Žorri and the Žorri Feast
by the owner of Jo's Icelandic Recipes
Warning: Contains opinionated commentary, humour and generalized information
Žorri is one of the old Icelandic months. It always begins on a Friday, between the 19th and the 25th of January, and ends on a Saturday between the 18th and 24th of February. The first day of Žorri
is called Bóndadagur
or "Husband's Day/Farmer's Day", and is dedicated to men (formerly only farmers). In my family (and many others), the women bring the men breakfast in bed on this day - just as the men will do on Konudagur
- Woman's Day (if they know what's good for them). Many women will give their husbands flowers as well. This is a fairly new custom, introduced by flower shops in order to sell more roses.(Now they are trying import Valentine's Day for the same reason).
The tradition of a Žorri feast is an ancient one. It has its roots in old midwinter feasts, Žorrablót, which the advent of Christianity could not quite abolish, although the way in which it is celebrated has changed. This month falls on the coldest time of the winter, and therefore it is no surprise that Žorri has become a personification of King Winter. He is usually portrayed as an old man, tall and grizzled, who is as cruel to those who disrespect him as he is gentle to those who show him respect. Some have suggested that the month is named after the legendary king who united Norway into one country. Others think it is derived from the name of the thunder-god Žór (Thor), and that this was his feast during the pre-Christian era in Iceland. The story of this old feast and the changes it has gone through is both long and fascinating, and will not be told here.
Whatever the origin of the feast of Žorri, it is today a standard part of the Icelandic social calendar, and has even been exported to many countries which have ex-pat Icelandic populations (often to the utter dismay of foreign friends and spouses). The eating habits of the Icelandic nation have changed a lot in the last hundred years or so, and it is only during Žorri that many people will eat the old-fashioned food. As this feast takes place in the middle of winter, it is no surprise that most of the food served at the feasts is preserved in some way: by pickling in whey, salting, smoking, drying or putrefying.
A typical Žorrablót takes place at any time during Žorri. The season for it now extends into the following month, Góa, but the feast is then usually dubbed Góugleši. It is advisable to hold it on a Friday or Saturday night, to give the participants time to recover from the effects of overeating and heavy drinking that goes with a good Žorrablót. The form the feast takes is similar everywhere, the indispensable ingredients being merrymaking and lots of food. Additional ingredients are staged entertainment (often a cabaret or revue), dancing and lots of alcohol.
The traditional method of serving the food in deep wooden trays is these days usually only extended as far as the buffet, ordinary plates taking their place at the table, and cutlery taking the place of the traditional sharp knife and the diner's bare hands.
Menu for Žorrablót
comments courtesy of your host.
, served in small cubes. It is prepared by burying it for several weeks, and then hanging it up and
allowing it to dry. The semi-opaque flesh of the belly is called glerhįkarl
(glassy shark), and is not nearly as popular as the skyrhįkarl,
which is flesh from the body of the fish. Skyrhįkarl
draws it's name from its resemblance in appearance to the Icelandic curds called skyr
. The tough glerhįkarl
is recommended for beginners, as the soft skyrhįkarl
has been known to cause an involuntary gagging reaction due to its texture. Wash down with a shot of cold Brennivķn
(caraway schnapps). Believe it or not, this is actually good for the digestion - especially before eating the heavy Žorri food.
Dried fish, usually haddock, cod or catfish, beaten to soften it. Delicious with or without butter. In old times Haršfiskur
was eaten like bread in those homes that could only afford flour for baking on special occasions. It is still Iceland's favourite snack, and a popular travel food. (Chances are, if you meet an Icelander and he has a funny smell about him, it will be because of the haršfiskur tucked away in his luggage.)
Modern Entrées: At many Žorri feasts there is now offered a wide variety of entrées, usually food that can be found in a typical Scandinavian Julefrokost (Christmas buffet): marinated herring (both plain and in several different kinds of sauce), smoked salmon and gravlax. This is (in my opinion) mainly to satisfy the tastes of guests who wish to take part in the celebrations, but don't like the taste of shark and pickled meat.
This is where the menu begins to get really interesting. Almost everything you find on a typical Žorri buffet is made from lamb or mutton, with a few exceptions. The food can be separated into two categories: sour and non-sour. The sour food has been pickled in extra strong skyrmysa (whey) for several weeks. The trick is to get it sour enough to tell where it's been, but not so sour that you can't tell what it is. Most of the sour food is also served non-sour. In the old days, sour milk was sometimes uses instead of mysa.
Hrśtspungar or pressed sheep's testicles. Has little taste of it's own, and a texture reminiscent of pressed cod roe.
Hvalspik or whale blubber. This became hard to find after the parliament passed a law forbidding whaling several years ago. It has made a small comeback recently, due to the Norwegians lifting their whaling ban and selling the blubber to Iceland. Fresh whale blubber is stringy and tough, but pickling it makes it soft and more easily digestible.
