A Little Food History

Some Icelandic food history:

1 – The Food and Cooking of the Middle Ages

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2 – Traditional and Modern Icelandic Cooking

The first part deals with the food history of Iceland from the Settlement until the end of the Middle Ages and a bit further – in some instances up until the late 18th – early 19th century. It is based on a segment of my book Icelandic Food and Cookery, published by Hippocrene Books, New York, NY, in 2002. This version was expanded into a paper I gave at a food symposium in Colorado Springs in 2002 and has been revised somewhat.

The second part is mostly taken from Icelandic Food and Cookery but slightly expanded. That book has been out of print for some years but a new and revised edition has just been published here in Iceland and the food history section has been thoroughly updated.

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1. The Food and Cooking of the Middle Ages

Some years ago, I was searching online for books on the Central Asian countries, Tadzhikistan, Kirghistan, Kazakhstan – and I came across a book title that intrigued me. I can’t recall the author but the title was “Somewhere East of Life”. I have no idea what the book is about but somehow I felt I didn’t need to read it – the title said it all. East of life, east of hope, east of civilization … it was all there. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that until maybe a hundred years ago, most people would have considered a variation on this title quite fitting to Iceland, which was always somewhere north of life.

So the cooking I’m about to describe can’t be said to be mainstream medieval European cooking. It is the cooking of people that chose to live at the outskirts of the habitable world, where resources were few and limited, and had to adapt their diet, their cooking methods and their daily life to that fact.

What Did the Settlers Eat?

Most of what can be said about the diet of the people who came to Iceland in the Settlement period (AD 874-930) is guesswork. There are no written documents dating from that period, no cookbooks, no traveller’s descriptions, no trade accounts. What we have is the evidence of the Sagas, written centuries later and not really all that concerned with culinary matters, and some scant archaeological evidence.

Icelanders, and I suppose everybody else as well, have always assumed that the great majority of the people who settled Iceland came directly from Norway and other Scandinavian countries and carried with them almost pure Norse customs and culture. The Sagas certainly support this, even though they mention Celtic slaves and even a few settlers who came from the Hebrides and Scotland. Very few Celtic words have found their way into the Icelandic language; few given names or placenames are of Celtic origin; and there is not much in Icelandic culture or customs to suggest a Celtic heritage.

A few years ago new genetic research by Icelandic scientists revealed some startling results: Even though the majority of the males who settled Iceland did indeed come from Scandinavia, the genetic evidence shows that well over half the women actually came from the British Isles, probably from Ireland, Scotland and the Hebrides. The scientists can of course not tell us why this is so. Did many of the wandering Vikings in fact settle for a time in the British Isles and marry local women? Or did settlers on their way to the remote island in the west – having failed to persuade the women back home to throw caution to the wind and emigrate with them – simply raid Celtic villages and farms on their way to the new home and take the women as slaves?

Dried dulse.

It is almost certain that both things happened to some extent. What did not happen, however, is the Celtic influence on Icelandic cooking that one might expect, as cooking was definitely a woman’s job in Viking culture. The clearest evidence of Celtic influence on Icelandic cooking is probably the use of dulse, which seems to have begun during the Settlement period in some regions at least. Dulse was much eaten in Ireland but almost unknown as a food in Norway.

That does not mean the first generations of Icelanders ate exactly the same food as their ancestors had done in Norway. The settlers will have needed to make some changes to their diet as soon as they came to Iceland. They found a virgin country, with rivers full of salmon and trout, with seals and birds unused to man, so at first the animals may not have been as wary as they became later. Eggs of wild fowl could also be gathered, so at first there was plenty of food just for the taking, in addition to the animals the settlers brought with them and the crops they grew.

This period soon ended and the farmers had to learn to live with their new land. One of them was Skallagrímr of Borg, father of Egill: “As Skallagrim’s livestock grew in number the animals started making for the mountains in the summer. He found a big difference in the livestock, which was much better and fatter when grazing up on the moorland, and above all in the sheep that wintered in the mountain valleys instead of being driven down. As a result, Skallagrim had a farm built near the mountains and ran it as a sheep farm.“

The settlers soon discovered the importance of good pastures for their livestock, as well as fields for hay-making. The winters in Iceland are long, longer than many of the settlers would have been used to, and quite a lot of hay was usually needed to feed the breeding stock through the winter.

 So What Was Available to Them?

No recipes survive from the Viking era, if any such were indeed ever written, and few clear descriptions of food preparation and cooking. But we do know something of the utensils that were used and the ingredients that were available. It is more or less known what animals, wild and tame, there were in Scandinavia and the British Isles during Viking times, and to a degree we also know what wild and cultivated plants there were to choose from. In most of these countries, grains could be grown fairly easily and formed a great part of the winter food supply.

The old sources usually mention just “korn” (grain), without specifying the type, but the grain types the settlers would have known were barley, rye, wheat, and in some cases maybe oats and buckwheat as well.  Now of course these were not the high-yielding grains of today, but more primitive types with less kernel and more straw. So the yield, which probably wasn’t very high in the countries the settlers came from, would have been even more meagre in the harsh Icelandic climate. Nevertheless, grain had probably been a mainstay of the diet of these people, especially those who came from Southern Norway, Denmark and the British Isles.

Many of the settlers will have been used to several types of fruit in their homelands: Plums, cherries, small apples, pears, several types of wild berries, walnuts, hazelnuts, beechnuts, acorns, and others. This they had to learn to live without in their new home. No fruit-bearings trees grew there; no edible nuts, almonds or acorns were to be found; there were only a few types of wild berries.

In Scandinavia, quite a few things were grown besides barley and rye in Viking times. Kale and turnips were probably the most common vegetables but herbs such as dill and coriander, and probably cress, were grown too and used for herbal remedies, for drinks and for seasoning food. Some peas and beans were grown, along with various onions, parsnips and carrots.

It can thus be safely assumed that many of the original settlers in Iceland had experience not only in raising livestock, but in growing grains and some types of vegetables as well, and they will have expected to be able to carry on with this in their new home. But this proved difficult and in many cases impossible. The climate was unfavorable and supplies such as seeds were difficult to get. Still, it seems the Icelanders were reluctant to change, to the point of stubbornness. And maybe that is one of the reasons for the strange fact that even though Icelanders live in close proximity to some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, and even though farming in Iceland is a hazardous battle with the elements at the best of times, they stuck to being a pastoral society and it took them a thousand years to face facts and become a nation of fishermen.

