Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag


Popularity of the traditional delicacy fermented skate is slipping, worrying some Icelanders

By Staff

  • Preparing the skate Fermented skate has a pungent flavour, and a curious taste, but once you get past the initial impulse to run away holding your nose, it's actually pretty good. Photo/Pjetur Sigurðsson.

According to a new poll by the polling firm mmr the popularity of one of the more pungent Icelandic Christmas traditions, eating fermented skate on “Þorláksmessa”, the mass of St. Thorlak on 23 December, continues to slip.

Read more: Reykjavík will stink of fermented skate on 23 December

According to the poll only 35.8% of Icelanders plan on eating skate today. Five years ago more than 40% of Icelanders were planning on observing this tradition. The poll found that skate is more popular among men than women, with 42.9% of men planning on eating skate, but only 28.4% of women. Predictably, the tradition is also more popular as we move up the age pyramid. Only 19.8% of those under 29 were planning on eating skate today, but 58.1% of those older than 68.

Read more: Fermented skate is a delicacy like no other (it has been described as eating rotten fish)

The local news site Bæjarins Besta, which specializes in news from the Westfjords, points out that the poll bears the “ominous news that skate-lovers are set to decrease in numbers in the coming years.” The skate-eating tradition has historically been strongest in the Westfjords.

If you are interested in participating in this tradition and thus experience a key element of traditional Icelandic Christmas you can find skate served at numerous restaurants. Finding these is usually pretty simple: Just follow the smell!

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Food & Drink

Reykjavík will stink of fermented skate on 23 December

By Staff

  • Smelly affair Fermented skate, known as kæst skata in Icelandic, is eaten on Þorláksmessa, 23 December. Photo/Pjetur

Þorláksmessa, celebrated on 23 December, is just around the corner and with it comes the smelly tradition of chowing down on some fermented skate, known as kæst skata in Icelandic.


Skata with all the trimmings. 

While enthusiasts for the dish rejoice, others are filled with feelings of dread - there is no escaping the ammonia fumes on Þorláksmessa as the strong-smelling dish is served in many restaurants and homes.

Read more: Fermented skate is a delicacy like no other (it has been described as eating rotten fish)

According to the National Broadcasting Service (RÚV), people increasingly opt to eat skate at restaurants rather than cook it at home. A survey conducted in 2013 revealed that around 100 thousand Icelanders intended to eat skate on Þorláksmessa.

Among restaurants serving skata on Þorláksmessa are Þrír Frakkar (Baldursgata 14), Sægreifinn (Tryggvagata), Restaurant Reykjavík (Vesturgata 2), Múlakaffi (Hallarmúli 1), Sjávarbarinn (Grandagarður), Fjörukráin (Hafnarfjörður), and Kaffivagninn (Grandagarður). If you can’t beat them, join them. 

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Food & Drink

Fermented skate is a delicacy like no other (it has been described as eating rotten fish)

By Jón Kaldal

  • Yummy! It's maybe not good on the eye but fermented skate is an acquired taste. Photo/GVA

For those uninitiated it might be hard to swallow, but fermented skate is considered a great delicacy in Iceland. That is, however, by no means the popular opinion. Few things create a wider rift in the nation than the tradition involving this ammonia-smelling dish, which has been described as eating rotten fish. 


Enjoying the aroma Local fish merchants with this year’s catch. Photo/Pjetur Sigurðsson

Happily, for those who can’t stomach it, only a handful of Icelanders eat it year round. However, on December 23rd there is almost no escape for those who do not appreciate fermented skate. This day is called Þorláksmessa (Mass of Saint Þorlákur). It marks the beginning of Christmas in Iceland and is celebrated by eating this smelly fish.

Avoiding restaurants or skate-parties at homes does not do the trick. It’s almost certain you will, while shopping for the last Christmas presents, run into someone carrying the fumes in his clothes (it’s either that or the person has not bathed for weeks).

Contrary to what many think, love for fermented skate is not isolated to Iceland. It’s also big in South Korea, where it is even prepared as a sashimi. Now that is a real challenge!

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11 Icelandic phrases you need to learn for Christmas

By Sara McMahon

  • Gleðileg jól! Learn some Icelandic phrases for the Yuletide. Photo/GVA

Planning to visit Iceland during the Christmas holidays? Well, here are a few Icelandic phrases that you are bound to need at one time or another during your stay.


1. “Gleðileg jól!”
Merry Christmas! - Icelanders begin to wish one another a merry Christmas as soon as the first Sunday of Advent arrives, so feel free to throw this phrase around at will.

2. “Gleðilegt nýtt ár!”
Happy New Year! - You’ll need to know this one if you plan on staying between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

3. “Einn jólabjór, takk.”
One Christmas beer, thank you. – Over the past few years the arrival of the Christmas brews has become a holiday staple in Iceland. Local and international breweries offer a special range of Christmas beers and ciders that taste of cinnamon, apples and other things nice. The beers are available in Vínbúðin, local restaurants and bars.

4. “Áttu til hangikjöt?”
Do you have any smoked meat? – Hangikjöt is an Icelandic Christmas favourite. It’s made from smoked lamb, mutton or horse meat and usually served either hot or cold, traditionally with potatoes in white sauce, or in slices on laufabrauð or flatbrauð. In the olden days meat was often preserved by hanging it from the rafters of a smoking shed – hence the name: Hangikjöt means hung meat.

5. “Má ég fá piparköku?”
Can I have a ginger bread cookie? – These tasty, little cookies ring in Christmas. Children love them and grown-ups do too.

6. "Get ég fengið heitt kakó með rjóma?"
Can I have a cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream, please? – It can get cold outside in December (-3 to 3 degrees Celsius (26 to 37 Fahrenheit). The best thing about the cold is coming in from it and warming up with a delicious cup of hot chocolate, topped with a dollop of rich cream. Yumm”

7. “Getur þú pakkað þessu inn?”
Could you wrap this up? – Most stores and boutiques will wrap up your gifts for free – which saves both time and money. Win-win!

8. “Get ég fengið skiptimiða?”
Could you put a return label on the gift? – When buying Christmas gifts in Iceland, make sure to ask for a customer return label, just in case the gift did not hit the mark.

9.  “Verða rauð jól í ár?”
Do you expect a snowless Christmas this year? – Every year, Icelanders (mostly Southerners) hope and dream of a white Christmas because in Iceland, it really isn’t Christmas unless the ground outside is covered in beautiful, white snow. A snowless Christmas is called ‘a red Christmas’, or rauð jól.

10. “Áttu malt og appelsín?”
Do you have malt and appelsín? - Once a year, Icelanders will mix two popular soft drinks together to create what’s called ‘jólaöl’, meaning Christmas ale (non-alcoholic). Malt and appelsín are drunk separately all year around, but ‘jólaöl’ is reserved for Christmas only. Every family has their very own secret ‘jólaöl’ recipe and the ratio between malt and appelsín differs from one family to the next.

11. “Bjóðið þið upp á kæsta skötu?”
Do you serve fermented skate? – Another Christmas specialty in Iceland is the fermented skate, traditionally eaten on St. Þorlákur’s Day (Þorláksmessa) on December 23. The dish has a rather pungent smell which will linger on for days. Luckily it doesn’t taste quite as bad as it smells.


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