With the holidays approaching, Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir heads north to Akureyri to observe the making of laufabraud, the uniquely decorated Icelandic Christmas bread, and discovers that it is the perfect remedy for depression.
Published in the 2008 winter issue of Iceland Review – IR 46.04. By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, photos by Páll Stefánsson.
“Are you done kneading the dough?” asks Kristrún Jónsdóttir, a mother of five, grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of 15, as her second-eldest daughter, Laufey Sveinsdóttir, rolls the ball of dough into a long sausage and covers it with a tea towel. Without waiting for an answer, Kristrún comments, “In my youth we kneaded the dough for longer than that.” Wearily, Laufey replies, “Well, I still think I’ll leave it at that.” After letting the dough rest for a bit, she cuts the sausage into roughly three centimeter wide pieces, flattens them out with a rolling pin and then uses a plate and a kleinuhjól, a special knife resembling a pizza cutter, to create round cakes with a rugged edge.
Kneading and flattening laufabraud dough is hard work, which is why this task was usually undertaken by men—one of few chores they ever had in the kitchen. The extended family would gather for a day a few weeks before Christmas, after quickly finishing their daily duties on the farm, to make laufabraud (known as “leafbread” or “snow-flake cake” in English)—the most unique Icelandic Christmas tradition of all. While decorated bread is also a tradition in other countries, round, leaf-thin, deep-fried cakes with patterns created by making cuts through the dough, are not known anywhere else than in Iceland.
“The decoration was meant to make up for the meager state of the bread,” explains Hugrún Ívarsdóttir, a designer and decorator from Akureyri whose products, including napkins, aprons and tablecloths, are inspired by leafbread patterns. Since 2001 she has been collecting information on this tradition. “It’s amazing how much could be done with a simple knife,” says Ívarsdóttir. Traditionally, the triangular cuts are made with a pocketknife and are known as leaves—hence the name “leafbread.” The cakes were thin, preferably so thin that one could read the Bible through it, because flour was sparse.
“I remember us kids waiting for the day with great anticipation,” recalls Jóna Sveinsdóttir, Kristrún’s eldest daughter. She grew up with her siblings on their family farm in Öxnadalur valley, outside Akureyri, without electricity or hot running water. “We bought huge sacks of flour and had them brought in from Akureyri,” adds Kristrún. After the leafbread had been decorated, it was deep fried in homemade tallow (melted sheep fat) on the coal-heated stove. “Nothing went to waste,” Jóna says, “the flour sacks were used as sheets.” Amazingly, this was only 50 years ago.
Back in Kristrún’s dining room in modern-day Akureyri, family members of all ages concentrate on their leafbread cakes, the children struggling with the leafbread wheel, an invention from around 1940 which replaced the pocketknife. Kristrún pauses to show her granddaughter Freyja (10) how to use the wheel and how a knife is used to flip every other leaf and create the traditional leafbread pattern. Family friend Sigrídur Jóhannesdóttir from the region of Mývatnssveit, on the other hand, grew up decorating leafbread the traditional way and skillfully folds the thin cake, makes sharp slantwise cuts with a thin blade and then carefully unfolds the cake so that the leaves won’t get tangled. Others try copying her but quickly give up and go back to the wheel.
The candles flicker as the sun begins its early descent and the yellowish otherworldly glow of Arctic daylight slowly turns to darkness. The snow outside the window glistens in the winter sun. Laufey’s granddaughter Eygló (9) attempts to create the traditional pattern of ‘Short-Day Sun,’ a half-circle of a sun disappearing below the horizon and seven rays of sunshine. ‘Rising Sun’ seems easier to make. Her cousin Salóme (10) gleams when she holds up her creation to the photographer—it is her first leafbread day. The tradition, first mentioned in sources dating back to 1736, is north Icelandic—although its popularity is beginning to spread across the country—and Salóme lives in the south.
“You’re not supposed to eat it raw,” says Áslaug Júlíusdóttir, Jóna’s daughter-in-law, when she catches her daughter Jóna Ríkey (5) nibbling at the edges of the cake she has given up decorating. “I couldn’t find my cake before; I swear she ate it,” Áslaug tells the other mothers while the prankster Jóna Ríkey rushes off to play, too impatient to bother with the complicated leafbread carving anymore.
The women are all experimenting with traditional patterns, like ‘Northern Lights,’ ‘Winter Flower’ and ‘The Light of the Wise Men.’ “I’ll try the ‘Farmer’s Cut,’ it seems easy,” says Áslaug, referring to five simple vertical cuts. “I’m sticking with the ‘Hash Plant’,” grins Jóna’s youngest son Brynjar (28), referring to a self-invented leafbread pattern. Sigrídur explains that practicality was an important factor in decorating leafbread in her household. “We often made so-called ‘bed-cakes’ where there was only one vertical cut down the middle to make it easier to break in two and take to bed with you without risking too much crumbling.”
Brynjar and his nephew Sveinn Orri (22) are caught up in an intensive discussion of football while other family members around the table talk about similar everyday topics. It appears as if the current economic crisis—otherwise a dominant factor in every conversation these days—has been banished from this moment of togetherness and anticipation for the upcoming holiday season.
While the piles of plain leafbread cakes grow smaller and the decorated cakes disappear into the kitchen one after the other, the smell of freshly-fried leafbread and boiling hangikjöt (smoked lamb)—the smell of Icelandic Christmas—penetrates the senses. Laufey and Jóna, under the observant eye of their mother, have taken their positions by the stove. Jóna carefully places a raw leafbread into the boiling sheep fat, turns it once with the aid of two forks to fry each side evenly, then fishes it out of the fat after only a few seconds and places it in front of her sister Laufey. Quickly, before the leafbread cools too much, Laufey presses down on it with a special laufabraudshlemmur, a wooden board with a handle (which one of the children made at school some years back) and flattens it. “It looks a bit pale,” says Kristrún. Acquiring exactly the right golden color for the leafbread is tricky. The pale bread is added to the growing stacks of the crisp, ready-to-eat delicacy.
Soon enough the carving boards and knives have been removed from the dinner table and the family gathers to feast upon their first taste of Christmas this year. They help themselves to smoked lamb, boiled potatoes, green peas, red cabbage and sweet béchamel sauce, break off a piece of leafbread and butter it.
By now it is pitch black outside but Kristrún and her descendents have no reason to feel depressed. They have each other. Even in the darkest hours of winter in Öxnadalur valley where Kristrún raised her children to appreciate the fruits of their labor and traditional values—under conditions that would be considered poverty today—the sun did rise again.
“Um laufabraud” in Árbók hins íslenzka fornleifafélags by Elsa E. Gudjónsson, 1986.
“Steikt braud” in Íslensk matarhefd by Hallgerdur Gísladóttir, 1999.
You can read this article in the 2008 winter issue of Iceland Review – IR 46.04. Four times a year the print edition of Iceland Review brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson's latest images of the country's majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.