 The Evidence of the Soil

So what did they experiment with and what was successful? We do have an idea about what was grown at the bishop’s seat at Skálholt, established in the 11th century. A study on pollen from a moor at Skálholt was done in 1960 by Þorleifur Einarsson. He collected core soil samples from the moor and identified and counted the pollen found in them.

As it happens, it is actually easier to date such soil samples in Iceland than in most other places, as the frequent volcanic eruptions divide the soil into layers and you only have to look at where the object you want to date is found. If it is found just below a ash layer that can be identified as dating from the Mt. Hekla eruption of 1104, for instance, we would know that this plant had been growing in Skálholt before that time. One very identifiable layer has been called “the Settlement layer”, as it fell in an eruption during the settlement period, probably in AD 898. It is found all over Iceland and has proved very useful in dating many archaeological and geological findings.

An old grindstone.
An old grindstone.

Þorleifur Einarsson’s study revealed many interesting things regarding the vegetation at Skálholt, as well as the environmental effects of the Settlement and climatic changes. For instance, barley becomes evident just as soon as the land is settled and at the same time, there is a marked decrease in birch and willow. Several species of grass show a marked increase, as well as some weeds like chickweed.

Wormwood occurs in the Skálholt samples from the 10th century but disappear in the late 18th century and is now not found wild anywhere in Iceland. It was probably grown in the herb garden at the bishop’s seat, as a medical herb and perhaps also to flavor ale. It was also used in the making of ink, as the taste of wormwood prevented mice from gnawing the manuscripts. Yarrow may also have been used to flavor locally brewed ale.

In the low-lying regions of Iceland, barley could be grown after land had been cleared but the growing season was short and hazardous and yield was often very low. Iceland was never self-sufficient as a grain producer, not even before the cold period that began in the 14th century. During the early part of the “Little Ice Age”, as that period has been called, home-grown grain disappeared almost completely. Barley disappears from the soil samples from Skálholt around 1400 AD and while barley cultivation may have survived a little longer in some lower-lying regions, it had completely disappeared a century or so later and wasn’t tried again until the 20th century.

Barley is virtually the only type of grain known to have been grown in Iceland but some rye and wheat was imported. Imported rye gradually became the most important grain in the Icelandic diet; wheat was used for fine baking by wealthy people, and for baking communion wafers.

A Breadless Land (almost)

Even when grain was grown, it was probably used less for bread than for porridges, considered more economical than bread, and the same applied to imported grains. Porridges are frequently mentioned in the Sagas and it seems that butter or other fat was sometimes added to them. Halli of The Tale of Sneglu-Halli is described as a great lover of porridge, even though he refused to eat it until he burst, as King Harald demanded of him. And some of the barley was used to brew ale, so there was not much left over for breadmaking.

This is not to say that bread was more or less unknown in medieval Iceland. It is mentioned often enough in the Sagas, usually in connection with some kind of spread or fat, and was probably much more of an everyday food than it became later on. Reykdæla Saga tells of a man called Þorgeir smjörhringur, Thorgeir Butter-ring, who got his byname because his favorite food was bread and butter.

Unleavened Icelandic flatbread.
Unleavened Icelandic flatbread.

This bread was probably always unleavened. According to John Granlund, there are no indications that any kind of leavening was used in Western Scandinavian baking during the Viking era, and no ovens seem to have been in use. Three types of bread seem to have been made, thin flatbread baked on embers or hot stones, coarse, heavy bread buried in ashes, and fine wheat cakes baked in a frying pan. Pans of this type have however not been found in Iceland so it is not certain they were used there until much later. Unleavened, coarse barley or rye bread cooked in embers or in a pan over an open fire may not sound appetizing but such bread can be quite good when freshly baked and still warm. It does get rock hard as it cools, however.

It isn’t until the late Middle Ages that the lack of grain, and especially the absence of bread in the diet, becomes so evident that most travellers who visit Iceland or others who write about it almost invariably mention this as a very peculiar thing – which it was, of course, to them – and wrote all kinds of tall tales about this strange fact. A common tale was that Icelandic farmers would gladly allow anyone who could provide them with a piece of bread to sleep with their daughters in exchange for this rare treat.

The German cartographer Martin Behaim wrote this on his globe of 1492: “In Iceland are found men of eighty years who have never tasted bread. In this country no corn is grown, and instead fish is eaten.” The first part of his statement is incorrect, bread was not that rare, but it certainly wasn’t everyday food for poorer people. They buttered their dried fish and ate it instead.

During the 16th to 18th century, well-off people would let their servants bake bread but the majority of Icelanders rarely made or ate bread. And the bread that was being made was usually thin, unleavened flatbread, made from rye or barley. Due to lack of firewood, ovens were virtually unknown, except possibly in a few very wealthy households, and there was no professional bakery in the whole of the island until the early 19th century. There was no village baker (naturally enough, as there were no villages), no communal ovens, no grand houses with huge fireplaces or stoves.

After grain cultivation disappeared completely, all grain had to be imported and consequently became even more expensive than it had been. Not only that, but in some years it was scarce or even completely unavailable. Only a handful of trading ships sailed from to Iceland each year and sometimes bad weather, war or other calamities prevented them from risking the long and hazardous journey. For instance, no ship arrived in Iceland from Norway in 1326, resulting in a severe shortage of all imported commodities. The annals especially mention the lack of wine and say that mass couldn’t be sung in some churches due to lack of sacramental wine.

Harðfiskur (dried fish) and siginn fiskur (fermented fish).
Harðfiskur (dried fish) and siginn fiskur (fermented fish).

Things got a little better at the beginning of the 15th century, when English fishers and merchants began to journey into Icelandic waters. They bought dried fish and homespun cloth from the Icelanders and sold them grain, all kinds of utensils and metalware, wood, candlewax, weapons, and luxuries like honey. This was the so-called English century in Icelandic history. Several wealthy landowners who had possession of good harbours began large-scale fishing operations. Dried fish from Iceland fetched good prices in European markets and money trickled into the coffers of the Icelandic boatowners.

