Christmas in Iceland is in a way really special. Some of the Icelandic Christmas traditions are rather amusing. Let’s see what bothers Icelanders at this time of the year and what dishes appear on their Christmas tables.
In Iceland Christmas preparations begin in the clothes shops. In this case, it is not like in the other countries; definitely, it is not chasing the fashion or a simple desire to improve the Christmas image. Nothing of that kind! Icelanders turn to this with a great fear in their hearts. Everything because of an old, quite brutal and typically Icelandic custom. Everyone whispers about it with anxiety – ‘að fara jólaköttinn’, which means – ‘to become the Yule Cat victim’.
Maybe it sounds funny, but it’s not laughable at all. According to the custom, during Christmas everyone has to put on a new piece of clothing. You cannot ignore it because otherwise, you put yourself in great danger – you are in danger of being devoured by an extremely malicious beast called the Yule Cat.
A long time ago farmers told their workers that if they didn’t finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas, they would be eaten by the Yule Cat. These who did their best were rewarded with new clothes. And those who were lazy were the easiest Yule Cat target. Bloodthirsty and vicious monster belongs to the equally gruesome giantess Grýla. All Icelanders know this story and they try not to be the next victim of the Yule Cat. Well, this scenario could be somewhat troubling.
In contrast to most other countries, Christmas preparations in Iceland aren’t full of pleasant aromas. Unfortunately, when Icelanders think about Christmas, they don’t have in mind the aroma of gingerbread and oranges, but a really disgusting smell of ammonia. In many Icelandic homes just before Christmas, you can feel a smell of fermenting rays, called skata. In the category of shocking stench, skata far surpassed even the controversial, fermented shark. And now imagine that the smell of the worldwide famous shark is incomparable with the much less known skata.
Christmas skates are caught in the autumn. Then they are pickled and left to ‘decay’. When someone is preparing skata, its unbearable strong smell is everywhere in the air. The person, who prepares it, immediately soaks in skate’s delightful aroma. After that the apartment must be aired for at least a week, so imagine what kind of odour we are talking about. That’s why some Icelanders try to reduce the smell in their houses by preparing the skate outside. There is a secret method which helps to reduce the smell. Some Icelanders, immediately right after they finish with the skate, start to prepare smoked lamb (hangikjöt). The odour disappears, at least to some extent. Skata is served with boiled potatoes and brown rye bread. Many people say that except for the smell, this is a heavenly meal.
In Iceland the Christmas dinner starts usually at six. On Christmas Eve Icelanders eat a hearty, warming up meat soup known as kjötsúpa. It is a traditional lamb soup with cabbage, turnips and grits. Many people consider it as one of the best cures for the winter depression. Another common and very popular meal this day is also already mentioned smoked lamb, hangikjöt. In the past in the poorest households, people prepared grouse, rjúpa, instead of lamb. These days everything looks different because rjúpa is considered to be a really gourmet dish.
In the old days, grain products were horrendously expensive in Iceland, so bread was a delicacy consumed very rarely. When the financial situation in Iceland changed and when the import of grain increased, Icelanders began to bake for Christmas pancakes and prepare delights known as kleinur. Soon kleinur and the other kinds of treats stopped to be associated with Christmas and were introduced into the daily diet of Icelanders.
Food photography – Adam Biernat
Cut-outs for foodies
One of the most unique things on the Icelandic Christmas table is laufabrauð. Laufabrauð, also known as ‘leaf bread’ or ‘snow flake bread’, is a flat, round, crispy bread with a neutral flavour, usually served with butter and smoked lamb. You won’t find it anywhere else in the world. What makes it so unique are delicate, intricate patterns which are cut out in the bread. It makes laufabrauð look like a little piece of art. The tradition was first mentioned in the records from the 18th century when flour was very sparse. That’s why they are so thin. It originally comes from North Iceland, but now it’s popular around the whole country.
To be honest, making this bread is a real challenge. Rolling out the dough is a very hard work (once it was said it should be so thin that you can read the Bible through it). For generations, men were asked to help with the rolling and cutting out the patterns. In the past, it was the only day in the year when men were active in the kitchen. Making laufabrauð is not a one person task. Icelanders often organise evening meetings a few weeks before Christmas, when all family members gather to make this traditional bread. Not only is it very tasty, but also it is a fantastic decoration of the Christmas table.
If you would like to try your hand at making laufabrauð, you can find the recipe below. We have to admit that we had some problems with rolling out the dough properly. It should be much thinner. Have fun and Merry Christmas! Gleðileg Jól!
Food photography – Adam Biernat
- 3 ½ cups flour
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tbsp. sugar
- 4 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 cup warm milk
- 1l canola oil, for frying
Whisk flour, baking powder, salt, sugar into a bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and add it to the mixture. Pour in milk gradually and form dough.
Sprinkle a little flour on a breadboard and transfer the dough here. Knead the dough until it’s smooth (around 10 min.). If needed, you can add slightly more flour or milk. It should be stiff but still a little moist.
Form the dough into a roll of around 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter. Cut a slice from the roll (you should get around 25 slices from the roll). Cover the rest of the roll with a damp kitchen towel – it can’t get any dry. It’s very important to keep it that way.
Roll out the slice into a circle. It should be really thin. In the old days, it was said that it should be so thin that you can read the Bible through it. Cut out a circle of around 18-20 cm (7-8 inches) in diameter. You can use a metal bowl or a pot cover to do it.
Now the fun part begins – cutting out the patterns. It can be done either with a special cutting wheel (laufabrauðsjárn) or with a small knife. The cutting wheel makes it much easier, but it’s not that easy to get it abroad. Traditionally it was made using a pocketknife. We used a knife and it went fine. There are many traditional patterns, the most popular one is a star (or a snowflake). Working outwards from the centre of the circle you have to cut rows of V’s (you can see it on the picture above). Using a knife, lift the tip of every other V and fold it back, so that it touches the apex of the V behind it. Press it delicately to adhere. You can find a step by step guide here.
Heat 5 cm (2 inches) of oil (traditionally sheep fat was used) in a big frying pan or a pot. Carefully put the bread into the oil. Fry on each side until it turns pale golden (just a dozen or so seconds). Lift it from the oil, let it drip off for a second and put it on a paper towel. Cover it with another piece of paper towel and press it with a pot for a second. When it’s completely cool, wrap it in plastic foil. It can be kept in a cool, dry place for at least several weeks. Enjoy!
Food photography – Adam Biernat