The reliable rhubarb.

Posted on 30. Sep, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs, Icelandic history

Rhubarb stalks by kahvikisu at

Last week’s Recipe for Marital Bliss reminded me again of something very Icelandic – rabarbari or tröllasúra (= trolls’ sour), rhubarb. While it does not originate in Iceland and in fact arrived here comparatively late (from Denmark and at the end of the 1800’s) Icelanders really took a liking to it. And why not – it’s one of the rare few garden plants that actually thrives in Icelandic climate with ease, requires almost no attention at all and yields several crops per summer; rhubarb became quite a multipurpose plant over here. Besides the obvious uses in bakery products, jellies and syrups, rhubarb has also been used as a dye and a mild poison for fighting insects.

Its quickly spread popularity did not mean it was a highly valued food item though, quite the opposite. It reminds me of the popularity of apples in Finland: though nearly every house has an apple tree and they’re a steady part of the cuisine they’re not actually considered special at all, simply because they’re everywhere!

Icelanders of old preferred meat to vegetables any day, and rhubarb was something people ate because, well, meat was expensive, few plants could grow here but you still have to eat something at least. This occasionally lead to sad misunderstandings because people who got more vitamins from their food tended to be healthier than those who didn’t, and one of our professors told us a story of a woman being accused of stealing sheep based on this. She was a widow and much too poor to actually buy meat, or own sheep of her own, yet her children were considered “suspiciously beautiful”. This coupled with a sheep or two going missing lead people to suspect her of theft… but what did she have to say as her defense?

She had not fed them meat at all, only basic food and a lot of rhubarb.

Young rhubarb by Miika Silfverberg at

Our professor didn’t know how the story ended, alas, but fact is that sometimes sheep can die during the summer and because they roam free during that time it can go unnoticed for a while. Another fact is that rhubarb really did grow everywhere. Icelanders grow many types of rhubarb – the botanical garden alone has 16 types to display – and on occasion they can even be found growing wild.

Nowadays rhubarb is mostly a sweet treat rather than a staple of diet. It plays an important role in many cakes and pies such as randalín (here) and the last week’s hjónabandssæla, and though many recipes give another option for filling rhubarb is still the “right” one, the flavour that the whole cake or pie is designed for. Prune jam randalín tastes slightly too sweet and hjónabandssæla with strawberry jam instead of rhubarb is too sour. Icelandic rhubarb is quite sweet, especially when the stalks are small, so sweet in fact that children eat them raw, dipped in sugar (link). There’s even types of candy that imitate rhubarb in both taste and looks.

Rhubarb from my garden by Kari Sullivan at

Let’s not forget the other uses either while we honour this sturdy, generous and reliable plant. The leaves are poisonous but you don’t have to throw them away – you can use them to f.ex. dye natural fibres! You only need to cut them small, put into a pot of water, bring to boil and let simmer under a lid for an hour. Let cool and remove the leaves. Wet your fabric, place into dye and heat slowly, simmer under a lid for 30-50 min. Remove from dye bath and rinse well. The resulting colour is a shade of golden yellow to green, depending on the acidity of the mixture. You don’t need to fix the dye either since the acid in rhubarb itself does that already.

Or you can use it as a pesticide. For that you need 10-12 leaves of rhubarb, 4 tbsp organic soap and 5 litres of water. Put water and rhubarb into a pot, bring to boil and simmer under a lid for 3h. Remove leaves, add the soap while its still hot and mix well. Let cool and sprinkle on plants you want to protect against insects. This pesticide has even been used on trees, but you may need to sprinkle them twice.

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Did you know that actually the name “tröllasúra” is, at least technically speaking, more correct than “rabarbara” because the latter is a loan word? Yet no one really uses tröllasúra when they speak of rhubarb. There are a few more loan words like that in daily use that have a real Icelandic version as well – the video introduces some of them.


PS For those of you who have already studied Icelandic for some time I recommend Aðalheiður Marta Steindórsdóttir’s thesis called Tröllasúran trygga; rabarbari í íslenskri matargerð, the reliable rhubarb; rhubarb in Icelandic cuisine (link).

