How to Slátur like a viking

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FOOD OF THE VIKINGS The word, slátur, means slaughter and is a term used for blóðmör (left) and lifrarpylsa. Photo/Arnþór Birkisson

Slátur is one of the most popular traditional Icelandic dishes, other traditional delicacies such as fermented shark and sour rams’ testicles are less popular and generally only eaten during the heathen midwinter festival Þorrablót. And understandably so!

Slátur was a common and popular dish among Icelanders well into the 20th century but by the end of the century, slátur had lost the popularity contest to fast food and a more modern cuisine. There are, however, still families that meet religiously over a weekend in autumn to make slátur, not least because it is a nutritious, tasty and very cheap meal.

The word, slátur, means slaughter and is a term used for blóðmör, lifrarpylsa and scorched sheep‘s head. In former times the term was used for everything and anything that was considered edible from the sheep.

According the book Íslensk matarhefð (Traditional Icelandic Cuisine) written by ethnologist Hallgerður Gísladóttir, every autumn the men on the farm performed the bloody task that was slaughtering the sheep that had spent the summer of freely roaming the mountains. Women and children then prepared various foods from the innards and blood. Finally the produce was smoked or preserved in salt or whey.

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A POUCH made from sheep’s stomach being sewn together. Photo/Sara

Blood pudding and the Icelandic “haggis”
Sheep’s blood was amongst other things used to make blood pudding, porridge and bread. Blood porridge was more common amongst Southerners while people in the northern regions of the country preferred blood pudding (hot pudding made from milk, butter, flour and sheep’s blood and served with sugar, cinnamon and cream).

The two most popular dishes made from sheep’s innards are, however, blóðmör and lifrarpylsa. Blóðmör is similar to Irish black pudding and is made from sheep‘s blood, flour and suet. Lifrarpylsa on the other hand resembles Scottish haggis and is made from the innards of sheep mixed with flour and suet and stuffed into little pouches that have been cut from the sheep’s stomach and sewn together. Of the two, the latter is more popular and usually eaten warm with mashed potatoes and turnips.

Other common traditional dishes have long disappeared – among those are salted cow’s udder, mashed sheep’s brain and brain dumplings boiled in the broth from lifrarpylsa. Sheep’s stomachs were solely used as pouches for lifrarpylsa and blóðmör in Iceland, however in Denmark and Norway they were used to make a soup called Kallun suppe.

An Icelandic aphrodisiac
When blóðmör was made the blood was generally mixed with Icelandic moss and different herbs and plants, some would even use chopped kale. Nowadays the blood is mixed in with flour. The mixture was then stuffed into a pouch made from sheep‘s stomach. When full, it was either pinned shut with a wooden needle called „sneis“ or sewn shut (the idiomatic Icelandic term „sneisafullur“, or full to the brim, derives from this). Blood pudding was generally fried with butter and sugar and served with potatoes or turnips.

The first account of lyfrarpylsa, or haggis, dates back to the 18th century. Back then little or no flour was added to the mixture and the produce was generally pickled in whey. The lifrarpylsa was considered to be somewhat of an aphrodisiac and sometimes called „galsapylsa“, which literally translates to the „lively sausage“. It was said that men turned quite frisky soon after eating a lifrarpylsa.

Some trivia: The heathen month of gore, or gormánuður, was the first month of winter and began on a Saturday, usually between the 21st and 27th of October. The name comes from the innards of sheep and cattle that lay scattered around the farmhouses during slaughter season.

 

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Neolithic feasts at Stonehenge

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Britons’ Stone Age ancestors possessed some unexpected talents, scientists have discovered. On top of their prowess in constructing great monoliths such as Stonehenge, they were also adept at staging first-rate parties.

Roast sweetened pork consumed with a range of rich dairy products including cheese and butter appear to have been commonplace at feasts – according to an English Heritage exhibition, Feeding Stonehenge, which will open this week at the stone circle’s visitor centre.

“More than 4,500 years have passed since the main part of Stonehenge was constructed,” said curator Susan Greaney. “But thanks to the sophistication of techniques we now have for dating and identifying chemicals, we can deduce – from food fragments left in pots and from the bones left in the ground – what meals were being consumed there.”

Stonehenge was constructed in several stages. However, the most important period occurred around 2,500BC when the great sarsen blocks that form the main ring were erected, said Greaney. “Recent analysis suggests this construction was completed over a period of about 50 years,” she added.

Scientists have also dated the occupancy of the neolithic village of Durrington Walls – which lies about a mile and a half north-east of Stonehenge – to a 50-year period that also occurred around 2,500BC.

“From this, we have drawn the conclusion that Durrington Walls was the place where the builders of Stonehenge lived and where they held celebrations connected with the great edifice they were building,” said Greaney.

The question is: what sustained these workers during the titanic task they had undertaken? What foods did they consume? “When we dug at Durrington Walls we found pits and middens filled with bits of pottery and bones of animals left over from feasts,” said Stonehenge researcher Professor Oliver Craig, of York University. “These have provided an immense amount of information.”

From the pot fragments, scientists were able to pinpoint fats, waxes and oils from the food cooked in these vessels. These fats, which seeped into the pottery and collected in pores, can now be analysed by a technique known as lipid analysis.

“We found the larger pots contained mainly pork,” said Craig. “However, smaller pots – which were found at different parts of the Durrington Walls site – contained dairy products. We think these milk-based foodstuffs had special significance. They may have been associated with purity or fertility, for example, and were consumed in a special area.”

The presence of dairy food poses a puzzle, however. Genetic evidence indicates that Britons at this time were lactose intolerant. Drinking milk would have made them ill. Yet dairy foods appear to have had widespread use.

This has led Craig and other scientists to argue that cow’s milk would not have been consumed directly but would have been turned into cheese and yoghurt – which would not have triggered lactose intolerance reactions. In other words, people gathering for these festivals would have been eating protein-rich dishes of butter and cheese and other processed dairy products.

As to the meat that was consumed, by far the most popular animal was the pig. “There are bits of pig skeleton, dated from this period, all over the place,” said Greaney. “And when you look at the teeth of these animals, it is noticeable that there are strong signs of decay – which suggests they were being fattened up on fairly sweet diets, possibly using honey. So honey-sweetened pork could well have been on the menu at these feasts.”

All the signs point to the fact that Stonehenge and Durrington Walls were associated with some very lavish celebrations. For example, at most other archaeological sites where animal bones have been left behind after being eaten, very little is left unconsumed. This was not the case at Durrington Walls where half-eaten chops were left discarded in many places. “This could have been the country’s first throw-away culture,” said Greaney.

This point was backed by Craig. “People were killing animals, stringing them up and eating them on a massive scale,” he said. “It must have been quite a show.”

However, this high protein intake of meat and cheeses was probably not typical of average Stone Age meals, he added. “I think people in those days would also have been eating vegetables and fruit but not here. Pork and beef and cheese – that was special festive fare – and that is what was consumed at Stonehenge.”

But the identity of any beverages that were consumed remains a mystery. “People always ask me: were our forebears consuming wine or beer or some other kind of alcoholic drink?” said Craig. “The answer is that we do not know. They may well have been, but we do not have the techniques or the evidence yet to say what that drink might be. That is for future research.”

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