Nevertheless, the majority of Icelanders continued to be poor. They could not grow grain to sustain them, and they could not afford to buy all the grain they needed, nor could they rely on a steady supply. So what did they use instead? Two very important staples were fjallagrös, Iceland moss, which is not a moss but a type of lichen that grows in many Arctic regions, and söl, dulse, a seaweed that can be gathered at low tide around the North Atlantic.

Moss From the Mountains, Dulse From the Sea

Iceland moss is first mentioned in the 13th century law text of Jónsbók but it may have been used since the Settlement, although there may have been less demand during the first centuries, when life was easier. Iceland moss grows in northern Norway and was sometimes used there as food, at least during famines, although never to the extent that they were used in Iceland. Iceland moss doesn’t look very edible but it was used in many dishes, sometimes as a grain substitute, sometimes almost as a vegetable.

Iceland moss (fjallagrös).
Iceland moss (fjallagrös).


Its use seems to have increased gradually, as grain cultivation diminished, and it became more and more important. In the vast wilderness of the North and Northeast, the lichens grew in abundance, and groups of people would go into the mountains to gather them, sometimes sleeping in tents for a week or more, and return with dozens of large sacks stuffed full of their pickings. The moss was then spread out to dry, picked over and stored in barrels or large sacks. They were then soaked before use, chopped and cooked. In many regions porridges and other food made from it were served every day, sometimes at every single meal. They were used in bread, soups, puddings, blood sausages, and many other kinds of food, and made into teas and potions for many ailments.

It is entirely possible that Iceland moss helped keeping the Icelandic nation alive, not just as food but also as a medicine, as recent tests have shown they contain substances that strengthen the immune system and may prevent some diseases. There are even some who want to link the rise of tuberculosis in the population in the late 19th – early 20th century to the disappearance of Iceland moss from the diet.

Another local plant that was often added to bread was dulse, which was gathered at low water in late August, especially in Western and Southwestern Iceland. So there is a clear regional difference here: in the north and east they had Iceland moss, in the south and west there was dulse. As I’ve already said, the use of dulse can probably be linked to Ireland and it may not be a coincidence that many settlers in the dulse-wealthy region of Breiðafjörður came from the British Isles. Dulse is mentioned in many old sources and it is clear that it is highly valued; churches often owned rights to collect dulse in faraway regions and there was quite a brisk dulse trade in medieval times. Dulse is known to have been gathered and traded in 1118, and Iceland’s oldest surviving law texts mention the right to collect dulse and eat it while on another man’s land. This means that dulse was also eaten fresh, not only dried as it is today.

The best known dulse story comes from the Saga of Egill Skallagrímsson. He wanted to starve himself to death after losing his son but his daughter used dulse to trick him into giving up this plan. She convinced him that she wanted to join him, then began chewing some dulse – not, she told him, as food, but to hasten her death:

“Then Egill said, “What are you doing, my daughter? Are you chewing something?” “I’m chewing dulse,” she replied, “because I think it will make me feel worse. Otherwise I expect I shall live too long.””

Egill apparently didn’t consider the dulse to be food so he also got some to chew on, not realising how salty it was. They both became very thirsty and called for some water but were given milk to drink instead (arranged by the daughter before she joined her father, of course). Egill was so angry at the trickery that he bit a shard out of the horn the milk was served in, and abandoned his starvation plan and composed one of his mighty poems instead.

Now this is of course written three or four hundred years after it supposedly occurred so it may not be reliable evidence about Egil’s dietary habits but it does tell us that in the 13th century, people seem to have had an idea that dulse might have been unfamiliar as food to a Viking of Norwegian origin, while his daughter, probably brought up partly by Celtic slaves and servants, would have known all about it.

There is one grain type that grows wild in Iceland. This is lyme grass (Leymus arenarius), a hardy grass that is plentiful in many coastal and sandy regions in Iceland. Its seeds were sometimes used as food, especially in Southeastern Iceland; the earliest mentions date from the 12th century. It was, however, very difficult to harvest and the yield was low. Despite this, it continued to be used well into the 20th century. It was used for porridges and flatbreads but seems not to have been mixed with other grains.

 Wild Flavors

We don’t really know much about what the people of the Viking era used to flavor their food but several herbs and spices are likely to have been used. Among them are herbs like dill, wild thyme, coriander and juniper berries, as well as wild onions, chives and garlic, and it is likely that spices like cinnamon, cloves and ginger were used to some extent. Some spices will certainly have been imported to Iceland as well as to other countries, at least from the 13th century onwards, and spices like pepper are mentioned in old documents.

There are a few mentions of  “laukagarðar” (literally “onion gardens”) in medieval Icelandic sources, mostly in connection with monasteries, although the most famous one is Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir’s garden in Laxdæla Saga. What is meant here is probably herb or kitchen gardens but it is unclear what was actually grown in these gardens. The onions in question are probably chives but old books do also mention garlic and unian, probably red onion.

It is known that Norwegian monks grew some types of herbs and vegetables in the 12th century, such as turnips, peas and beans, and it is not unreasonable to assume that this was done in Icelandic monasteries as well – there was quite a lot of contact, as Icelandic monks and priests often visited and resided in Norwegian monasteries and vice versa. A “laukagarður” at the bishop seat at Hólar is mentioned in 1457, although it is not clear if it was still in use at that time. The only onion growing wild in Iceland is the very rare wild onion (Allium oleraceum), thought to have spread from a farm in Borgarfjörður in Western Iceland where an English missionary bishop lived for at least 20 years in the 11th century. He or someone connected to him may have brought the onion there and the conditions are favorable, as this is a geothermal area and the ground is warmer in places than usual.

Various “gardens” are mentioned in the late 13th century law texts of Járnsíða and Jónsbók but these texts are more or less direct translations of Norwegian law texts – this was only a few years after the Icelanders had sworn allegiance to the Norwegian king. These texts mention onion gardens and angelica gardens, but also apple gardens, turnip fields, pea and bean fields “or any fruit that is protected with hedges or watches.” There certainly weren’t any apple gardens in Iceland, so these texts can’t be relied upon as evidence.

Honey from cultivated or wild bees was of course the natural sweetener the settlers were used to but this was not an option in Iceland. Honey could of course be imported but it was an expensive luxury and probably something the average Icelander very rarely tasted, if ever. So the food was definitely lacking in sweetness – the only fruit was dried and expensive, and the native berries were rather tart.

