The roots of Icelandic cuisine are to be found in the traditions of Scandinavian cuisine, as Icelandic culture, from its settlement in the 9th century onwards, is a distinctly Nordic culture with a traditional economy based on subsistence farming. Several events in the history of Iceland were of special significance for its cuisine. With Christianisation in 1000 came the tradition of fasting and a ban on horse meat consumption. More significantly in terms of farming and food supply was the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 14th century. Farmers were not able to grow barley anymore and had to rely on imports for any kind of cereal grains. The cooling of the climate also led to important changes in housing and heating: the longhouse of the early settlers, with its spacious hall, was replaced by the Icelandic turf houses with many smaller rooms, including a proper kitchen. This type of dwelling was used well into the 20th century.
Historians often use the Reformation in 1550 as the transition between the Middle Ages and the early modern period in Icelandic history. Farming in Iceland continued with traditional practices from the 14th century to the late 18th century, when reforms were made due to the influence of the Enlightenment. A trade monopoly instituted by the Danish king in 1602 had a certain effect on culinary traditions. But the cuisine of Denmark had the most influence in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, when the country had close relations to Iceland. In the early 20th century, an economic boom based on commercial fishing and processing resulted in a slow transition from traditional dairy and meat-based foods to consumption of fish and root vegetables. Preserved foods began to be replaced with greater emphasis on fresh ingredients.
When Iceland was settled by immigrants from Scandinavia and Viking colonies in the British Isles, they brought their farming methods and food traditions of the Norse world. Research indicates that the climate of Iceland was much milder during the Middle Ages than it is now, and sources tell of cultivation of barley and oats. Most of this would have been consumed as porridge or gruel or used for making beer. Cattle was the dominant farm animal, but farms also raised poultry, pigs, goats, horses and sheep. The poultry, horse, sheep and goat stocks first brought to Iceland have since developed in isolation, unaffected by modern selective breeding. Therefore, they are sometimes called the "settlement breed" or "viking breed".
Fermented shark, hákarl
, is an example of a culinary tradition that has continued from the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century to this day.
Fish was stored in salt, and before the Black Death, Iceland exported stockfish to the fish market in Bergen. However, salt seems to have been less abundant in Iceland than in Norway. Saltmaking, which was mostly done by boiling sea water or burning seaweed, gradually disappeared when overgrazing caused a shortage of firewood in most parts of the country in the 14th century. Instead of curing with salt, the people of Iceland began to preserve meat in fermented whey. This method was also known from Norway but acquired little significance there.
Archeological digs in medieval farms have revealed large round holes in storage rooms where the barrel containing the lactic acid was kept. Two medieval stories tell of men who save their lives in a burning house by staying submerged inside the acid barrel. Medieval Icelanders used fermentation for preserving both fish and meat, a method that greatly alters the taste of the food, making it similar to very strong cheese. Fermentation is still used to cure shark (see hákarl), skate and herring. Fermented eggs are a regional delicacy, rarely found nowadays. The practice of smoking and drying meat and fish was also practiced, although the drying of meat was seen as somewhat of a last resort.
Cheese was made from goat and sheep milk as well as cow milk. Skyr, a soft yogurt-like cheese eaten with spoons, was originally a tradition brought to Iceland from Norway. It has survived only in Iceland. The whey left over when making skyr was made to go sour and used for storing meat. It is likely that the predominance of skyr in Icelandic cuisine caused the disappearance of other cheesemaking traditions in the modern era, until industrial cheesemaking started in the first half of the 20th century. Cheesemaking was part of seter-farming (seljabúskapur), living in mountain huts in the highlands in late spring. Here farmers could separate the kids/lambs from their mothers in order to milk the adults. They often made cheese while still in the highlands. Flavors would reflect the new grasses.
Cooking and meals
The longhouses of the first settlers usually included a long fire in the center to warm the house. Around it, holes were dug in the floor to be used as earth ovens for baking bread and cooking meat. Women would place dough or meat in the hole along with hot embers from the fire, and cover it tightly for the time needed. They boiled liquids in wooden staved churns by putting hot stones from the fire directly into the liquid (a practice that continued to the modern age). Low stone hearths surrounded the fire, but mostly the cooking was done on the floor.
In the 14th century, Icelandic turf houses were developed and gradually replaced the longhouses. They had a kitchen with a raised stone hearth for cooking called hlóðir. The cooling of the climate during the Little Ice Age made it impossible to grow barley, and sheep replaced the more expensive cattle as predominant livestock. Iceland became dependent on imports for all cereals. Due to a shortage of firewood, the people turned to peat, dung, and dried heather for fuels.
