So instead of environmental disaster or creepy deaths, this morning in the archives I found something that you can file in the “epic awesome” category. Today I was browsing travelogues, books about trips to foreign lands that were very popular in the early 19th century, and I came across one about Iceland. It was called Journal of a Tour in Iceland in the Summer of 1809 and written by an Englishman named William Jackson Hooker. I’m not sure who Hooker was or why he was in Iceland, but suffice it to say he toured the small Scandinavian nation with a friend, and the two of them ate and drank their way up and down the entire island. While food wasn’t the exclusive purpose of their trip, the descriptions of the food from 19th century Iceland were so vivid–and made me so hungry, sitting there in the library after eating half a package of Goldfish crackers–that I thought I had to share them.
Mind you, all I know about Icelandic cuisine is what I saw on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations when he went to Iceland that one time, and I recall it had something to do with really gross fermented shark meat.
Evidently things have changed in 205 years. Here’s the first lavish dinner Hooker describes.
Monday, June 26, 1809. [He’s at dinner with some sort of nobleman]. “On the [table]cloth was nothing but a plate, a knife and fork, a wine glass, and a bottle of claret for each guest, except that in the middle stood a large and handsome glass-castor of sugar, with a magnificent silver top…The dishes were brought in singly: out first was a large turenne of soup…made of sago, claret and raisins, boiled so as to become almost a mucilage. No sooner was the soup removed than two large salmon, boiled and cut in slices, were brought on, and with them, melted butter, looking like oil, mixed with vinegar and pepper: this, likewise, was very good, and, when we had with some difficulty cleared our plates, we hoped we had finished our dinners. Not so, for there was then introduced a turnenne full of the eggs of the Cree, or great tern, boiled hard, of which a dozen were put upon each of our plates; and, for sauce, we had a large basin of cream, mixed with sugar, in which were four spoons, so that we all ate out of the same bowl.
“Claret” is a British term for what we (in America) call cabernet sauvignon, but as the word pops up again, I wonder if at the time they meant it as a generic term for red wine. In any event, it seems 19th century Icelanders loved red wine…and sugar.
However, even this was not all; for a large dish of Waffels, as they are here called, that is to say, a sort of pancake, made of wheat-flour, flat, and roasted in a mould, which forms a number of squares on top, succeeded…For bread, Norway biscuit and loaves made of rye, were served up; for our drink, we had nothing but claret, of which we were all compelled to empty the bottle that stood by us. But all was not yet over; for a huge bowl of rum punch was brought in, and handed round in large glasses pretty freely,
and to every glass a toast was given.
For the record, so far as I can tell waffles were invented in France or Holland in the Middle Ages, probably about the 12th century. Strangely they don’t seem to have been breakfast food until the 20th century. Hmm, what was for breakfast in Iceland in 1809? You ready?
Tuesday, July 18, 1809. Coffee was early prepared for us by Madame Joneson this morning, and was succeeded by a glass of rum, previously to our taking our breakfast, which consisted of a large dish of boiled salmon, eaten with butter and vinegar, and, after it, a mess of mutton, boiled to rags, mixed with melted butter, and eaten with a sweet sauce of oatmeal and sugar.
That actually sounds pretty good. Except when you learn, as I did, that the Icelanders of that time preferred eating butter when it was rancid. Fudge that little detail, and I bet this would be an awesome breakfast. Especially with rum!
Next meal that’s mentioned:
Saturday, July 29. At about three o’clock we sat down to an excellent dinner of roasted meats, which were eaten with preserved cherries and a mess of the Rumex Acetosa, with the addition of waffels, good Norway biscuit, rum, and claret.
Rumex Acetosa is an herb now commonly called sorrel. In an appendix Hooker writes, “Of the Acetosa a beverage is made by the common people, by steeping the plant in water till all the juice is extracted. This drink is kept some time; but soon becomes bad and putrid in warm weather.”
Well sure, but how can it be worse than rancid butter?
Still, weird as these recipes may seem to us today, I have to say that it sounds like you could eat and drink pretty well in Iceland 200 years ago. Just say no to the fermented shark!