Icelandic saint’s day: celebrate with putrefied fish

Today is Þorláksmessa (St. Þorlákur’s Day), the patron saint of Iceland. It is also an important part of Christmas and time to eat putrefied skate.

Putrefied skate on Þorláksmessa is considered by many in Iceland to be an unmissable part of Christmas — despite the fact that the tradition only spread nationwide in the last 25 years or so. And 25 years too soon for some people who can’t stand the strong tasting fish.

In Catholic tradition people are supposed to fast for Christmas; to not eat hearty or luxury foods; and especially today. It is frowned upon to eat meat on the day St. Þorlákur died.

The tradition therefore built up to eat fish on this day – and to make it as low quality and bad tasting as possible. Shark, dried or buried catfish, cod livers; all were acceptable.

In the Westfjords, however, when skate were accidentally caught, they were generally shunned as not being fit for real men to eat. That made skate the perfect food for Þorláksmessa.

Over many years however, Westfjords putrefied skate mash became popular and liked…even considered a delicacy. Its truly unique taste became associated with the start of Christmas and when Westfjordians started migrating across Iceland, they took their tradition with them.

Reykjavík fish shops started preparing and selling putrefied skate in December some 50 or 60 years ago and over the last 25 years many Reykjavík restaurants have served the fish as well. It has slowly become a nationwide tradition that many consider as quintessentially Icelandic as Þorrablót or hot pots.

Despite all this, some people just can’t stand skate. RÚV spoke to one such person; Anna Hildur: “I would never dream of eating skate. I can’t understand those who want skate on Þorláksmessa. Some people like the smell but…no, I just don’t get it,” she said.

Today is probably the busiest shopping day of the year and shops all over the country will be open until late tonight – in fact nearly all shops will stay open until 22.00 or 23.00.