Northern Norway and Sweden are known for an abundance of delicious berries – lingonberries, cranberries, cherries, wild strawberries, bilberries, blackberries, and so on. In Iceland only three types of berries grow in any significant amounts – bilberries, which are not too common, bog bilberries, and the lowly crowberries, not really considered edible in many countries where they grow. In Iceland, however, they grow abundantly and were considered a real treat. They were also a valuable source of vitamins and could be preserved in sour skyr throughout the winter. Berries are not often mentioned in old sources but it is known that they were gathered, and also that crowberry wine was made at the bishop’s seat at Skálholt, probably because imported sacramental wine was so often in short supply.

Angelica was grown and grew wild in Scandinavia in Viking times. It grows wild in Iceland – one of the very few tall plants that is hardy enough to grow there – and is relatively easy to cultivate, so it was probably also grown in special angelica gardens at many farms, especially as soil erosion began to destroy its habitat. The roots and stalks of the plant were boiled and then buttered eaten as vegetables, often with dried fish or dulse. The leaves were chopped and used for soups and stews.

“Kál” is mentioned several times in medieval sources. This is the same word as “kale” and in modern Icelandic, it more or less covers the cabbage family but it is by no means certain what the old sources mean. “Kál” may be a specific vegetable, or it may be a term loosely applied to vegetables in general. One of the plants known as “kál” in Iceland was skarfakál, scurvy grass, a valuable source of vitamin C in many regions.

A Thousand Years of Low-Carb Food

There were no large game animals to hunt in Iceland but the settlers brought livestock with them – sheep, cattle, pigs, horses and goats, as well as chicken and geese, and maybe ducks as well. They probably tried at first to let the animals run wild and forage food in the woods but will soon have discovered how severe the Icelandic winters can be. Hay and other feed had to be provided, although sheep and goats could fend for themselves far better than the cows, especially as a high proportion of the adult sheep were castrated rams (wethers); hardy animals, raised mostly for their wool and well equipped for the Icelandic winter climate. But cows produce much more meat and beef was probably far more common during the first centuries of Iceland’s history than later on, when the cattle was almost exclusively used for dairy production. The pigs probably mostly ran wild and gradually disappeared as the island became deforested. However, it is not unlikely that meat was a more important factor in the diet in Iceland than it had been in the countries the settlers originated in. I sometimes joke that it is no wonder low-carb diets are popular here, as the whole nation was on a low-carb diet for a thousand years.

A smoked leg of lamb.
A smoked leg of lamb hanging in a modern kitchen.

Fresh meat was usually only on the menu for a few weeks in the autumn, although well-off people sometimes slaughtered a lamb or gelded ram for Christmas and other special occasions. Almost all meat and offal was smoked or preserved in whey. In a cold, harsh climate, people need a lot of calories to survive, so fatty meat and pure fat were highly prized. There is evidence to suggest that the sausages made in Iceland were very fatty.

Geese and hens are mentioned in old sources but were probably not very common, as they would have been expensive to feed. In some regions of Iceland, seabirds and their eggs formed a large part of the diet, especially during spring and early summer, when little else was to be had. The birds occupied soaring, almost inaccessible cliffs – a single cliff can be home to millions of guillemots, razorbills, auks and puffins – but once you got near them, they were relatively easy to catch; an experienced catcher could bag hundreds of birds in one day. Medieval sources show that ownership of or access to a birdcliff was highly valued even then. Wild geese, ducks and swans were also hunted.

Whey-preserved whale blubber.
Whey-preserved whale blubber.

Whale meat and blubber was eaten whenever available and a large whale that stranded on the shore could provide meat for the whole surrounding region for a long time. Seals were hunted for their meat and hides. Both seal and whale meat may have been consumed even more than before after the Icelanders adopted Christianity in the year 1000, as the meat often seems to have qualified as fish, so it could be eaten on fasting days. And in 1481, Pope Sixtus IV wrote a letter to bishop Magnús Eyjólfsson of Skálholt, where he says that Icelanders can without penalty eat “the marine fish known as seal” during fast days.

Salmon, trout and char was fished in the rivers and lakes and the rich fishing grounds close to the shore were utilized from the earliest times. The fishing boats were small, open rowing boats, never larger ships. Dried fish played an extremely important part in the diet. At least from the 14th century onwards, and probably even earlier, it was on the menu daily and replaced bread in some ways. The fish was gutted and hung to dry on racks. It was left to dry completely; the cold, windy climate of Iceland is ideal for this. When the fish was to be served, it was beaten thoroughly with a mallet to soften it, and eaten with butter or other fat, such as fish oil. It was not usually cooked, which was an added bonus in the fuel-starved island. Even the fish heads were dried and every edible scrap was consumed.

The dried fish kept well and was easy to store. It was also lightweight – a dried cod or haddock will lose at least 80% of its weight in the drying process. This, however, also means that a lot of butter or other fat was needed to make the unsoaked, uncooked fish palatable, and people would spread their flat fish pieces liberally with butter.

The Need to Preserve

Iceland is a country completely surrounded by saltwater and it is probably surprising to many that one of the things that had a great impact on Icelandic food culture was the lack of salt. When salt is harvested from the sea, it is usually done by evaporation, either naturally, by using the heat of the sun to dry up shallow pools, or by boiling the water until only salt crystals remain. The first option is clearly not very viable in Iceland, as the climate is neither hot, sunny, nor dry. Boiling the salt was possible at first, and consequently the settlers will have been able to use salt roughly as they had been used to do. But after a few centuries, maybe after a few decades, lack of firewood had already become a problem. Boiling seawater for salt harvesting is a fuel-intensive process and the demand for wood for other uses was great. So people tried to economize. In winter, barrels could be filled with seawater and left until a thick layer of ice had formed. This was then removed and the process was repeated a few times, until the salt in the remaining water was so highly concentrated that it didn’t freeze. Then it was boiled but the process took much shorter time than usual and less fuel was needed.

