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A small vignette from everyday life in Iceland

The other day I went down into the laundry room to collect my clean laundry. We live in a small apartment buildings with seven apartments, and there is a room downstairs with clothes lines for drying clothes – and indeed for washing them too, although everyone in the building has their washing machine inside their apartments.

Here in Iceland, public laundromats are nonexistent, as indeed they are in most places in Europe [although they can probably be found in some larger European cities]. Everyone has their own washing machine, and tumble dryers are not considered a staple appliance, although in recent years they have been gaining in popularity. Personally I had never felt the urge to buy a tumble dryer, even though, when I was in my North American incarnation, they were an intrinsic part of doing my laundry.

So, on my merry way down the stairs, I noticed a rather unusual smell. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was not entirely unpleasant, but something about it was rather cloying. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.

Until I turned the corner and walked into the laundry room.

The floor was covered in black soot and splattered with something red, which it took me a minute to realize was blood.

Off to the side, one of my neighbours was hastily gathering up some newspapers that he had clearly been using to wipe up the mess.

The smell was intense.

YT: What are you doing?

N: Me? Just sawing some svið.

OK. Svið are the severed heads of sheep that have been burned in order to singe off all the hair. They are then sawed in two, the brain is removed, and they are boiled and eaten. They normally gross out the tourists bigtime. We natives tend to think they’re rather nice. Not only do they taste good, but they’re traditional, harking back to the days of old where every part of the sheep – and I mean every part – was consumed. You can see a picture here. I have purposely chosen not to insert it in the post because I have my readers’ best interests at heart.

What isn’t nice, however, is when they are sawed in two right underneath your squeaky clean laundry. In the 21st century, svið should be sawed in two in some faraway meat processing plant that then sticks them in a bag and drives them to be placed in the freezer in Bónus.

YT: You’re doing that here?

N: [not listening, or pretending not to listen] Do you know how to work this hose here?

YT: [repeats] You’re doing that right underneath the clean laundry?

N: [dismissive] Oh sure. I made sure none of it went on the clothes. They might smell a bit, though.

A bit. Yeah. A slight bit. I left my neighbour downstairs hosing down the splatter tableau in the laundry room and promptly took the entire freshly-washed load back upstairs where I stuck it in the washing machine.

And thanks to my splatter-happy neighbour, EPI and I now have a brand-new tumble dryer installed in our apartment, which chews up our clothes and then spews them, fibre-by-fibre, into a filter. I don’t particularly care for this new addition to the family or how it treats my clothing, but I must say it is vastly preferable to having it splattered with blood, soot or gray matter while hanging on the line.

Y’OKAY THEN!
Still balmy, still gloomy, lots of Christmas lights shining in the darkness. It was slightly blustery today, but, you know, tolerable. Currently 5°C [43F]. Sunrise was at 11.06 am, sunset at 3.33 pm.

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  • Schnee December 10, 2009, 6:28 pm

    Not only do they taste good, but they’re traditional, harking back to the days of old where every part of the sheep – and I mean every part – was consumed.

    And here‘s how THAT looks, then. 🙂 (Mine didn’t taste that great, BTW, but I’ve kinda had a craving for them again recently. Not sure what to make of that, but it’s definitely not going away… and you can’t get them in Germany, of course. x.x)

  • PeterRRRRRR December 10, 2009, 6:44 pm

    Thanks for not posting the picture, I’m reading this while eating my lunch, ’nuff said.

  • James December 10, 2009, 7:03 pm

    “They are then sawed in two, the brain is removed, and they are boiled and eaten.”

    Perhaps 28 Months Later should be set in Iceland.

  • Paul H December 10, 2009, 7:08 pm

    Dang.
    Not a particularly smart thing to be doing in a laundry room.
    I am not entirely sure that I would try Svið, so I won’t be depleting the nation’s supply any time soon.
    Winter decided to pay us an early unofficial visit here in the USofA.
    Current temp is 33F, with a forecast high of 37F.
    Tomorrow we are going to be around 31F for the high and 22F for the low. And the wind is not making it feel any warmer.
    My iPhone is showing Reykjavik as being 43F right now.
    We are not forecast to beat your high temps until next Monday.
    Our overnight lows go a bit below yours in any case.
    So it’s going to be a cozy indoor weekend for us.
    I just re-stacked our wood, so we’ll be firing up the wood-stove shortly. Brrr.

  • BRADSTREET December 10, 2009, 7:37 pm

    This one small vignette goes from thriller to splatter movie to cookery programme. It’s almost Hitchcockian.

    Maybe the sellers of tumble dryers in Iceland could use this for their adverts. “Don’t get covered in sheep’s blood–Get a tumble dryer!”

  • Dumdad December 10, 2009, 7:50 pm

    I’m sure the Frog Queen would think that delicious. We’ve eaten brains but my children and I weren’t too keen on it.

