Jun 172013
 

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Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn (Icelandic National Day), a holiday in Iceland that celebrates the day in 1944 that The Republic of Iceland was formed. The date of 17 June was chosen because it is the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, a major figure in Icelandic culture and the leader of the 19th century Icelandic independence movement.

For nearly 300 years from the arrival of the first permanent settlers (a combination of Nordic and Celtic seafarers), Iceland had been independent and isolated. However, through the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262, following years of bloody civil strife, Icelanders relinquished sovereignty to Haakon IV, King of Norway. Iceland remained under Norwegian kingship until 1380, when with the death of Olav IV of Norway the Norwegian male royal line ended. Norway (and thus Iceland) then became part of the Kalmar Union, along with Sweden and Denmark, with Denmark as the dominant power. Iceland remained under Danish control until the 19th century

Around the middle of the 19th century a new national consciousness emerged in Iceland (as in all of Europe), led by Danish-educated Icelandic intellectuals who had been inspired by romantic and nationalist ideas from continental Europe, chief of whom was Jón Sigurðsson. In 1843, a royal decree re-established a national parliament, the Althing, as a consultative assembly (named for a former parliament).

The struggle for independence reached its height in 1851 when the Danes tried to pass new legislation, the requests for which the Icelanders ignored. The Icelandic delegates, under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, passed their own proposals instead, much to the displeasure of the King’s agent, who dissolved the meeting. This caused Sigurðsson to rise up with his fellow delegates and utter the immortal phrase Vér mótmælum allir (“We all protest”).

In 1874, a thousand years after the first permanent settlement of Iceland, Denmark granted Iceland home rule. The constitution, written in 1874, was revised in 1903, and a minister for Icelandic affairs, residing in Reykjavík, was made responsible to the Althing . The Act of Union, signed on 1 December 1918 by Icelandic and Danish authorities, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state (the Kingdom of Iceland), joined with Denmark only as a personal union between the Icelandic and Danish kings. Iceland established its own flag and asked Denmark to represent its foreign affairs and defense interests. The Act would be up for revision in 1940 and could be revoked three years later if agreement was not reached. Union through the Danish king was finally abolished altogether in 1944 during the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany, when the Althing declared the founding of the Republic of Iceland.

Today, Icelanders celebrate this holiday on a national scale. The celebration traditionally takes the form of a parade through each urban area with brass bands. Riders on Icelandic horses often precede the brass band and flag bearers from the Icelandic scout movement traditionally follow the brass band. After the parade several speeches are held out in the open, including one from a Fjallkonan (woman of the mountains), dressed in Skautbúningur (traditional dress – see photo), who recites a national poem. She represents the fierce spirit of the Icelandic nation and of Icelandic nature: an inheritance from the period of romanticism that reigned when the first steps toward independence were being taken. After speeches and other official business is over, a less formal celebration takes place with musicians and dancing, lots of candy for the children, and helium balloons escaping their owners and flying to the sky. It is also traditional to expect rain on this day.

Icelandic cuisine is heavily dominated by fish and lamb (a favorite traditional festive dish is a whole or halved lamb’s head served on a platter with mashed root vegetables).  If you are not a half sheep head sort of person (I am, as it happens), here’s a simple, but delicious, Icelandic fish chowder.  You can use half and half instead of milk if you want a richer broth.  Personally I prefer fresh ground black pepper when I am eating this alone but white pepper is a bit more visually appealing.

Plokkfiskur

Ingredients:

1 1/4lbs (.7 k) cod, halibut or haddock
1 1/4lb (.7 k) potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 white onion
12 oz (3.5 dl) whole milk
2 oz (56 g) butter
3 tbsp (22 g) flour
salt and white pepper
snipped chives for garnish

Instructions:

Skin, bone,  break  the fish into flakes.

Dice the potatoes  and finely chop the onion.

Slowly heat the milk in a saucepan almost to the boiling point. Do NOT let it boil. Remove from the heat.

In a medium to large sized non-stick saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the onion over medium heat until just soft. Do not let it to brown.

Sprinkle flour over the onion, stir well and cook for 1-2 minutes. Do not let the flour brown.

Gradually add the warmed milk. Add a small amount at first and whisk vigorously. Keep adding more milk slowly stirring continuously. Simmer for 3-4 min, stirring often.

Add the flaked fish, stirring briskly so that the flakes are well broken up.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the potatoes and stir gently until they are heated through.

Serve very hot with dark rye bread and butter.

Serves 4

May 242013
 

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Today is Bermuda Day, formerly Victoria Day, Empire Day, Commonwealth Day and Heritage Day (make up your mind Bermuda). Bermuda Day is a public holiday in the islands of Bermuda. It is celebrated on May 24, or the weekday nearest May 24 if that date falls on the weekend. It is traditionally the first day to go into the water or put a boat in the water, and traditionally the first day that business people wear Bermuda shorts (called “shorts” in Bermuda, much as Japanese food is called “food” in Japan), although increasingly they are worn year round these days.  There is a variety of events including a big parade, a road race, and dinghy races.