Another frequent method was to gather seaweeds and dry them. They were then burned and the salty ashes used to preserve food. This was called “black salt” and was used when nothing else was available, but of course the food was contaminated with ash and

Despite these methods, the lack of salt became a problem early on. Salt could of course be imported but it was very expensive – in the mid-15th century the price was one dried cod for a pound of salt. Most people couldn’t really afford that. So other methods had to be found for preserving. And the need to preserve meat, for instance, was greater in Iceland than in many other countries. Almost all slaughtering was done in the autumn or early winter, as hay and other feed for the animals had to be conserved as much as possible and it wasn’t economical to feed an animal until it was needed for the table. Perhaps during the first couple of centuries some of the hardier animals could be left to forage for themselves in the dwindling woods but this often proved hazardous, as Flóki Vilgerðarson, who tried to settle in the Western Fjords in the late 9th century, became painfully aware of. According to the Book of Settlement, he neglected to provide fodder, lost all his livestock during a harsh winter, and went back to Norway, giving the country he had tried to settle its present uninviting name as a goodbye present.

So what options did the Icelanders have to preserve their meat and fish? Given the name Flóki saddled their country with, freezing might seem a possibility but the famously unreliable Icelandic climate makes that option very unreliable; Iceland may be cold but it isn’t really that cold, or at least it can’t be counted on.

Neither is the climate dry enough to make air-drying of meat a real option, although fish was usually dried. Much of the meat was smoked but that method usually demanded some salt and wasn’t really suitable for the more perishable parts like offal. So the Icelanders developed their own preserving method: They used one of the few things they had more than enough of, which was whey, and preserved much of their food in fermented whey.

Food preserved and fermented in whey.
Food preserved and fermented in whey.

The late and lamented Icelandic culinary historian Hallgerður Gísladóttir did a lot of research on whey preservation and she says that she has not come across this method anywhere else; pickling or preserving food in fermented whey for preservation was known in Norway in Viking times but never widely used, as Norwegians had lots of firewood and could process salt from seawater by evaporation. In Iceland, whey preservation became common early on. This is evident from archaeological research. When ancient farmsteads are excavated, remains of several huge barrels are usually found dug down into the kitchen or larder floor and these barrels will have been filled with soured or fermented whey, “sýra” which in Iceland was usually a byproduct of skyr-making.

Fermented whey is an excellent preservation agent; I have myself, as a child, eaten blood pudding and other food that had been kept in sýra for well over a year, in an unheated (and unrefrigerated) room. The fact is that fermented whey not only preserves the food and its nutrients remarkably well, it can even add to the nutritional value of it, since vitamins from the whey seep into the preserved food. It also tenderizes and softens the meat and gradually softens and dissolves bones. Fish and cattle bones were sometimes kept in the fermented whey until they had softened and then they were boiled and eaten, although they seem to have been rather unpopular.

Food that is kept in fermented whey for some time will gradually acquire a more sour taste. It is sometimes said that all food will eventually taste the same if it is kept in whey for long. Food that was preserved in this manner was usually boiled and cooled before being submerged in the whey. A lid was then placed on top and if the barrel was to be kept undisturbed for some time, some tallow was usually melted and poured over the rim to seal it.

Fermented whey was not just used to preserve food. It was used to flavor soups and porridges, possibly to marinate meat, but the main use was as a beverage. The use of fermented whey as a refreshing drink was not unknown in Norway but in Iceland, it became so prominent that 12th century Norwegians remarked upon it. The main reason for this is of course the lack of beer and ale. Some beer was brewed in Iceland in the Middle ages but after barley cultivation disappeared completely, sýra became the local substitute. It is not alcoholic but it can be very refreshing and tasty for those who have acquired a palate for it. It used to be said that two-year old whey was fully developed. By then, it was so sour that it was usually diluted generously with water, sometimes 1 part sýra to 11 parts water.

A Land of Milk but No Honey

Milk and dairy food was one of the mainstays of the Icelandic diet. Cow’s milk was by far the most common in the early period but gradually the cow population shrunk and the sheep population grew, and ewes became more important in the dairy production. The settlers brought goats too and the wealth of place names that can be linked to goats indicates that they were fairly common at first. They are also mentioned several times in old sources like law texts, but their importance seems to have declined fairly rapidly, probably as the land became deforested. They never did disappear completely, though.

There are several indications that quite a lot of milk was drunk fresh in the Middle Ages in Iceland. It was considered ideal food for invalids and old people and when people made pension contracts with convents or monasteries, for instance, they would sometimes stipulate that they should be given a certain amount of milk to drink each day.

Homemade butter. Sweet, not soured.
Homemade butter. Sweet, not soured.

The main use of milk, however, was for making dairy products like butter, cheese and skyr. The Icelandic butter, because of the lack of salt, was usually not salted. It was soured. Sour butter is, I believe, an Icelandic speciality that has completely disappeared – and should not be mourned, if descriptions of visitors to Iceland in the late Middle Ages and later are to be believed – but the Icelanders themselves liked it, and even when salt became more affordable, many continued to prefer soured butter to salted. It was also said to keep much better than the salted butter – up to 20 years, some sources say. The Icelandic cows seem to have produced fattier milk than the cows of neighbouring countries, perhaps considerably more so, and quite a lot of butter was being produced. Rent was usually paid or at least calculated in butter and rich landlords, churches and bishop seats accumulated huge butter mountains.

The settlers brought their cheesemaking skills with them to Iceland and cheeses are often mentioned in old Icelandic documents. The Sagas also mention them several times It is clear that cheesemaking was widely practised, probably on every farm, and rent and taxes were often paid in cheese or butter. But as life became harder in the late Middle Ages, cheesemaking gradually diminished and during the 18th century, it disappeared almost completely. The reason for this is probably that skyr was thought to be more economical than cheese, the yield from the milk was higher when skyr was made than when the milk was used for cheesemaking. Lack of salt may also have played a role, since cheese was usually salted to preserve it but skyr needed no salt at all.

Skyr is an Icelandic speciality that has been made since the Settlement so it was probably brought over from Scandinavia. Skyr is known in medieval Norway, but only in Iceland did skyr-making continue and become a very important part of the diet.

Skyr was made with either sheep’s or cow’s milk, although in modern times it is made from cow’s milk only. The milk – usually skimmed – is curdled with bacterial cultures and rennet. The culture comes from a starter kept from the last batch of skyr and the rennet was usually made from calf’s stomach, although butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) could be used in a pinch. Rennet is actually not mentioned in pre-16th century Icelandic sources but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used before that time. However, some of the skyr mentioned in old sources seems to have been a lot thinner than later on and it is mentioned that people sip or drink skyr. This probably means that the skyr was not sieved or drained. Later on, it was usually left on a sieve to drain and often became thick enough to be cut. The thin, unsieved skyr was also used to preserve food, much as whey.

