There are several food items that could be described as indispensable for Christmas in Iceland. Food is a significant part of Christmas celebrations all over the world and Iceland is no exception. Every country has its own tradition and while trends and fashions can influence what families eat each year, there are some foodstuffs that just have to be a part of the experience or Christmas is ruined!
A few weeks before Christmas, cases of these juicy and sweet mini oranges arrive in stores. Although mandarins are sold all year round, the fresh harvest coming into stores in November and
December has the best-tasting fruit. While mandarins are the current Christmas fruit, they’ve only recently replaced apples as the holiday fruit of choice. They’re available all year today but older Icelanders still remember a time when apples were only imported around Christmastime.
As if Christmas can be celebrated without pepper cakes (piparkökur)? We, uh, mean gingerbread cookies (or a close-enough relation)! Pepper cakes is just a literal translation of their Icelandic name, even though they usually contain little to no pepper. Store-bought or homemade, they are always fun to decorate with colourful frosting. Other popular Christmas cookies include buttery vanilla wreaths, light and crunchy cocoa cookies called loftkökur (air cakes), and “mom’s cookies,” ginger cookies sandwiched together with buttercream. There used to be a time when the excellence of a homemaker was judged by the number of different types of cookies she made for Christmas. Anything less than five was a sign of inadequacy. Seven types was even the golden standard (or bare minimum) in parts of the country. Thankfully, we are past that now. We think.
Some traditions make more sense than others. Eating delicious cookies around Christmastime? Perfectly normal. Going to a Christmas buffet with your office mates? Fun and delicious. Spending a whole day with several other people carving delicate patterns in thin and fragile flour cakes which are then deep-fried in boiling fat, and served with butter come Christmas Eve? Labour-intensive to the point of insanity. Laufabrauð or leaf bread is very thin, pretty and subtly delicious. Today, you can get them from the store, but many people still like to get together with family or friends and make them the old-fashioned way.
The traditional Icelandic Christmas dish at the start of the last century was hangikjöt. Directly translating to hanging meat, hangikjöt is simply smoked lamb and today, most people serve it on Christmas Day. The salty delicacy is usually boiled and served with potatoes, a white sauce similar to béchamel, and red cabbage from a jar. Canned peas are also popular (for obvious reason). Although hangikjöt is necessary on Christmas, the main Christmas dinner for Icelanders is served on Christmas Eve (24 December).
Malt & Appelsín
There’s a special drink almost every Icelandic household serves at Christmas. It’s a non-alcoholic mixture of two soft drinks, Malt and Appelsín, produced by Iceland’s oldest soda factory, Ölgerðin. Appelsín is an Icelandic orange soda and Malt is, as the name suggests, a malt-based, non-alcoholic beer, dark brown and very sweet. There is some dispute over the correct way to mix it, Malt first or Appelsín first, dare we even suggest adding a splash of cola to the mix? The producer suggests an alphabetical mixing order, but if you want to err on the side of caution, it’s available premixed in cans in every respectable supermarket in Iceland.