There is so much we don't know about Icelandic crime-fiction writer Arnaldur Indriðason (including how to pronounce his last name). But Christmas is upon us and so it seemed like the perfect time to tear through his dark best-seller, Voices. In it, Indriðason's chief protagonist, Detective Erlendur, and his team investigate the pre-Yuletide murder of a part-time Santa Claus and hotel doorman found stabbed to death in his basement hotel room with his bright red Santa pants around his ankles.
One unexpectedly gripping part of Indriðason's Reykjavík-based series is that when you meet the Inspector in the first novel, Jar City, he is just a depressed, sad-eyed crime-solver with a pissed-off ex-wife and a junkie freeloader for a daughter. But in this installment of the Erlendur series, Indriðason offers up snippets from the intrepid detective's childhood that give context to his air of buzzkill.
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Erlendur also spends a lot of time fantasizing about eating boiled smoked mutton. Which got us wondering, "Is this a special Icelandic Christmas dish?" Through the miracle of Facebook we reached out to a resident of Reykjavík, Skarphéðinn Guðmundsson, (who also goes by the more manageable, Skarpi) who was kind enough to answer our questions without once mocking our simpleton questions: "What is boiled smoked mutton?" "Is it a traditional Christmas food?" "What does it taste like?" "How is it served?"
As it turns out, boiled smoked mutton is an Icelandic delicacy called Hangikjöt ("The closest I could get to helping you pronounce it is 'Howngikute,' Skarpi helpfully suggested), and is simply smoke-house cured lamb that's prepared sort of like a traditional boiled beef dish and simmered with carrots, onions and garlic. It's also traditionally served on the second day of Christmas and, according to our online research, leaves a lingering odor in your house that is not unlike an old campfire. ("If you have regrets," wrote one blogger, "just remember that this is the smell of Christmas in Iceland.")
Skarphéðinn Guðmundsson told us the following:
It's my pleasure to answer your questions regarding the boiled smoked mutton Erlendur craves so much. Smoked boiled leg of mutton or lamb -- or Hangikjöt (hung meat as we normally call it in Iceland) -- is indeed THE traditional Christmas dish.
It is cured by hanging in a smoke filled cabin or some sort of an isolated compartment for months. This lamb has spent all summer living on mountain grass in the wild Icelandic highlands so even before it's smoked it has got a really unique, organic and earthy taste.
One could say that this is the Icelandic answer to jambon and parma ham even though it's lamb. It's got a very unique taste, unlike anything you've tasted before, but I would say a very smoked and juicy Spanish jambon would be the closest thing.
The most common way to serve it is to boil it and then eat it in slices with béchamel sauce, potatoes and canned green peas. This is how it is normally served for Christmas and other traditional eating feasts.
Hung meat can also be served raw when it has been smoked twice and cured for longer. Hung meat is also one of the most common cold cuts, boiled, thinly sliced and served on Danish or German Rye bread or the Icelandic flatakaka -- fried flatbread -- a real delicatessen in my opinion.
To someone for the States as a cold cut it perhaps comes closest to a heavy smoked pastrami. I hope this answers your questions. It is actually a real treat and like I've said very unique. So I do urge you to look it up in the States and have a taste for yourself. I believe it's sold in selected Delicatessens and you can also order it online on this website: www.nammi.is
Here you can also find more info in the Hangikjöt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangikj%C3%B6t.
Again, hope this helps out.
Have a lovely Christmas!