Bermuda was discovered in 1505 by Spaniard sea captain Juan de Bermúdez, after whom the islands are named. He claimed the apparently uninhabited islands for the Spanish Empire. Although he paid two visits to the archipelago, Bermúdez never landed on the islands because he did not want to risk trying to sail past the dangerous reef surrounding them. Subsequent Spanish or other visitors are believed to have released the feral pigs that were abundant on the island when European settlement began. In 1609, the Virginia Company, which had established Virginia and Jamestown on the North American continent two years earlier, established a settlement founded in the aftermath of a hurricane, when the crew of the sinking Sea Venture steered it on the reef so they could get ashore.

The islands became a British colony following the 1707 unification of the parliaments of Scotland and England, which created the Kingdom of Great Britain. After Newfoundland became part of Canada in 1949, Bermuda became the oldest remaining British Overseas Territory (last gasp of the empire). Its first capital, St. George’s, was established in 1612. It is the oldest continuously-inhabited, English-speaking town in the New World.

The culture of Bermuda reflects the heritage of its people, who are chiefly of African and European descent. A small percentage of Asians also live on the island. Although Bermuda is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, it also has strong historical links with the United States. On one hand, Bermudians seem British in their customs – for example, playing cricket, driving on the left, and having Queen Elizabeth II on their banknotes. At the same time, a strong North American cultural influence is obvious: the currency is the dollar (on par with the US Dollar); Bermudians frequently watch television from the US; and Bermudian English shares many similarities with American English. Dress in Bermuda, however, is distinct from either American or British styles. While in the U.S. or Britain, shorts are considered casual dress, Bermuda shorts are considered to be formal attire in Bermuda, and are worn with a jacket and tie. Formal dress for work with pink shorts is not uncommon for men.

Of course the so-called Bermuda Triangle (aka The Devil’s Triangle) gets its name from the fact that the apex of the triangle is Bermuda.  Legends abound, and for the most part are complete nonsense.  For example, one author claims that when the tanker SS V.A. Fogg exploded and sank in 1972 all the crew had vanished except for the captain who was sitting dead at his desk clutching a coffee cup. In actual fact the Coast Guard photographed the wreck and recovered several bodies, not including a dead coffee swilling captain. Furthermore, SS V. A. Fogg sank off the coast of Texas, nowhere near the commonly accepted boundaries of the Triangle. The clincher for me, though, is that insurance companies do not raise their rates when ships enter the Triangle. Those guys know how to hold on to their money, as anyone who has dealt with insurance companies knows.

Bermuda’s cuisine has a rich and diverse history, blending English and Portuguese styles, given its own twist because of Bermuda’s seafood species, particularly wahoo and rockfish. For example, a dish of fish and potatoes can be served in one of two ways – British style with the addition of hard boiled eggs and egg sauce, or Portuguese style in which the added ingredients are tomato-onion sauce, peas and rice. Fish chowder is the quintessential dish of Bermuda, with as many variants as there are cooks.  This one is modified from a recipe from a local cook. Outerbridge’s Original Sherry Peppers Sauce is readily available on the island, but I give a substitute recipe in case sailing or flying to Bermuda is not on your weekend agenda. It should be! (It’s about a 2 ½ hour flight from New York).

Bermuda Fish Chowder

4 quarts water
1lb of fish heads and fish bones (preferably wahoo or rockfish)
1 ½ lbs firm white fish fillets (also wahoo or rockfish if available)
salt, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, ground cloves to taste
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp oil
2 lbs potatoes, peeled and diced
3 large onions, chopped
8 celery stalks, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 green peppers, chopped
6 carrots, diced
½ cup parsley, chopped
1 can (28 oz, 794 g) peeled tomatoes
1 cup ketchup
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp lemon juice
2 oz Gosling’s Black Seal Rum
4 tbsp Outerbridge’s Original Sherry Peppers Sauce
Ground pepper to taste

Instructions:

Place the fish heads, bones and water into a large pot with the water.  Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour.

Strain the fish stock through a fine sieve or a colander lined with two layers of cheesecloth. Be sure there are no bone fragments in the stock. Discard the heads and bones and return the stock to the pot.

Put the fish fillets, salt, and spices into the pot with the stock. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 30-45 minutes.

In a frying pan melt the butter and oil and sauté onions, celery, garlic, and green peppers. Add the tomatoes and  and 2 cups of the fish stock and simmer for 30 minutes.

Transfer this mixture to the fish stock and add remaining ingredients. Simmer partially covered for 2 hours. Adjust seasoning to your liking.

Serve piping hot and pass around Outerbridge’s Original Sherry Peppers Sauce and, Gosling’s Black Seal Rum for extra seasoning.

Sherry Peppers

Ingredients:

40 fresh pequin chiles (or little hot peppers of your choice)
2 cups dry sherry
Instructions:

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the chiles and let sit in the boiling water for 2 minutes to soften them.

Drain well, and put the peppers into sterilized bottles.

Fill the bottles with sherry and seal. The longer it sits, the hotter it will be.