A Cuisine of Wants

As for cooking methods, boiling was by far the most common; there were no ovens for roasting and no medieval frying pans have been found in excavations. Meat was sometimes roasted on a spit but probably mostly when a cauldron or other cooking vessel was not available. But even the cooking pots were in short supply. No metals are found in Iceland – not enough to make cooking utensils, at least – the clay is not suitable for pottery, and so on. Cauldrons and pots had to be imported and were expensive. In AD 1345, the bishop of Skálholt found it necessary to issue a ban on using baptismal fonts and bowls for non-sacramental use, presumably meaning to cook soups and stews. Wealthy men sometimes bought cauldrons and rented them out. Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law book, sets out the standard dimensions of an iron cauldron and according to it, the cauldron should have a capacity of 30 litres, or around 7½ gallons. But most Norse and old Icelandic cauldrons that have been found have been rather smaller than this.

Some Icelanders did have an alternative, fuel-conserving method for cooking. They simply cooked their food in the nearest hot spring. Sometimes the food was placed in a cauldron or other container which was then lowered into the boiling or almost-boiling water, sometimes it was buried into the hot earth close to the spring, and this is how rye bread is made even today. We know the hot springs were used for cooking in medieval times, because a source dating from 1199 tells of two women who were carrying a cauldron home from a spring and had an accident.

Geothermal heat was probably used mostly for baking bread, or steaming it, and this is still being done in Iceland; you can buy hverabrauð (hot spring bread, a dark, moist rye bread) in any supermarket in Reykjavík. The dough is placed in a closed container, buried in hot earth and left to steam in its own moisture for up to 24 hours.

For most cooking, however, the commonly used fuel after a few centuries of deforestion was either peat or dried sheep manure, and this continued into the 20th century; sheep manure is even used to this day for smoking meat and salmon. Trees and shrubs had almost completely disappeared in many regions after a few hundred years and firewood certainly was not something to be wasted; some have said it is no coincidence that almost all witchburnings in Iceland took place in the Western Fjords, where there is usually a supply of driftwood.

It is obvious that everyday Icelandic cookery, even from the earliest times, differed in many ways from contemporary Northern European cookery, and I think it is safe to say that this does not reflect changing tastes. There are indications that the settlers tried to continue doing things as they always had, but were – either quickly or gradually – forced to adapt to a harsher environment.

Icelandic cuisine was for almost a thousand years a cuisine of wants – want of grain, want of fresh produce, want of salt, want of fuel, even want of cooking vessels and utensils. The people of Iceland had to pay a certain price for chosing to live somewhere north of life, but they adapted to their environment and managed to survive for a thousand years on what they had.

 Sources:

Björnsson, Árni: Saga daganna. Reykjavík, 1993.

Brears, Peter, Black, Maggie, Corbishley, Gill, Renfrew, Jane, and Stead, Jennifer: A Taste of History. 10,000 Years of Food in Britain. London, 1993.

Gísladóttir, Hallgerður: Íslensk matarhefð. Reykjavík, 1999.

Granlund, John: Bakning. Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder I. Helsingfors, Copenhagen, Malmö, Oslo, Reykjavík, 1956-1978.

Grewe, Rudolf, and Constance B. Hieatt, editors: Libellus de arte coquinaria: An Early Northern Cookery Book. Tempe, 2001.

Grøn, Frederik: Om kostholdet i Norge fra omkring 1500-tallet og op til vår tid. Oslo, 1942.

Grøn, Frederik: Om kostholdet i Norge indtil aar 1500. Oslo, 1928.

Guðjónsson, Skúli V.: Manneldi og heilsufar í fornöld. Reykjavík, 1949.

Kristjánsson, Lúðvík: Íslenskir sjávarhættir I-V, Reykjavík 1980-1986.

Larsen, Henning: An Old Icelandic Medical Miscellany. MS Royal Irish Academy with Supplement from MS Trinity College (Dublin), Oslo, 1931.

Olsson, Alfa: Kokning. Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder VIII. Helsingfors, Copenhagen, Malmö, Oslo, Reykjavík, 1956-1978.

Rögnvaldardóttir, Nanna: Icelandic Food and Cookery. New York, 2002.

Shephard, Sue: Pickled, Potted and Canned. The story of food preserving. London, 2000.

Skaarup, Bi, and Jacobsen, Henrik: Middelaldermad. Kulturhistorie, kilder og 99 opskrifter. Copenhagen 1999.

Veirup, Hans: Til taffel hos kong Valdemar. Europas ældste kogebog eftir to middelalderhåndskrifter fra 1300tallet. Herning, 1993.

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2. Traditional and Modern Icelandic Cooking

Icelandic foodways probably did not change all that much until the late eighteenth century, when educated men, influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, began to try to teach their countrymen to grow vegetables, and use the food they already had in new ways. They did not meet with much success at first. Icelanders generally distrusted this newfangled food. But gradually, things changed.

Traditional Icelandic food – the food most people over forty grew up on – is to a very large extent influenced by Danish cooking. Iceland had been under Danish rule since the Middle Ages but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that this began to be reflected in the cooking to any great extent. Most of the traditional Icelandic cake and cookie recipes came from Denmark, and so did a great many dishes that are now considered extremely Icelandic in character.

The Earliest Icelandic Cookbooks

Danish cookbooks were in used in Iceland during the nineteenth century and the earliest Icelandic cookbooks are largely translations and adaptations of Danish and Norwegian cookbooks and recipe collections. The first of these,Einfalt matreiðsluvasakver fyrir heldri manna húsfreyjur (A Simple Cooking Notebook for Gentlewomen), was published in 1800. The authorship of this small book is very unclear, with conflicting evidence put forward by a man who certainly did contribute to it, a president of the High Court of Iceland.

Whoever the author or authors were, they came from the uppermost layers of Icelandic society and the recipes in the book clearly reflect that. This is not what Icelandic housewives were cooking at the time. This is upper-class Scandinavian cooking, described to enable well-off Icelandic housewives to entertain their families and guests, although two versions of many dishes are presented – one for the upper class, one for the workers. However, this book never became widely known, or much used.

