What’s the matter? Thorramatur!

The holidays are over, spring is just a date on the calendar, and the weather outside (if you’re in our neck of the woods) is frightful. A perfect time to take a break from pre-spring cleaning to explore the mid-winter Viking festival, Thorrablot. The Thorrablot, or Feast of Thor, is held in Iceland, on a Friday, between the 19th and 25th of January every year, and signals the beginning of the snowmoon, or month of Thorri.

There isn’t much agreement as to just when this festival started (any time from the Viking era down to the 19th century) and likewise some confusion as to its namesake (Icelandic king Thorri, ancient jotun (giant) Thorri, or Heathen god Thor). Where modern people agree is on the traditional menu of food known as the thorramatur.

The recent popularity of this festival is said to derive from Icelandic emigrants returning to their home country after working overseas. They had lost connection with their native traditions and thorrablot was a way to reconnect. A common thread of the mostly meat-based menu is preservation. Pickled ram testicles, fermented shark (hakarl, a lot like surstromming – hilarity and history at the link), soured blood sausage and the like are not for the faint of heart (or stomach) but these foods helped the hardy Vikings make it through winter.

“…It’s all a real adventure, although the spectre of rotted shark does seem to dominate proceedings somewhat, with veteran diners visibly gagging as they attempt to keep the dish down. It’s hardly surprising – once you’ve got past the freshly-scrubbed locker-room stench, the burning at the back of the throat and the stinging eyes, you’ve got to swallow something Anthony Bourdain described as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever eaten (this from a man who once downed a shot of cobra bile), and a snack that had Gordon Ramsay retching uncontrollably. And the taste itself? If you can bear to not swallow it right away, to let the shark settle on the tongue, to linger on the palate… well, it’s urine-soaked cheese that springs to mind...

Whenever possible, some form of goat’s meat is included, as homage to the god Thor, who considers goats one of his sacred animals. Thor is also invoked to beat back winter with his mighty hammer Mjolnir. We mortals are encouraged to beat back the taste of singed sheep head and rotten fish with many toasts of Brennin (aka black death). The humans at Seven Trees will be celebrating ancestral food traditions, and beating back winter, with our own thorramater next week. Time to get the freezer ready for the hoped-for bounty of 2012 by turning all those assorted cow & pig parts into preserved treats like blood sausage, liverwurst and kielbasa. And we’ll wash it down with our own version of Icelandic black death, Linie akavit.

(More details about the traditional thorramatur here – http://lovingiceland.com/food)

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