Recipe for marital bliss.

Posted on 25. Sep, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs


Want to bake something really, really Icelandic? Hjónabandssæla, “marital bliss”, is a perfect autumn treat!

Before we go on I want to warn you that although “marital bliss” is something so deeply Icelandic that every Icelander will immediately recognize it, no two families actually bake it alike. You’ll be hard at work if you try to find two identical recipes for this pie because even when people use the same recipe they’ll still make little changes to make it “just right”, and just like in marriages in general what’s “just right” for some won’t necessarily work for others. Some people swear by margarine, some insist on using butter, some scoff at both and mix butter or margarine with vegetable oil. The amount of sugar varies and although most use brown sugar you’ll easily find recipes that use white only, or a mix like I do. One egg, two eggs – or no eggs at all? I have not yet found a rule. Therefore I’ll present you… er… one version of hjónabandssæla!

(Apologies for the confusing measurements, Icelandic recipes often go by the metric system but I’ll try to convert the measures as well as I can.)


Innihald (= ingredients)

200g smjör, mjúkt (= 7 oz butter, let soften a little)
1,5 dl púðursykur (= 0,7 cup brown sugar)
0,5 dl sykur (= 0,2 cup white sugar)
1 dl hveiti (= 0,4 cup wheat flour, all purpose)
3 dl haframjöl (= 1,3 cup oatmeal)
1 tsk sóðaduft/natron (= 1 tsp baking soda)
1 tsk kanill (= 1 tsp cinnamon)
1-2 egg (= egg/s)
Rabarbarasulta (= rhubarb jam)

hbs0031. Hrærið saman sykri og smjöri.

hbs0052. Blandið saman öllum þurrefnunum í skál, bætið saman við deigið.

3. Bætið í eggi/eggjum og hrærið vel.

hbs0094. Hluta af deginu er þrýst í kökuform, sultunni smurt yfir og að lokum er restinni af deginu dreift yfir.

hbs0125. Bakist við 180°C , í um það bil 35-40 mín eða þar til bakan er orðin brún ofan á.



1. Mix together sugar and butter.

2. Mix together all dry ingredients in a bowl, add to the mix.

3. Add egg/eggs and mix well.

hbs010I leave about one fifth of the dough for sprinkling on top, also depends on how much I need for making the bottom of the pie. You can also use this part to make a pie lattice or other decorations but traditional hjónabandssæla has a very irregular top. 

4. Part of the dough is pressed to a cake form, jam spread over and in the end the rest of the dough is sprinkled over the pie.

5. Baked in 180°C (= 356°F) for about 35-40 minutes or until the pie has turned brown on top.

hbs017Serving ideas: hjónabandssæla is a coffee table treat but it goes just as well with black tea. You can eat the pie as it is or add whipped cream and/or ice cream. “Nammigott” means something like “om nom nom”, it’s what it should taste like! :)


– I haven’t found an explanation on why this pie is called “marital bliss”, but it’s suggested that this pie is the nicest thing a wife can bake her husband OR that it’s sweet just like a blissful marriage should be. Another possibility is that since a lot of Icelandic cuisine originates in Denmark there may be something lost in translation.

– Be careful writing the name! If you accidentally forget an s in the middle you’ll be baking “marital vomit” (hjónabandsæla) instead. Only Icelanders seem able to pronounce the difference properly and even they occasionally get it wrong. :D

– Making marital bliss is surprisingly easy but it still takes some hard work! Contrary to popular belief there’s no “correct” way of achieving marital bliss, but every family will still firmly state that theirs is the best. The only things that should always be there are oatmeal base dough and rhubarb jam… and some people even use strawberry jam instead if they don’t like the taste of rhubarb. Personally I think rhubarb belongs to hjónabandssæla.

– You can bake the pie even shorter time, f.ex. just 20min if you prefer it softer. If you’d rather eat it dryer you can bake it up to a whole hour, just watch that it doesn’t burn.