A recipe for the very popular kleinur (twisted doughnuts) from Ný matreiðslubók (1858).
A recipe for the very popular kleinur (twisted doughnuts) from Ný matreiðslubók (1858).

The next cookbook, Ný matreiðslubók by Þóra Andrea Nikólína Jónsdóttir, which is a much more substantial work, was not published until 1858. Although large parts of it are more or less translated from Danish cookbooks of the time, there are many unquestionably Icelandic recipes in the book. The author, born in Copenhagen of an Icelandic father and Danish mother, spent her childhood in both countries, was probably educated in Denmark, but married an Icelander and lived first on a farm, and later in the town of Akureyri, so she had gained a wide experience which clearly comes through in her book.

The first truly Icelandic cookbook was Elín Briem´s Kvennafræðarinn (The Women’s Educator), first published in 1889 and sold 3000 copies in the first year. It became the first Icelandic-language cookbook to gain wide distribution. It was reprinted three times and became very influential.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most Icelandic rural homes were still largely self-sufficient regarding food, even though grains, sugar, coffee and a few luxuries had to be bought in the village store. This was also true of many town homes; even in Reykjavík many still kept cows, sheep or hens in a shed in their backyard.

The Great Cake Deluge

Vínarterta.
Vínarterta.

But this was also the time of great changes in Icelandic kitchens: The open fireplace was giving way to the cooking stove, which was considered such a wonderful device that it was named eldavél (cooking machine) in Icelandic. And the stoves had ovens for baking. This opened up a new world and Icelandic hospitality underwent a big change. Now visitors were no longer offered dishes heaped with smoked lamb, dried fish and whey-preserved food. Instead, they got served mountains of cakes and other baked goods; yet this was only the beginning of the Icelandic cake deluge.

Ovens had been virtually unknown in Iceland up to this time, except in a few wealthy homes. Cookies and pastries had mostly been fried in fat – pancakes, crêpes, crullers, and other goodies.

These early ovens were not easy to operate, lacking any thermostats of course, and it was an art to arrange the hot coals and other fuel so the cakes and cookies baked evenly. Sometimes they had to be turned several times while baking. Still, Icelandic housewives managed to churn out vanilla wreaths, crescents, spice cookies, cones, almond macaroons and innumerable other cookies and cakes in these ovens. And let’s not forget thevínarterta, served at all coffee parties at the turn of the century.

A Cuisine of Few Flavors

Most dishes were fairly bland; few spices were used and then sparingly. Often salt and pepper were the only flavorings, but some housewives had in their cupboards cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, and bay leaves, and sometimes nutmeg, dried lemon peel, and vanilla extract; only the very brave ones had a jar of curry powder to add to their fricassee sauce – but did so very timidly. A traditional Icelandic curry is very mild indeed. Some recipes mention “soy,” not oriental soy sauce, but gravy browning, a homemade or store-bought caramelized coloring for brown sauces.

Onions were imported but other vegetables used were those that could be grown in Iceland: Potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, kale and a few others. Fresh fruit was rare, with the exception of berries and rhubarb (treated as fruit in Iceland). Porridges and puddings were very popular and for special occasions, a grand many-layered dessert like trifle was made by those who could afford it, or maybe a custard flavored with vanilla, rum, almonds, lemon peel, chocolate, coffee, or even canned pineapple.

The Influence of the Porridge Schools

During the twenties and thirties, increasing influence of home economists and cooking teachers at the homemaker’s academies (the so-called “porridge schools”) can be noted and the cookbooks of the Depression era put greater emphasis on varied everyday food than most earlier books had done.

The most influential cookbooks of the twentieth century are without question Jóninna Sigurðardóttir’s book, first published in 1915 as Matreiðslubók fyrir fátæka og ríka (A Cookbook for Poor and Rich; the four subsequent editions were just called Matreiðslubók) and Helga Sigurðardóttir’s Matur og drykkur (Food and Drink), first published in 1947 and still widely in use. Both these ladies had been educated in Denmark and their cooking is sound middle-class Danish cooking, with an Icelandic twist.

Helga Sigurðardóttir can safely be called the grand lady of Icelandic cooking. She wrote several popular cookbooks before she publishedMatur og drykkur, which soon became the Icelandic kitchen bible and remained in that position for decades. This is the epitome of Icelandic-Danish cooking, the comfort food modern-day Icelanders feel nostalgic about but rarely cook themselves;  flour-thickened sauces, the Sunday roast leg of lamb, pork roast with cracklings, lemon mousse, prune compote, fish salad with mayonnaise sauce, meatballs in brown sauce with jam, and Danish apple charlotte.

Cocoa soup.
Cocoa soup.


Most meals had two courses; the main course and a substantial dessert. The main course was usually fish or meat, simply cooked and served with potatoes in some form. Potatoes were an integral part of each meal and to this day, many still refuse to consider a meal complete without them. On weekdays, the dessert was usually a porridge, milk pudding, or a soup of some kind.

Vegetables were a bit more varied than they had been earlier and cultivation was increasing. Cabbage and cauliflower largely replaced kale, and carrots replaced turnips. Tomatoes and cucumbers were grown in greenhouses heated with water from hot springs but were still rare.

Many Icelanders used to view vegetables primarily as a supplement, something to make the “real food” last longer, and when they could afford to buy their fill of meat and fish, they saw no reason to add greens, often called “cabbage food.” By the 1940s variety increased; for instance Matur og drykkur has some recipes using both fresh and canned mushrooms. Other canned vegetables, like string beans and asparagus, were also available by then. The use of tomatoes was increasing and the Icelanders also discovered tomato ketchup and mustard.

Elaborate cream-filled layer cakes and tortes made an entrance in Icelandic coffee parties during the war. Besides whipped cream, these grand creations were often decorated with jam, buttercream, custard, almond paste, canned fruit and candy. Fresh fruit – apples, oranges, and sometimes bananas and pears – were mostly seen at Christmastime.

There was little increase in the use of spices but still a few newcomers like paprika made their appearance. On the other hand, spices like cinnamon, cloves and allspice had virtually disappeared from savory recipes even though they were still used for sweet dishes and cakes. Dried herbs were almost unknown and fresh herbs were rare, with the exception of parsley, chives, and dill.