In medieval Iceland the people ate two meals during the day, the lunch or dagverður at noon, and supper or náttverður at the end of the day. Food was eaten from bowls. Wooden staved tankards with a hinged lid were used for drinking. Later these were developed into the bulging casks, called askar used for serving food. The upper class used elaborately carved drinking horns on special occasions. Spoons were the most common eating utensil, made of horn or bone, and often decorated with carvings. Except for feasts, where tables would be laid, people ate their food from their laps, while sitting on their beds, which lined the outer wall of the longhouse. In addition to processing crops and meats and cooking, the farmer's wife apportioned the food among the family and friends. In richer households this role was entrusted to a special butler called bryti.
Early modern period
Icelandic subsistence farming from the Middle Ages well into the 20th century was restricted by the short production period (summer) compared to the long cold period. Apart from occasional game, the food produced in the three months of summer (including preserving meats and cheeses) had to suffice for nine months of winter. Researchers have estimated that, based on these methods of subsistence, Iceland could support a population of around 60,000. For centuries, farming methods changed very little, and fishing was done by men using hooks and lines from rowboats constructed from driftwood. Farmers also owned the boats, so fishing was limited to periods when the farmhands weren't needed for farm work. Fish was not just a food, but a trade good, and it was exchanged for products brought by foreign merchant ships. The people were dependent on trade for cereals, such as rye and oats, transported to Iceland by Danish merchants. Until the 19th century, the vast majority of Icelandic farmers were tenant farmers on land owned by the Icelandic landowner elite, the Catholic church, or (especially after the confiscation of church lands during the Reformation) the king of Denmark. Tenant farmers used surplus fish, tallow ,and butter to pay the landowner his dues.
Considerable regional variation in subsistence farming developed according to whether people lived close to the ocean or inland. Also, in the north of the country, the main fishing period coincided with the haymaking period in the autumn. This resulted in underdevelopment of fishing because labor was devoted to haymaking. In the South, by contrast, the main fishing period was from February to July. Some historians have described Icelandic society as a highly conservative farming society. Because of the demand for farmhands in the short summers, tenant farmers and landowners opposed the formation of fishing villages. Fishing was considered risky compared to farming, and the Alþingi passed many resolutions restricting or forbidding landless tenants from living in coastal villages to pursue fishing.
Cooking eggs and small game and even baking in hot springs
is a peculiar feature of Icelandic cuisine.
Given the dominance of subsistence farming in Iceland, there was a lack of specialisation and commerce among farms. As testified in some of the Icelandic sagas, domestic trade seems to have been suspect as a type of usury from the age of settlement. Trade with foreign merchant ships was lively, however, and vital for the economy, especially for cereals and honey, alcohol, and (later) tobacco. Fishing ships from the coastal areas of Europe stopped for provisions in Icelandic harbors and traded what they had with the locals. This would include stale beer, salted pork, biscuits, and chewing tobacco, sold for knitted wool mittens, blankets, etc. Merchant ships put in occasionally from Holland, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain, to sell their products, mainly for stockfish. It is prominently displayed in the royal seal of Iceland.
In 1602 the Danish king, worried about the activities of English and German ships in what he considered to be territorial waters, instituted a trade monopoly in Iceland, restricting commerce to Danish merchants. They were required to regularly send merchant ships to Iceland carrying trade goods needed by the country. While illegal trade flourished in the 17th century, from 1685 the government instituted stricter measures to enforce the monopoly. It flourished until 1787. As a result, Iceland farmers grew a type of rye predominant in Denmark, and brennivín, an akvavit produced from rye, was introduced. These products displaced other cereals and beer.
A quern-stone from Scotland. Similar stones were used in Iceland for grinding corn into flour.
Different types of bread were considered a luxury among common people, although they were not uncommon. The corn bought from the merchant would be ground using a quern-stone (called kvarnarsteinn in Icelandic) and supplemented with dried dulse (seaweed) and lichens. Sometimes it was boiled in milk and served as a thin porridge. The porridge could be mixed with skyr to form skyrhræringur. The most common type of bread was a pot bread called rúgbrauð, a dark and dense rye bread, reminiscent of the German pumpernickel and the Danish rugbrød, only more moist. This could also be baked by burying the dough in special wooden casks in the ground close to a hot spring and picking it up the next day. Bread baked in this manner has a slightly sulphuric taste. Dried fish with butter was served with all meals of the day, serving the same purpose as the "daily bread" in Europe.
Cooking and meals
From the 14th century, food was prepared in the kitchen on a raised stone hlóðir or hearth. Hooks were placed above in order to hold the pots at the desired height above the fire. Ovens were rare, as these required lots of firewood for heating. Baking, roasting and boiling were all done in cast iron pots, usually imported.
