Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Aquired Taste

Christmas Eve is the pinnacle of the Christmas holidays in Iceland, the evening when families come together to dine and open presents. It is therefore unfortunate that my blog this time around lands on what must be called Christmas Eve Eve, i.e. the evening before, the evening before, Christmas Day. This particular day is one of the busiest of all, as you only have until noon tomorrow to wrap, decorate, pick up stuff from the cleaners, figure out if you forgot someone and last but not least, buy all of the groceries you need for the next three days as everything is closed until Sunday.

Another Icelandic tradition, unrelated to religion, does nothing to make the 23rd of December less hectic. It involves eating putrefied starry ray (kæst skata, a fish), a dish only the bravest dare cook at home so in most cases it involves going to a jam-packed restaurant and lining up with your plate to access a buffet overflowing with this “delicacy” in various editions, from mild to unbearable. The mild version leaves your sinuses clear until approximately mid-February and the unbearable burns the skin off the roof of your mouth. I cannot explain the taste in any detail but think ammonia and you are halfway there. As the name of the dish, putrefied ray implies, the smell is obnoxious and after going to one of these buffets your clothes stink to high heaven until they have been washed at least twice. Not exactly a smell one associates with Christmas which is why few choose to cook this at home and those who do usually do it on their balconies or in their garages when the weather is really, really bad. My husband and I went and had some for lunch today and our coats are still banished to the outdoors, left hanging outside our front door as they are not washing machine proof. The rest of the clothes we wore are drying after their second spin through the laundry process.

I am not 100% sure what the idea is behind this tradition although I know it originates from the Icelandic Western Fjords. I have read two theories that sound semi-reasonable, one is that this horrid meal was meant to make people look even more forward to the Christmas meal the following evening and the second that the workers and servants were provided this on the 23rd as it meant that they would not have anything to eat that could constitute as worse for a whole year – I am however a bit unsure of the logic in the latter explanation. Maybe it simply had something to do with clearing out you sinuses until mid-February. That would actually rhyme with another tradition that I will tell you about when the season draws closer, or the Þorrablót season (loosely translated: Feast of Disgusting Food) when fermented shark cleans out the nasal passages again until spring.

So, before logging off and starting to wrap and wrap and wrap, I am going to share with you my one and only obsession and claim to being a member of the loony tunes. This is my Christmas tree which is adorned with 3600 bulbs, all fastened to a branch, not just thrown on. It probably takes about two to three full working days to accomplish but as I do it in the evenings the work is spread over a about ten days. The photo at the top shows the outcome and it is the first actual photo successfully taken of a Christmas tree in our house as the mass of light is too much for an ordinary camera. This one was taken by a professional photographer sent over by one of the local newspapers that is going to publish a brief article about it tomorrow. As proof of how proud I am of this tree I am placing the photo on the internet despite how awfully fat I look in it which has something to do with my clothes being the same colour as the stereo I am standing up against. If you zoom in you will see I am not lying about this.

So until next time when the New Years festivities will be a breath away.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Your tree is magnificent. Your dogs are very cute. I did zoom in to look at the tree and I certainly can appreciate how much time it must have taken to do it. My tree is hung with ornament that were made by my kids when they were in nursery school and kindergarten. They groan when they see it and I wouldn't dare show a picture to anyone. Magnificent is not a word that would come to mind.

    I can see that you are blending in with the stereo. You allow your picture to be taken which is more than I do. While I can't place the blame for looking fat on anything else, I really avoid the camera because the older I get the more I look like my mother .

    Irish-Americans think they need to eat corned beef and cabbage on March 17, St. Patrick's Day. It is my understanding that this meal is not known to the people who actually live in Ireland. There are various ways in which people would try to prevent death by the smell of cabbage. Growing up, the method used in our house was putting a piece of bread on top of the pot. It didn't work. When I got married, I banished the cabbage from the meal; no one liked it anyway.

    I can see the logic in giving putrified starry ray to the servants. Who would dare complain if a complaint led to it being served at more frequent intervals.

    As I type this, I am laughing. This is a wonderful spirit lifter when one is trying to figure out the simplest way of getting cakes and breads in and out of the oven when they need different temperatures.

    Merry Christmas to you and your's and thank you for this great story.


  2. Hi Yrsa, and anyone who doesn't believe 'it's the stereo',

    I met Yrsa in October and she's tall and thin!


  3. I love this idea for Christmas food. It might have the useful effect of putting people off from all this colour-supplement "one upmanship" encouragement of ever-more complex gluttony, and because nobody would feel like eating for a few days after the ray, they could get on with actually enjoying xmas, playing games with their children, etc.

  4. 3600 bulbs? Blimey Yrsa, if one fails with our lights then they all go out, and you have to check them all to find the culprit. I pray that isn't the case with yours. Looks great though.

  5. Skata, you say? Greek visitors to Iceland must giggle when they read menus this time of year.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. Hi all - I apologize for not replying to comments this time around. I read them all as they appeared as I also receive them via e-mail but this being the hectic season I never found the time to sit down and answer properly. Thanks for all of your input - I particularly liked the one about putting a piece of bread on the cabbage pot, no less did I like the point that it had no effect. I would also love to know what Skata means in Greek.

    bye for now

  7. Skata means shit in Greek -- related to our English word scatology.

    Happy New Year!
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  8. Hi Peter

    I must say it seems as if the Greeks got it right yet again.

    happy new year to you too!