 1 1/2 cm. wide strips, taking care not to cut through the skin. Now you have what is known as riklingur in Icelandic. Hang on a wooden dowel and put out to dry. When it is dry, the riklingur can easily be cut into pieces with a pair of scissors, and the flesh can be easily torn from the skin. It is not necessary to beat this fish, unless it is so hard you worry about breaking your teeth on it!

Fish that is dried whole with only the head and guts removed is called skreið (stockfish in English). It dries more slowly and will therefore have a stronger flavour, and it needs to be beaten much more before it is soft enough to eat. Skreið is a popular commodity in some African countries, where it is reconstituted and used in all kinds of dishes.

Mass produced harðfiskur is made by fan or oven drying. It dries faster than wind-dried harðfiskur, and has less flavour.

There is a type of semi-dried fish called siginn fiskur, that has been allowed to hang for a few days until it has dried a bit and the flesh is firm like that of salt fish. It has a strong flavour and some would say it is spoiled, but it is still safe to eat. It is not nearly as pungent as skate, the traditional food eaten two days before Christmas, and which has been allowed to go well and truly rotten (more on that later, or check out the mother site if you can’t wait to read about it.

Siginn fiskur, usually haddock or cod, is traditionally served with plain boiled potatoes and white (béchamel) sauce.

How to prepare hakarl: "rotten" or cured shark

I think I will start my series of Þorri recipes by describing how the most controversial item on the Þorri menu is made.

Cured shark is one of those classic “let’s scare the tourists” foods that can be found in most countries. This is not to say that we don’t eat it as well. We do. Some of us love it so much that we will eat it as a snack. For others, a small nibble before the Þorri buffet begins for real is quite sufficient. It helps the digestion, which is why I always have a few bites before sitting down to the heavy Þorri food.

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Cured shark for sale at an outdoor market.

I read in a book that there is uremic acid in the flesh of sharks. This I am inclined to believe, considering that cured shark smells like stagnant urine or ammonia. The uremic acid content only becomes dangerous if the shark is not butchered correctly right after it’s killed, becasuse fresh shark meat is edible and supposedly quite good, although it has never been popular in Iceland. The folk tale that tells Icelanders that they will die if they eat fresh shark probably has it’s origins in stories of people who ate fresh shark meat that had not been properly treated, and died or became ill as a result.

I don’t know how the curing method was discovered, but it all likelihood someone who was desperately hungry dug up a shark that had rotted on the beach and ate it to avoid starving, and discovered that it was, if not exactly good food, at least not dangerous. Curing is, of course, a good method of making food that can be stored for many months.

Connoisseurs of strong cheese generally like cured shark on the first bite. Others find it to be an aquired taste.

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Cured shark being served and sampled.

Traditional curing method:

Don’t try this at home unless you know what the end product is supposed to taste like. Although cured shark is putrefied and thus technically spoiled already, it can go bad and give you food poisoning.

Take one large shark, gut and discard the fins, tail, innards, the cartilage and the head (BTW, a very healthy oil is processed from the liver and used as a food supplement). Cut flesh into large pieces.Wash in running water to get all slime and blood off. Dig a large hole in coarse gravel, preferably down by the sea and far from the nearest inhabited house – this is to make sure the smell doesn’t bother anybody. Put in the shark pieces, and press them well together. It’s best to do this when the weather is fairly warm (but not hot), as it hastens the curing process. Cover with more gravel and put heavy rocks on top to press down. Leave for 6-7 weeks (in summer) to 2-3 months (in winter). During this time, fluid will drain from the shark flesh, and putrefication will set in.

When the shark is soft and smells like ammonia, remove from the gravel, wash, and hang in a drying shack. This is a shack or shed with plenty of holes to let the wind in, but enough shade to prevent the sun from shining directly on the shark. Let it hang until it is firm and fairly dry: 2-4 months. Warm, windy and dry weather will hasten the process, while cold, damp and still weather will delay it.

Slice off the brown crust, cut the whitish flesh into small pieces and serve, preferably with a shot of ice-cold brennivín.

The modern method for curing shark relies on putting it into a large container with a drainage hole, and letting it cure as it does when buried in gravel.