The Cocktail Sauce Years

It was in the 1960s that Icelanders began to travel abroad, and cooking trends from foreign, but not exotic, countries became more evident. These were the “shrimp cocktail years” of the western world and Iceland was no exception. The omnipresent Icelandic “cocktail sauce” was invented in the early years of this decade, without doubt influenced by European shrimp cocktail sauces, but the Icelandic version enjoys a much more versatile role.

Shrimp cocktail (a modern version).
Shrimp cocktail (a modern version).

At home, the Sunday roast leg and rack of lamb still held the throne but breaded and pan-fried lamb and pork cutlets and lamb Wiener schnitzel decorated with herring, capers and lemon were also popular treats. Some were even more daring and made roast beef or T-bone steak on feast days. Poached or pan-fried haddock was still the most common everyday food and any meat or fish that was pan-fried was usually covered with bread crumbs and fried in lots of margarine or butter. Meat was usually well done or overdone and fish and vegetables were often overcooked as well. Dishes made from ground meat became increasingly popular and one of the dishes of this decade was beef patties with fried egg and onions.

Icelanders were slowly learning to eat vegetable salads and the most common was coleslaw made from grated or shredded cabbage, grated carrots, and chopped apples, often with lots of mayonnaise dressing. A salad made from grated carrots and raisins was also very common and both were frequently enriched with crushed canned pineapple. Other accompaniments mostly stayed the same: boiled potatoes, sometimes glazed, and boiled vegetables – such as “ORA green beans” (named for the canning factory that produced them; actually marrowfat peas) – but rice and spaghetti were beginning to be seen, largely as additions to, not replacements for, the ubiquitous potatoes. Spaghetti was mostly served in a so-called “Italian sauce,” usually a béchamel sauce with some tomato paste or ketchup added.

Food on a Fast Track

Trade restrictions were beginning to ease a little and some types of vegetables and fruits were available year round. Desserts made from fresh and canned fruit partly replaced the dried fruit compotes, sweet fruit soups, and gelatin desserts of earlier decades.

The first pizza parlor was opened in 1969 but did not survive long. Just a few years later, most people were familiar with pizzas and some even knew how to make them. These early homemade pizzas were usually covered with a thick layer of fried ground meat, ketchup, canned mushrooms, pineapple chunks, and grated cheese. Hamburgers invaded the roadside shops. They were fried to death, often served with a pineapple slice and a fried egg, and almost always eaten with a knife and fork.

Various kinds of seafood and vegetable gratins gained popularity during the 1970s and 1980s, partly due to the influence of the Icelandic Dairy Produce Marketing Association. New types of cheese were now being manufactured and the Association’s experimental kitchen was constantly churning out colorful leaflets with recipes to introduce people to these new cheeses. Dishes that combine fish and cheese are more often seen in Iceland than in most other countries, probably due to the influence of these leaflets. Icelanders also learned to appreciate langoustines and shrimp, formerly regarded with horror, and a shrimp dip with Ritz crackers became obligatory party food. Scallops also gained popularity, along with many types of fish not formerly eaten, like monkfish and ocean perch.

An everyday meal no longer had to have at least two courses but starters and soups became increasingly common at dinner parties. Everyday desserts were slowly disappearing and Icelandic housewives gradually moved away from the baking frenzy of earlier years. At the same time, more and more types of bread became available in bakeries, and some people baked their own. An increasing awareness of nutrition and a healthy diet could be noted.

The Icelandic restaurant scene underwent dramatic changes in the 1980s and new restaurants mushroomed. People began to dine out without a special reason, which had been almost unknown, and they found many unfamiliar tastes to savor, as Italian, Chinese, American, and Indian restaurants emerged.

Foreign Flavors

At the beginning of a new millennium, Icelandic cooking, not least restaurant cooking, has become increasingly international in character. More ingredients have become available in Icelandic shops and it has become easier to cook authentic foreign dishes and follow every modern culinary trend. But at the same time interest in Icelandic resources has been on the increase. Local game has been popularized and flash-fried guillemot and puffin breasts have appeared on restaurant menus, to the horror of many experienced housewives, who had been taught to cook the birds for not less than three hours. Many recipes mix traditional Icelandic ingredients and exotic vegetables, fruits, and spices.

Now almost any type of spice can be found in specialty shops in addition to all kinds of vinegars and oils, oriental fish sauces, Mexican hot sauces and salsas, and so on. As elsewhere in the western world, extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and black olives are among the key words to innumerable trendy recipes. And then there is the garlic. Icelanders began a love affair with garlic in the 1980s and now it is sometimes said that they are the greatest garlic importers in the world; Icelanders use more garlic per person than any other people who do not grow their own. Ginger and chilli peppers have also soared in popularity, along with fresh herbs.

At home, lamb no longer reigns supreme and people now eat less haddock – and that means less fish, because other types of fish have not really managed to replace it in the Icelandic heart. Pasta has to some extent replaced haddock and potatoes as everyday food. However, many Icelandic pasta dishes are awash in heavy cream and cheese sauces and sometimes the pasta seems merely an addition. Cooked pasta or rice has also become a common side dish to all kinds of meat and fish dishes; boiled potatoes are no longer regulatory.

Desserts are not often seen now except at dinner parties or on festive occasions, but coffee parties are still popular – and most Icelandic housewives are still able to muster their old cake-baking skills when needed.

Interest in cooking has been on the increase in recent years, even though people cook less at home and more ready-made food is available in stores. It has never been so easy to cook good food – and never so easy not to cook at all.

Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, 2001.

9 athugasemdir Bæta þinni við

  1. edithandersen49 skrifar:

    I have really enjoyed this history and using it in a research I’m doing for a book. Thank you for your effort.

  2. livinggarden skrifar:

    I so enjoyed reading this! Absolutely fascinating especially for someone trying to both eat local and reduce their dependence on grain! I tripped over your blog while trying to find some Icelandic recipes for a Country Women’s event that I am involved in in Tasmania where Iceland is our country of study in 2015. Looking for contemporary food as the really traditional will be very difficult to recreate – your article sums up the issues perfectly. Now I am seeing wonderful pictures but the instructions are in Icelandic – and I am afraid that is beyond my language capabilities! Finger food is my primary interest and I wondered if you could point me in a useful direction? Many thanks – Jane

  3. kutukamus skrifar:

    Food, tradition, culture.. in a happy stomach 🙂

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