Substitutes for corn
Part of an article by Hallgerður Gísladóttir about how the lack of grain in Iceland, especially in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and up to the late nineteenth century affected food consumption. She also considers the substitutes that were used for grain products, both from the perspectives of nutrition and tradition. Hallgerdur is Head of Department of Ethnology at the National Museum of Iceland and the author of a book about food traditions in Iceland.
In travel books from the above mentioned centuries, foreign tourists who visited Iceland were amazed at the absence of bread in the diet. There are many tales in this literature about this dietary peculiarity of the Icelanders, and it is often mentioned that they ate dry fish instead of bread. Iceland was for example called "The Island of Fisheaters", and it was told that the Icelandic bread was made of crushed dry fish, and also that foreigners could easily spend a night with the farmers´ daughters if they had the very rare and desired bread to give to the girls´ fathers. A line from an old Icelandic Christmas song for children goes like this: At Christmas children should be given a bite of bread. This, in a way describes the position of bread in the old days in Iceland because, at least in the abovementioned centuries bread was rare among the common people and almost only used on festive occasions.
Only flour or ground corn was imported up to the eighteenth century and the common people had but limited means to buy it. Moreover, it was very often rotten because the Danish monopoly merchants were not overwhelmingly concerned about the quality of the flour they bought for Iceland. During the period of enlightenment in the eighteenth century when diverse matters of progress were being discussed, querns were imported and Icelanders were taught how to make querns and build watermills. It was possible, then, to import whole corn instead of flour, and to grind it at home, and this improved the situation somewhat.
One of the results of the corn situation was that people had to make the most of available grain. Therefore, festive bread was very thin and decorated. One was supposed to be able to read through the leafbread cakes when they had been rolled. From about 1700, leafbread is known in written records as the Icelanders candy, and it is possibly of much older origin. In the late nineteenth century the tradition of leafbread frying was limited to the north of Iceland, but after revitalisation in recent decades it is found all over the country. Now people make it for Christmas. On leafbread day families join to chat and decorate these thin cakes with cut openwork design. The Icelandic pancakes which are known from the eighteenth century are accordingly very thin and it should also be possible to read through them.
In the late nineteenth century, imports of diverse corn products increased, and, around the turn of the century, iron stoves with ovens became widespread in the country. In the following decades substantial innovations in Icelandic food culture occurred - the various new sorts of bread and cakes were probably the most outstanding of these changes. A new meal entered the everyday schedule - coffee and a variety of pastries were served at about four o´clock in the afternoon. Before Christmas a housewife should bake at least twenty sorts of pastry and cakes. Some women still contend with each other about this, in December. I wonder if anywhere else it has been such a matter of pride for housewifes to have such a variety of pastries and cakes to offer when visitors arrived, as in Icelandic country homes in past decades. Our Nobel Prize author Halldór Laxness has described this very well - and big tarts are now named "Hnallþóras" after a famous person in one of his novels. "Hnallþóra" usually offered any visitor more than hundred pieces of sweet home-baked pastry on about twenty platters, plus three to four big sweet tarts with jellies and cream. This kind of cheer was even on the tables for breakfast. To her nothing was as mean as offering fish to a visitor. In the light of history this view might, in a way, reflect, the lack of bread among the Icelandic fish eaters of the past. It still happens that visitors arriving at farms at lunch- or dinner-time are invited to eat lots of pastry with coffee in the living room, while the family is having fish or meat meals in the kitchen
conclusion it can be stated, that one of the characteristics of Icelandic
foodways in the old days, is a lack of corn. Icelanders grew some corn
in the first centuries of habitation but it virtually ceased in the late
Middle Ages due to the deteriorating climate. In the seventeenth, eighteenth
and up to the late-nineteenth century, bread was seldom used except on
festive occasions among the common people. The result was, for example,
that people made very good use of every bit of available grain, and that
might be the reason why Icelandic festive bread is particularly thin and
decorative. At everyday meals, people consumed dried fish or angelica
roots with butter or fat on them, but little or no bread. The available
grain was thought to be more substantial in porridges, than bread. To
spare the use of grain in bread and porridges people harvested Iceland
moss and dulse to a considerable degree. Those two plants have probably
been an essential source of carbohydrates for the Icelandic population
since early times. Scurvy grass and lime grass were also used as substitutes
for grain but to a lesser degree. This lack of grain in the old days is
possibly reflected in the extreme use of pastry and cakes in feasts and
receptions in Icelandic homes in the twentieth century.
for corn. Food from Nature.
Hallgerður Gísladóttir. Eldhús og matur á Íslandi.
Cand. mag. thesis written at the University of Iceland 1991.
Halldór Laxness. Under the glacier, Reykjavík 1990.
Lúðvík Kristjánsson.Íslenskir sjávarhættir I, Reykjavík 1980.