Lundabaggar - This is a tough one to explain - it is made from secondary meats, like colons and other such stuff, rolled up, boiled, pickled and sliced. Usually very fat.
Bringukollar - breast meat. These are cuts of really fat meat on the bone, which have been boiled before pickling. As the name suggests, these pieces come from the breast of the animal.
Selshreifar - seal's flippers. These are rare, except at some family feasts where the participants have hunted the seals themselves.
Hvalllķki or fake whale blubber. This was invented after the whaling ban. It is made from fish, and has a colour and texture reminiscent of the real thing, but an entirely different taste. Has become a Žorri staple for many, and is by some preferred over the real thing. (Seems to be more common in the Reykjavķk area than in other parts of the country).
Sour and non-sour:
Slįtur. Of this there are two types: Lifrarpylsa or liver sausage and Blóšmör or blood sausage, cooked before pickling. Both are quite good when fresh, but take on wholly different taste when pickled, which people either love or loathe (I happen to like it). Both contain rye meal, which contributes to the souring process and creates a special kind of taste that's hard to describe. Both are quite firm when fresh, but will take on a crumbly texture after extended pickling. These can actually be pickled in water, as the rye meal causes a souring action similar to whey.
Svišasulta - sheep's head jam. This is quite good when pickled, and delicious fresh. It is made by cutting up
the meat from cooked sheep's heads (sviš), pressing into moulds and cooling. The cooking liquid turns into jelly when cold, and keeps the whole thing together. For a further explanation of sviš, see below.
Svķnasulta, or spiced pigs' head jam. A recent addition to the Žorri table, probably borrowed from the Danish. Tastes much better fresh than pickled.
Lappir and/or Fótasulta - sheep's legs and sheep's leg jam. This is a rare sight, both due to the effort it takes to produce the jam, and the fact that the slaughterhouses are required to throw the legs away. Therefore only available where people do their own butchering.*
*They must have changed the regulations - you can now get legs at my local supermarket.
Hangikjöt - Literally "hung meat". This usually refers to smoked lamb or mutton, although smoked horse-meat is also called hangikjöt. This is one of those courses that are eaten outside the Žorri season as well, and is really delicious. Many families (mine included) serve hangikjöt for Christmas.
Magįlar - heavily smoked sheep's bellies. Eaten like hangikjöt.
Sviš - singed sheep's heads. The name refers to the tradition of burning away all the hair from the head before cooking. This gives the meat a smoky flavour. The heads are cut in half lengthwise and the brains removed before cooking. Like hangikjöt, this is also quite a popular dish outside the Žorri season.
Kartöflustappa- mashed potatoes.
Rófustappa - mashed rutabagas. These are boiled until soft, mashed and sweetened with sugar.
Flatbrauš- flat bread, served with butter.
Rśgbrauš- rye bread. Dark (almost black) "thunder-bread" served with butter. Top with pickled herring for an entrée, eat on the side with the main courses.
Brennivķn - caraway schnapps, locally known as Svartidauši - "Black Death". These days many people will rather drink vodka and/or whisky - which they claim taste better.
Mysa - whey. Yes, it can also be drunk. Before the arrival of carbonated beverages, this was the refreshment of choice. Unfortunately, it is not much used as a drink anymore. The taste? It is reminiscent of dry white wine, and mysa can actually be used instead of white wine in cooking, without anyone noticing the difference.
Bjór - beer, and it's relatives, Malt (brown ale) and Lageröl (pale ale). During the beer-less years (several decades), the only ale allowed in Iceland was the low-alcohol Malt and Lageröl. Since we have been allowed to drink beer again, it has become "the drink" for many at Žorrablót feasts. These days you can even buy special Žorri beer.
Stuff that is sometimes served, but shouldn't be:
Many people, especially young people, don't like the Žorri food, but like to participate in the Žorrablót. In order to accommodate these (in my opinion) unfortunate people, non-Žorri food is sometimes served (especially at restaurants). Therefore we now have:
Žorri chicken - grilled Žorri steak - Žorri pizza, and other such stuff. This is not really Žorri food, of course, and in my opinion, people who come to Žorrablót to eat this stuff would be better off going out to dinner and seeing a show - they are missing out on the special feel of the Žorrablót.
Žorri update 2001:
There is a recently established League Against Spoiled Food (Samtök gegn skemmdum mat) which dedicates itself to fighting against the eating of whey-pickled food, skate and skark. In my opionon, they should count themselves lucky to have been born in the 20th century, when they at least have a choice as to what they eat, a luxury our ancestors didn't have. The old-fashioned" food of today is much healthier than the same kind of food used to be. Here I am not just referring to the traditional Žorri food, but also for example to sour and mouldy butter, rotting meat and bread with lots of extra proteins due to maggots and insects in the flour. People had no choice but to eat this kind of food, or else starve.