-Cured shark smells worse than it tastes. The texture is somewhat like a piece of fat, the colour is a dirty white/beige, and the taste reminds some people of strong cheese with a fishlike aftertaste.

Rabarbarasulta – Rhubarb Jam

This is served with all sorts of foods and some people will eat it with anything. It is delicious spread on pancakes, between the layers of a Devil’s Cake, on waffles (with cream), with roast lamb, or even with ice-cream. There are two varieties of this jam: dark and light. My mother always makes the thick, dark variety. The light variety is better if you intend to use it in baking or to spread on cakes.

1 kg rhubarb (use the red variety as much as possible, it gives better colour)
800g-1 kg white sugar

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Wash the rhubarb with cold water. Remove any traces of the leaves, which are toxic. Leave the white roots. Chop up the rhubarb, mix up with the sugar and stand aside over night. Put in a big cooking pot and bring to the boil over high temperature. Turn down the heat and cook on low until it is about the thickness of thick porridge. The recipe recommends about 10-20 minutes, but if you want darker, thicker jam, cook it longer. Stir frequently.
When done, pour the hot jam into sterilised jars and close immediately. To keep longer, use preservative. For long-time storage, store in a cool, dark place. Refrigeration is not necessary. The sugar in rhubarb jam occasionally crystallises, in which case the jam can be re-heated to melt the sugar and re-poured into sterilised jars.

-For finer jam, chop finely, and when the mixture boils, remove from the heat, mince, return to the pot and continue cooking as directed.

Icelandic recipe links (in English)

Although Jo’s Icelandic Recipes is the largest website of its kind, it’s not the only one. Here are links to some more Icelandic recipes:

The Icelandic National League’s recipe collection

Virtually Virtual Iceland. Check out the rest of the site for more information about Iceland.

Icelandic recipes from European Cuisines

Recipes from Iceland Naturally. Go to the Food menu on the left and choose “recipes” from the submenu that pops up. Commercial site for promoting Iceland and Icelandic products.

There are more websites with Icelandic recipes out there. They are not included here because:
I didn’t find them in a web search,
they only have a few recipes that can also be found on the other sites,
they have pop-ups (which I hate),
or have taken recipes from my website and presented them as their own without changing the text or giving me credit.

If you have suggestions for other websites with Icelandic recipes in English, write me a comment and include the link, and I will check it out.

Vínarterta – Vinarterta

This cake is also called Randalín (the striped lady). The name Vínarterta means Viennese Torte, but with the English spelling which leaves out the accent above the i, it becomes Friend’s Cake.

A variation of this cake is famous among the Western-Icelanders – the descendants of Icelandic immigrants in Canada and the U.S.A. For them, there is hardly anything more Icelandic than Vínarterta.
In spite of the name Viennese Cake, I think it probably originated in Denmark. The Western-Icelandic version is somewhat different from this – you can find one variation at the INL recipe collection.

This is my grandmother’s recipe.

500 g flour
250 g sugar
250 g margarine/butter, soft
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. baker’s ammonia (ammonium carbonate)
a pinch of baking powder
essence of cardamom or a pinch of ground cardamom

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Mix together all dry ingredients. Add the margarine/butter and eggs, kneading until well mixed. Cool in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. Roll out into a thickness of approx. 1 to 1 1/2 cm (1/2 inch). You can divide the dough now or after baking, into as many parts as you want layers (3-5 is the usual). Try to keep each portion the same shape, size and thickness as the others. My grandmother bakes it all in one large piece and cuts it up after baking.
Bake in the centre of the oven at 200°C, until golden in colour and done through. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. When the cake is almost cold, spread rhubarb jam or prune jam (see recipe below) on top of all layers except one and sandwich the layers together.

-This cake freezes well and thaws quickly, and is liked by almost everyone.
Brown Vínarterta: Add some cocoa to the recipe and use vanilla butter icing instead of jam, or alternate layers of icing and jam

To make prune jam:
Take one kilo (approx. 2 lbs.) prunes with pits, or equivalent in pitted prunes. Soak the prunes in water to soften and remove the pits. Mince the prunes and cook on low for 30 minutes with 650 g. sugar. Cool before spreading on cake.