The two meals of the medieval period were replaced by three meals in the early modern period; the breakfast (morgunskattur) at around ten o'clock, lunch (nónmatur) at around three or four in the afternoon, and supper (kvöldskattur) at the end of the day. In the Icelandic turf houses people ate sitting on their beds, which lined the room. Food was served in
askar, low and bulging wooden staved casks with a hinged lid and two handles, often decorated. Spoon food was served from the cask, and dry food placed on the open lid. Each household member had a personal askur for eating from and was responsible for keeping it clean.
Women producing stockfish for export in Reykjavík in the 1910s.
Móðuharðindin, arguably the greatest natural disaster to have hit Iceland after its settlement, took place in 1783. Ten years earlier, a ban on Danish merchants residing in Iceland had been lifted and five years later the trade monopoly was ended. Some of the Danish merchants became residents, and some Icelanders became merchants themselves.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), there was a shortage of trade goods as merchant ships were diverted by war. Forced to self-reliance, Icelanders began to emphasize production and consumption of local vegetables raised during the short growing season. In the 19th century, nationalism and schools for women were influential in formalising traditional methods and shaping modern Icelandic cuisine.
The first written cookbooks to be published in Icelandic were collections of Danish recipes published in the 18th century. They were intended to introduce the upper-class cuisine from Denmark-Norway to their peers in Iceland. The recipes sometimes had a "commoner version," using less expensive ingredients for farmhands and maids. The cuisine of Denmark influenced Iceland well before that through trade.
In addition, Danish merchants who settled in Iceland, after the ban was lifted in 1770, often ran large households characterised by a mixture of Danish and Icelandic customs. Reykjavík, which developed as village by the end of the 18th century, began to grow and became a center of a melting pot of Icelandic and Danish culinary traditions. Fishing villages formed in the 19th century, many located by the trading harbours, which previously had featured little more than a natural harbour and a locked warehouse nearby. The Danish influence was most pronounced in pastry-making, as there were few native traditions in this craft. Ethnic Danish bakers began to operate around the start of the 20th century in both Reykjavík and Akureyri. Some Danish pastry-making traditions have survived longer in Iceland than in Denmark.
In the late 17th century, some farmers cultivated the first vegetable gardens, but growing vegetables did not become common until the early 19th century, when the Napoleonic Wars resulted in the merchant ships staying away. Resident Danes, who brought the tradition of vegetable gardens with them, were usually the first to start growing vegetables. Popular early garden vegetables included hardy varieties of cabbage, turnip, rutabaga, and potato. They were generally prepared in Iceland as boiled accompaniments to meats and fish, and sometimes mashed with butter.
In the first half of the 20th century, many home economics schools, intended as secondary education for girls, were instituted around Iceland. Within these schools, during a time of nationalistic fervor, many Icelandic culinary traditions were formalised and written down by the pupils. They were published in large recipe compendia a few years later. Later emphasis on food hygiene and the use of fresh ingredients was a novelty in a country where culinary traditions had been based on preserving food for long term use.
The modern economy began to expand, based on commercial export of seafood. The modern generation rejected many traditional foods, embracing the concepts of "freshness" and "purity" associated with ingredients from the sea, especially when marketed abroad. During the urbanisation boom of the late 1940s, many Icelanders formed regional associations in Reykjavík. Together as fraternity, they revived some old culinary and other rural traditions. These associations organised midwinter festivals, where they started serving "Icelandic food," traditional country foods served in a buffet. This was later called Þorramatur.
In the beginning of the 20th century, farmers living near the towns would sell their products to shops and directly to households, often under a subscription contract. (This is similar to the concept of in some United States cities since the late 20th century.) To deal with the Great Depression in 1930, the Iceland government instituted state monopolies on various imports, including vegetables. They granted the regional farmers' cooperatives, most of them founded around the start of the 20th century, a monopoly on dairy and meat production for the consumer market. This meant that smaller private producers were out of business.
The large cooperatives were believed able to implement economies of scale in agricultural production. They invested in production facilities meeting modern standards of food hygiene. These cooperatives still dominate agricultural production in Iceland and are almost unchallenged. They pioneered new cheesemaking techniques based on popular European varieties of gouda, blue cheese, camembert, etc. Cheesemaking (apart from skyr) had been nearly extinct in Iceland since the 18th century. The cooperatives have driven product development, especially in dairy products. For instance, they market whey-based sweet drinks and variations of traditional products. One of these is "Skyr.is", a creamier, sweeter skyr, which has boosted the popularity of this age-old staple.
Fishing on an industrial scale with trawlers started before World War I. Fresh fish became a cheap commodity in Iceland and a staple in the cuisine of fishing villages around the country. Until around 1990, studies showed that Icelanders were consuming much more fish per capita than any other European nation. Since then, however, steeply rising fish prices have caused a decline in consumption.