Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Medical Tourism and Þorrablót

Yesterday I heard a local interview with a woman who had seemingly purchased a spot on the radio to advertise her new enterprise, a small travel agency with one single trip on offer. Seeing that this lack of variety provided the woman the opportunity to focus all her efforts on the one trip I turned up the volume, expecting great things. This was not to be. Amazingly enough the trip arrangements were as abysmal as the woman‘s marketing prowess. For one, the length of the trip was stunning when put in conjunction with the selling point that everything was so cheap at the destination that it would be a good way to make one‘s salary last longer. She left out the bit that no one on a regular salary can leave for three months without that same salary magically disappearing. The second oddity regarded the travel arrangements – fly to London, wait eight hours, fly eleven hours to Bangkok and take a bus to the final destination, a mere 800 km to the north. This last bit was introduced as a bonus, a free tourist excursion through beautiful Thailand. I can imagine only one worse scenario, flying for hours on end in a plane installed with dentist chairs, equipped with dentists. The worst was however yet to come, the trump card that the woman excitedly blurted out, cheap Botex treatments to remove wrinkles on the forehead. Now, I do not know if „Botex“ is an actual product, some kind of generic Botox rip-off, or if this woman was simply ill informed, but I do know that I would never, ever, ever, travel on a bus for 800 km into a far away forest for cosmetic surgery, much less „Botex“ treatment.

This is not to say that I would not love to visit Thailand and hope to do so some day, using a reputable travel agent. When there I will not waste my time undergoing body/face improvement based on questionable supplies, as my time would be better spent attempting to take in the people, culture and countryside as best I could. I would also eat everything that is on a plate and not moving, not much anyway. The reason is that I find Thai cuisine so incredibly good that I am hard pressed to come up with anything that tastes better. It is however not difficult to think of things that taste worse, in particular now when the dreaded Þorrablót season is upon us here in Iceland, as of this coming Friday. This occasion derives its name from Þorri, the fourth month of winter in the old Norse calendar honouring king Þorri, and blót meaning feast. Best translated to English, Þorrablót would be: „Feast of disgusting food“, as this is what it involves, i.e. fermented and sour animal parts that are usually not eaten, and for good reason. The most popular dishes are pickled and fermented rams-balls and singed sheep’s heads from which the eyes and tongue are considered a delicacy. These yummy morsels are washed down with Brennivín, sometimes called black-death, not coincidentally.

In retrospect, the end of January and most of February would have been the most meagre period of the year food wise during Iceland’s settlement and the centuries that followed. Everything from the more bountiful summer would have been eaten or have perished, unless fermented and the people thus forced by no festive reason, to eat what we now celebrate. It is a strange event but it has one thing going for it – the bizarre dishes remind us from what grain we grew and how tough our ancestors were forced to be. This should actually be taken up elsewhere as people everywhere in the world had great difficulty sustaining their existence in the past and it helps to be grounded by remembering this, if not just for the fact that in places this is still the case. It certainly of takes the punch out of any temper tantrum brought on by being served tepid soup in a fancy resteraunt.

I realise that for those who follow this blog Iceland will not sound terribly appealing for gourmets but this is not the case at all. We have the occasional eccentricities in this respect but aside from these the food here is really good, particularly the fish. A friend of mine from France who lived here for several years mentioned that he had never realised how exquisite fish is when served as a filet and explained that in his country the fish was usually served whole, head, tail, scales, fins, gills and all. This he believed was to prove that it was fresh, not old or frozen. In Iceland this is not required as why serve old fish when there is plenty of fresh fish available? On this note I leave you with a promise not to mention food for a while and never the time when we ate the soles of our shoes in a long ago famish; which, in case you are wondering, are not served at a typical “Feast of disgusting food”.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Yrsa

    This was an interesting post, but some of those photos of the food -- oh dear -- quite unpleasant. I don't think I even want to know what they were, the ones I couldn't recognize I mean.

    I have an Iceland question. We've just recently gotten a new television that is High Definition. They have a wonderful channel called HD Theater - it's one of the Discovery channels. Each weekday moring at 7a.m. and again at 10 a.m. they show a program called Sunrise Earth. It is absolutely wonderful. Yesterday the sunrise was in the Haukadalur Valley in your beautiful country. The rock formations were fascinating, the geyser water so very blue. I'd love to hear more about this place from you. And...if anyone can get that channel on their tv try turning in to Sunrise Earth. There is no artificial sound added - just water, birds and whatever sounds are normal in the location they are featuring, like fishing boats readying to head out to a day's work. It's heavenly and so relaxing.


  2. Jacquie- that channel sounds wonderful! I'm going to look for it!

    Yrsa- No Botex? What? You might need it after eating all of that crazy food! Thanks for the insight into your interesting country. I still want to visit, even after this post! Also, I ordered your book, 'Last Rituals,' today and am anxiously awaiting it's arrival!


  3. Not quite the Botex express after all...this is so funny Yrsa. And being vegetarian I'd need to stick to fish in your country.

    Michele, I read Last Rituals and loved it...Yrsa needs to hurry and get more of her books translated imho


  4. Nobody else did, so I've got to ask:
    What the heck is Brennivín?
    I read it as "brandywine".
    But, as far as I know, you guys haven't got a single grapevine in the whole country.
    Am I wrong?
    Is this one of those Viking things, like naming a country Vineland when there isn't a grape within the radius of a thousand kilometers?
    What's that stuff made out of?
    Do hardcore, nationalistic Icelanders get together abroad and lament about the lack of Brennevin in their neighborhood?
    Dish, please.

  5. To Jacquie: The geyser you mentioned in Haukadalur is pretty special as it is the "original" geyser from which all other geysers draw their name. It is named Geysir and has been active since the 13th century. The name Geysir is a name, for example Strokkur is the name of another geyser in the area. The term geyser in Icelandic is goshver but "Geysir/geyser" caught on and is now used to descibe these formations in English and possibly other languages. The area is very beutiful, as is all of Iceland's nature. I will probably write something shortly about that seeing that I have to leave the topic of food alone for now.

    To Michele: I hope you like the book, it has some info regarding Iceland that will hopefully not diminish your interest in visiting. Regarding the awful food, I wouldn't touch it with a stick although it would probably stretch the skin out and relieve any need for Botex/Botox.

    To Cara: we have lots of fish so if you come you will have no problems! My daughter is a vegeterian (with the exception of lasagna) so I know it can be done although I would not have recommended coming here twenty years ago when meat & fish were a fixture in every meal.

    To Leighton: Brennivín is a cumin based hard liquor - sort of like vodka but worse. You are right about the grapes - there can never have been any here despite the marketing spin which seems to have been accepted in the Viking community as you pointed out with Vineland and also with respect to the name they chose for Greenland. Brennivín is made from, surprise, surprise: fermented potatoes. This is sipped more for the fun of it than the actual taste and thankfully it is now served as a chilled shot intead of a long drink in coke as it used to be. The awe of progress.

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