    I blogged about it two years ago and I see you commented:

    http://wwwtheothersideofparis.blogspot.com/2007/08/thought-for-food.html

  • Joerg December 10, 2009, 8:57 pm

    I have always planned to be brave and try svið one day. After all, it’s more the shape that is causing reservations than the smell as with those rotten fish delicacies – at least, when it’s boiled. But your account did not exactly make my mouth water. 😉

  • hildigunnur December 10, 2009, 9:37 pm

    hahaha, I’m REALLY glad to have my own washroom with clotheslines 😀

    But now I get the cravings for some svið. Think I have some in the freezer (already sawed, thank you!)

  • JB in San Diego December 10, 2009, 10:36 pm

    Speak for yourself Paul H; in the SW corner of the USA we are at a balmy 60 deg F (15.6 C) and sunny. Though we are between major rainstorms, which is a good thing, since we can use all the water we can get before global warning REALLY kicks in.

    As for sheeps head, I’ll stick to the card game of the same name. Though if ever offered some in Iceland, I wouldn’t refuse – I am an open-minded eater.

  • tomas December 10, 2009, 11:33 pm

    Hm I didn’t know laundry machines were so unpopular in Iceland. In my city here in Germany (300.000 or so people so not terribly big) we have several launderettes just in the city centre alone.

  • TMCD December 11, 2009, 2:38 am

    Svið was the one thing I was unable get the nerves to try. Maybe more out of guilt. Something about the face thing. I do not feel the same guilt for a leg of lamb.

    The first time I saw such heads… I screamed … “Oh Hell No!!!.
    It was much better when I saw a guy take one on. I thought about it.
    Now,30 years later.. maybe I should give it a go?

  • IF December 11, 2009, 6:46 am

    I’ve ordered a sheep head for Xmas dinner from my GFs family in Bulgaria. The Hungarians know this dish as well, as does an Iranian colleague. Lets see if I am brave enough! But it seems the dish is quite common, unlike your rotten fishes.

  • sylvia hikins December 11, 2009, 11:59 am

    There are worst things you can eat. I once tried geed…stuffed bulls penis..I’m not sure what it was stuffed with (or what it had stuffed, come to think of it) but it was pretty undigestable! I think I’de settle for your ram’s head anyday.
    sylvia from merseyside

  • Jeffrey December 11, 2009, 5:04 pm

    Doesn’t Sheep Worrier arrive on Saturday? And here I wondered what the sheep had to be worried about 🙂

  • Joerg December 11, 2009, 9:43 pm

    Speaking of grossing out tourists – one of the first sights tourists, newly arriving by Flybus at the BSÍ bus station, might notice is a billboard advertising svið at the local restaurant in the terminal building (I guess it’s not saw-it-yourself). Here is a picture of it:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/wqJfUCx19CX6OVvf68mDSA

    It is almost looking like a svið-burger, which would be a very genuine Icelandic alternative to a BicMac after McD’s departure from Iceland.

    What is actually done with the removed sheep’s brain? Another Icelandic speciality?

  • alda December 11, 2009, 11:11 pm

    Thanks, everyone!

    Schnee – that is a great photo! 🙂

    Dumdad – I see I refrained from mentioning my country’s culinary, er, delicacies …

    silvia – yep, I think I’d rather have the svið. Although we – oh, excuse me, THEY – eat pickled ram’s testicles here. 😉

    Jeffrey – yes indeed! You are more up to speed on these things than I am.

    Joerg – that svið head looks very innocuous when presented like that.

  • Schnee December 11, 2009, 11:14 pm

    Thanks! 😀

  • Lisa in Toronto December 12, 2009, 5:20 pm

    Ummm … this anecdote is not making me change my vegetarian ways.
    I don’t think I would have been able to enter that laundry room ever again ….
    Thanks for the very memorable post.

  • Gamler December 13, 2009, 5:36 am

    Your url was forwarded to me. I would say you have seen the new poverty now. But you neglect to notice is not all who eat svið. For this is cheap. More cheap not prepared and not frozen in Bonus, more cheap not singed. Your neibor is probably quite poor now. My guess is the dry room has electric fire and was used to singe. Is the way in city without outdoor fire. The poor in cities use what is there that they can use, as the poor must. They cannot care about rich more than rich care about the poor. You are rich to be able to run buy a tumble dryer and buy frozen and dislike poor being poor to near. The poor cannot choose. Now you have them with you. This is kreppa. Of sawing I have never heard. We do with light ax, out of doors, singe with open fire, open with three strokes, one between eyes, one at top, one at back with twist to loosen, then cook. Open after cooking.

  • kevin o'connor waterford Ireland December 14, 2009, 1:49 am

    I think that you have been too long away from Iceland Alda losing track of your ethnic roots and culture. If I ever moved to Iceland I would get a whole live one of them and invite my neighbours round and get going with a flame thrower and chainsaw, then after a delicous meal would give them a selection of the finest french wines whilst playing Bach on my music system to show them how sophistcated I was. You have to intergrate with the indigenous natives and their culture pehaps I could get Gamler to help me cook.