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Land of Stubborn Farmers (ESA)

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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir's picture

Today I noticed that an Ask IR question about how Iceland got its name from April 2013 is back on the most popular stories’ list. I spent a lot of time answering that question, discovering other, and perhaps more likely, theories about the country’s name than the official one.

Briefly, it goes like this:

Landnáma (‘The Book of Settlements’) writes that when Norseman Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson initially arrived in Iceland in about 865 AD—more specifically the southern West Fjords—he and his entourage were too preoccupied with fishing to make hay for their animals and prepare for the long and cold winter. The animals died, and in spring, the pioneers decided to leave. Before departing, Hrafna-Flóki hiked up a mountain and saw that Vatnsfjörður fjord was filled with pack ice and, hence, named the country Ísland (‘Iceland’).

Interestingly, I had just written an article about Icelandic food culture and history for the next issue of Iceland Review, opening with the legend of Hrafna-Flólki.

Whether the story about Iceland’s name is correct or not, it shows that the country’s long winter took the settlers by surprise. They were used to a milder climate where farm animals could graze for longer periods, and not as much hay was needed for the winter.

It also shows that the settlers made use of the abundant resources available in the virgin land; fjords, lakes and rivers were filled with fish, and birds and seals (as well as walruses, if Bergsveinn Birgisson’s theory about The Black Viking is correct) were unused to man and, hence, easy targets.

However, this period of plenty soon came to an end, and in order to survive, the settlers had to adjust to the climate of their new home, adopt new farming practices and be resourceful when it came to producing and storing food.

(If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend food historian Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir’s highly informative blog, based on her book, Icelandic Food and Cookery, which I reference in my article.)

For example, Skallagrímur, the father of Viking poet Egill Skallagrímsson from Egil’s Saga discovered that the sheep grew fatter when grazed in highland pastures and, therefore, built his farm near the mountains. Still today, Icelandic farmers drive their sheep to the mountains in summer and round them back up for slaughtering in autumn.

To the earliest Icelanders, meat was likely a bigger part of the diet than fish. Nanna writes than in spite of the country’s rich marine resources, the settlers stubbornly held on to their farming practices.

I’ve always found it interesting how the value of livestock has been incorporated into the Icelandic language.

Livestock was used as currency, and the Icelandic word for livestock is búpeningur, literally ‘farm money.’ The word is still used to describe both ‘sheep’ and ‘money,’ while fjárhirðir can mean both ‘shepherd’ and ‘cashier.’

Initially, though, beef was more commonly consumed than mutton, as sheep were more important for dairy production. Skyr, for example, was made from ewe’s milk rather than cows’ until the 20th century.

Gradually, the value of lamb grew and sheep were bred for meat production. The number of sheep also drastically increased. In fact, Icelanders are outnumbered: The country has 330,000 human inhabitants but 480,000 sheep.

This may be a bit excessive. I’ve heard that there was a lot of leftover lamb from last year as the BBQ season had been a failure—the summer of 2014 was unusually rainy. I hate the thought of all that meat being wasted.

With that in mind, and as I had to clean out the freezer, I decided to make head cheese from the sheep heads I had left from last season.

As much as I like liver pudding and blood sausages (which I will make with my friends next week), singed sheep heads aren’t my thing. But they’re included in the slátur packages.

Head cheese, however, tastes excellently on buttered bread, and is easy to make. Pulling the jaws apart, cutting up tongues and picking meat from the bones of the heads of lambs which once ran free in highland pastures, I felt good about myself.

I was being respectful towards the lambs, I thought, honoring their sacrifice by using every last scrap of meat there was. And I was being respectful towards Icelandic culinary traditions, honoring my stubborn farming forefathers’ survival efforts in an often hostile environment.

Today is my last day of work, as I’m going into nesting mode. According to plan, I will be back in June. Thank you for reading; I wish you all a pleasant weekend. The head cheese will be served at my husband’s birthday party tomorrow!

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.