– Cinnamon is a little bit unusual (though not unheard of) but it compliments the pie perfectly. Some people would use coconut flakes instead, which is also delicious.

Reykjavík ravens.

Posted on 18. Sep, 2014 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic customs


Autumn, nothing makes its arrival clearer than seeing a familiar shape fly over Reykjavík, perch on lamp posts and sing – er, cronk – from the rooftops. Ravens are back in town after spending the long summer in the countryside, during which time their place in the city is claimed by seagulls. Now its their turn to make way and so the season changes from white wings to black ones almost overnight.

Known as hrafn or by a playful nickname krummi, ravens are considered a very lucky, handsome and clever bird by the Icelanders. Yet at the same time the old Pagan view of them as Óðinn’s pets lives on, making some interesting contrasts; these well-loved birds are also found in old poetic words such as hrafnfæðir, which means soldier/warrior but translates as “raven’s food”. Similarly hrafnvín (= raven’s wine) actually means blood. Their seasonal nature has also lent itself into Icelandic vocabulary such as in the words hrafnagusa and hrafnahret which both mean a sudden cold period during the summer.

baby074Late autumn and a young raven. Getting this close to it was a big mistake though, the adults didn’t like it… next time I’ll just use the zoom.

Naturally such an important animal will also be found in sayings. Sjaldséðir hvítir hrafnar (= rarely seen are white ravens) is said to someone that the speaker hasn’t seen for a long time. Að vera eins og úfinn hrafnsungi (= to be like a tousled raven chick) is used to describe someone whose hair is a mess. Guð borgar fyrir hrafninn (= God pays the raven’s dues) means that giving food to ravens brings good luck. Að vekja hrafnana (= to wake up the ravens) comes from the fact that ravens are usually the first birds to sing in the morning, therefore someone who actually wakes them up has risen from bed quite early!

Where we live we tend to see the same raven couple every year, or at least so I assume. One of them is huge and fat even for a raven which makes him rather obvious, but this is really all I base my assumptions on. On occasion there may be a small raven that comes along with them in the autumn, which I’ve taken to be their chicks. The smaller one usually disappears at some point but before it does the adults are quite protective about it! Once I managed to sneak near enough to take a photo but I wasn’t allowed many – one huge WHOOOMP of wings from right above my head sent me running. Even a small raven is still a huge bird and I’m taking no chances with one as bold and large as we’re talking here.

korp010Our resident ravens having couple time. Get a room!

We’ve met before that, in fact. During my first year here I once made the mistake of leaving a garbage bag outside, unattended for  two minutes, and when I came back the big one had already dragged it across the front yard with what I can only describe as a hopeful gleam in his beady eyes. He didn’t even have to do that – the neighbourhood feeds him anyway, as Icelanders often do.

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Here’s a traditional song about the ravens. Somehow the joyful melody and the translation of the lyrics don’t seem to quite match! :D


Krummi krunkar úti,
kallar á nafna sinn:
“Ég fann höfuð af hrúti
hrygg og gæruskinn.
:,:Komdu nú og kroppaðu með mér,
krummi nafni minn.”:,:

Raven song

The raven sings outside
calling its namesake:
“I found the head of a ram,
a rib cage and skin.
Come now and pick it with me
raven my namesake.”

korp006Early spring, children and a raven.

Að krunka: to make the sound a raven makes – yes, there’s a specific verb for it in Icelandic. :D

Að kalla á nafna sinn: this one confused me at first because I read it too quickly and thought the word was nafn (= name). What gave it out was the gender of the pronoun that follows it, because while nafn is a neuter, nafni (= namesake) is a masculine. A neuter form for sinn would have been sitt.

Gæruskinn: sheep skin that still has wool on it.

Að kroppa: to pick, or possibly also to peck.

Also whenever the raven is singing to its namesake it’s simply singing to another raven. They’re all called the same. :)


By a curious coincidence I wrote about ravens here almost exactly two years ago, so if you want to know more about them and the effect they’ve had on Icelandic culture and daily life go check Autumn is here and so are the ravens.