Symposiasts at Work: Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir

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A portrait of Nanna (c. Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir)

We continue our ‘Symposiasts at Work’ series by introducing Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, our reigning maven of Icelandic cookery.

Nanna, would you tell us a bit about your background, and how you became interested in food and food history?

My name, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir, means ‘Nanna, daughter of Rögnvaldur’. I was born in the Skagafjörður region of northern Iceland in 1957 and grew up on a farm called Djúpidalur, where my family had lived since 1733. As a child, I took part in the work on the farm, and learned age-old food and cooking traditions from my mother and other relatives. Resources were limited, for instance there were almost no vegetables and we got apples and oranges only at Christmas, but I was always reading about exotic things I had never seen, like asparagus or eggplants or fresh pineapple, and trying to imagine what they looked and tasted like. My parents later moved to a fishing village in the region, and I worked as a teenager there in a fish processing plant. I can’t ever remember not being interested in food and cooking and often did cooking experiments at home. Many of them were spectacular failures, frequently because I was trying to recreate dishes I had only read about and had neither a recipe nor the correct ingredients.

In 1978, I moved to Reykjavík to study history at university, but dropped out after a couple of years and began working for the Place-Name Institute of Iceland. During that time, I came across a book that would change my life. It was North Atlantic Seafood by Alan Davidson. I had begun collecting cookbooks when I was in my teens (my mother didn’t own a single cookbook) but this was the first food-related book I had come across that was so much more than recipes. After browsing through it, I said to myself: ‘If I ever write a book, I want it to be like this.’ In fact I had no plans to write a book, let alone a cookbook – but I was fascinated by Alan’s work and his book resided on my bedside table for over ten years.

In 1986, I began to work for an Icelandic publisher as an editor, dealing with all sorts of books but mostly non-fiction, including cookbooks. I learned a lot from this work, my cookbook collection grew steadily, and I took up my cooking experiments again, this time with a bit more success,. Being notoriously forgetful and disorganised, I felt I was always looking up the same things so I began writing them down, along with my own observations and recipes. ‘Nanna’s notebook’ became well-known among my friends and I would distribute a few photocopies of the newest version now and then, but I had no plans to publish a book.

One day, the publisher I worked for found a version in the photocopier, browsed through the manuscript and after a few minutes, told me to take all the time I needed to make it into a book. Two years later, I had written Matarást (Love of Food) a 700-page large-format food encyclopaedia with recipes. The book was very well received; it was shortlisted for the Icelandic Literary Prize for Non-Fiction in 1998, and was awarded the Librarians’ Association’s prize for best reference work, and the Association of Non-Fiction and Educational Writers in Iceland’s Hagþenkir prize for a non-fiction work of outstanding quality.

The publication of the 3600-recipe Matreiðslubók Nönnu (Nanna’s Cookbook) in 2001 sold 15,000 copies and more or less became the new Icelandic cooking bible. I found I had become a household name. Since then, I have written almost 20 cookbooks and books about food, although much smaller than my first two. I have also written recipe columns and articles about for various Icelandic magazines and newspapers, in addition to my day job as an editor at the same publishing firm where I’ve now worked almost continuously for 30 years.

I also have a popular food blog, in Icelandic [though also check out her extensive history of traditional and modern Icelandic cooking in English—ed.]. After I started it, I discovered how much I enjoyed taking photographs of the food I was cooking. I had for years worked closely with photographers and food stylists and learned a lot from them and when my publisher saw the photos I was posting on my blog, he suggested that I should photograph my next book myself. I did and have photographed all my work for books and magazines ever since.

I am interested in most aspects of food and cooking and often appear on Icelandic radio and TV shows discussing food-related matters, but my main interest is Icelandic food history and I have done considerable research on the origins of traditional and popular Icelandic dishes. Some of this can be found in my English-language book Icelandic Food and Cookery (new and expanded edition, 2014). I am currently working on another book on the subject but making slow progress.

What first made you come to Oxford, and for how many years have you been attending the symposium?

I learned of the Symposium through Alan and really wanted to go there for years, but was unable to, not least because the autumn was a very inconvenient time for me. But in 2010, I discovered that the Symposium had been moved to July and that the subject was Cured, Fermented and Smoked food, which interested me immensely because that is traditional Icelandic food in a nutshell. So I decided to go and have been there every year since then. I first gave a paper with Michael Leaman in 2011 (Þorrablót, on Icelandic winter feasts) and then again this past year (Gone and Forgotten: Hook steaks, trash bags and other disappeared Icelandic offal dishes).

Do you have a special Icelandic recipe you might share with us?

Yes—here is an old favourite, I had it every day when I was a child, very easy to make and used to be probably the most common bread in Iceland. It is still popular, especially with certain dishes such as mashed fish, marinated herring and smoked lamb.

Traditional Icelandic dark rye bread
Mix 350 ml cultured buttermilk or plain yogurt and 115 ml golden syrup in a mixing bowl, add 200 grams rye flour, 100 grams whole wheat flour, 1 tsp baking soda and 1/2 tsp salt. Mix well. Spoon the dough into a buttered lidded mold or coffee can (or use a 1-litre milk carton, which doesn’t need to be buttered). The container should not be more than two thirds full. Close the container well. If you live close to a hot spring, just bury the container in hot earth close to the spring overnight or for up to 24 hours, depending on how hot the earth is. If you don’t have a hot spring handy – and I don’t – just turn the oven to 90-95°C, place the container on the bottom rim (upright if you use a milk carton) and bake overnight, or for around 9 hours.

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Icelandic rye bread, served buttered with slices of smoked foal’s tongue (c. Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir)

Nanna’s Oxford Symposium papers:

Rögnvaldardóttir, N and Leaman, MR. ‘Þorrablót—Icelandic feasting’. Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. London: Prospect Books, 2011.

Rögnvaldardóttir, N. ‘Gone and Forgotten: Hook steaks, trash bags and other disappeared Icelandic offal dishes’Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. London: Prospect Books, 2016.

Nanna’s food-related books:

Matarást. Iðunn, 1998.
Matreiðslubók Nönnu. Iðunn, 2001.
Icelandic Food and Cookery. Hippocrene Books, 2001
Cool Cuisine; traditional Icelandic cuisine. Vaka-Helgafell, 2004.
Cool Dishes; traditional Icelandic cuisine. Vaka-Helgafell, 2004.
Lambakjöt. Gestgjafinn, 2005.
Jólahefðir. Gestgjafinn, 2005.
Maturinn okkar: sígildir íslenskir réttir. Vaka-Helgafell, 2007.
Af bestu lyst 3. Forlagið, 2008.
Maturinn hennarNönnu: heimilismatur og hugmyndir. Iðunn, 2009.
Smáréttir Nönnu: fingramatur, forréttir og freistingar. Iðunn, 2010.
Jólamatur Nönnu. Iðunn, 2011.
Múffur í hvert mál. Iðunn, 2012.
Plats faciles: cuisine traditionelle islandaise. Iðunn, 2013.
Kjúklingaréttir Nönnu. Iðunn, 2013.
Does Anyone Actually Eat This?. Iðunn, 2014.
Icelandic Food and Cookery, revised and expanded edition. Iðunn, 2014.
Sætmeti án sykurs og sætuefna. Iðunn, 2015.
Ömmumatur Nönnu. Iðunn, 2015.
Létt og litríkt. Iðunn, 2016.
Eitthvað ofan á brauð. Iðunn, 2016.

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Nanna garnishes one of her dishes (c. Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir)

interviewer: Andrew Dalby
editorial help: Joshua Evans, Fiona Sinclair

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