Saturday, September 01, 2012

Dining with Ólafur

The stone above, which lies on the island of Vi∂ey or Videy in Kollafjörður Bay across from the city of Reykjavík, Iceland, memorializes Ólafur Stephensen, the first native Icelander to serve as the country's governor during the period of Danish rule. In addition to his historical importance, Ólafur was, in the words of the island's official website, "renowned for his hospitality," and an account written by a young eyewitness who would later become one of Britain's greatest naturalists certainly bears this out, though "feared for his hospitality" might be closer to the mark. Here's a bit of background:

In June 1809, at a time when Denmark was officially at war with Great Britain, a British commercial vessel named the Rover arrived off Reykjavík, lured by the prospect of trade with an island that was, as far as the Danes were concerned, strictly off-limits to English merchants. Among the passengers was a Danish native named Jorgen Jorgenson, who in the course of a series of farcical events that ensued that summer would seize control of the capital and proclaim himself "protector" of Iceland, and William Jackson Hooker, who, as a protegé of the great naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, had tagged along on the Rover in order to conduct research on Icelandic botany. Hooker's specimens and journals would be lost on the homeward voyage, but he was able to reconstruct enough from memory to publish a two-volume Journal of a Tour in Iceland, in which he records how Ólafur Stephensen (an old friend of Joseph Banks) entertained his guests.
When we sat down to table, a little interruption was caused by the breaking down of the chair upon which his Excellency had seated himself; but this was soon settled, as there fortunately was still a vacant one in the room to replace it. The arranging of a dinner-table is attended in Iceland with little trouble, and would afford no scope for the display of the elegant abilities of an experienced English housekeeper. On the cloth was nothing but a plate, a knife and fork, a wine glass, and a bottle of claret, for each guest, except that in the middle stood a large and handsome glass-castor of sugar, with a magnificent silver top. The natives are not in the habit of drinking malt liquor or water, nor is it customary to eat salt with their meals. The dishes are brought in singly: our first was a large turenne of soup, which is a favorite addition to the dinners of the richer people, and is made of sago, claret, and raisins, boiled so as to become almost a mucilage. We were helped to two soup-plates full of this, which we ate without knowing if any thing more was to come. No sooner, however, was the soup removed, than two large salmon, boiled and cut in slices, were brought on, and, with them, melted butter, looking like oil, mixed with vinegar and pepper: this, likewise, was very good, and, when we had with some difficulty cleared our plates, we hoped we had finished our dinners. Not so, for there was then introduced a turenne full of the eggs of the Cree, or great tern, boiled hard, of which a dozen were put upon each of our plates; and, for sauce, we had a large basin of cream, mixed with sugar, in which were four spoons, so that we all ate out of the same bowl, placed in the middle of the table. We petitioned hard to be excused from eating the whole of the eggs upon our plates, but we petitioned in vain. "You are my guests," said he, "and this is the first time you have done me the honor of a visit, therefore you must do as I would have you; in future, when you come to see me, you may do as you like." In his own excuse, he pleaded his age for not following our example, to which we could make no reply.

We devoured with difficulty our eggs and cream; but had no sooner dismissed our plates, than half a sheep, well roasted, came on, with a mess of sorrel (Rumex acetosa), called by the Danes scurvy-grass, boiled, meshed, and sweetened with sugar. It was to no purpose we assured our host that we had already eaten more than would do us good: he filled our plates with the mutton and sauce, and made us get through it as well as we could; although any one of the dishes, of which we had before partaken, was sufficient for the dinner of a moderate man. However, even this was not all; for a large dish of Waffels, as they are here called, that is to say, a sort of pancake, made of wheat-flour, flat, and roasted in a mould, which forms a number of squares on the top, succeeded the mutton. They were not more than half an inch thick, and about the size of an octavo book. The Stiftsamptman [governor] said he would be satisfied if each of us would eat two of them, and, with these moderate terms we were forced to comply. For bread, Norway biscuit and loaves made of rye, were served up; for our drink, we had nothing but claret, of which we were all compelled to empty the bottle that stood by us, and this, too, out of tumblers, rather than wine glasses. It is not the custom in this country to sit after dinner over the wine, but we had, instead of it, to drink just as much coffee as the Stiftsamptman thought proper to give us. The coffee was certainly extremely good, and, we trusted it would terminate the feast. But all was not yet over; for a huge bowl of rum punch was brought in, and handed round in large glasses pretty freely, and to every glass a toast was given. If at any time we flagged in drinking, "Baron Banks" was always the signal for emptying our glasses, in order that we might have them filled with bumpers, to drink to his health; a task that no Englishman ought to hesitate about complying with most gladly, though assuredly, if any exception might be made to such a rule, it would be in an instance like the present. We were threatened with still another bowl, after we should have drained this; and accordingly another actually came, which we were with difficulty allowed to refuse to empty entirely; nor could this be done, but by ordering our people to get the boat ready for our departure, when, having concluded this extraordinary feast by three cups of tea each, we took our leave, and reached Reikevig [sic] about ten o'clock; but did not for some time recover the effects of this most involuntary intemperance.
Occupied since the 10th century, Vi∂ey is no longer farmed, but the farmhouse in which Stephensen entertained his guests still stands on the island, and there is now a small café inside it which serves excellent food, though not, to be sure, on the scale described above. There is a large hearth in a back room that may well have been used to prepare the meal served to Hooker and Jorgenson. Most of the island now looks like this:

The island may be the quietest place on earth, the only sound being the cry of an occasional shorebird startled by our footsteps. It is easily accessed by passenger ferry from Reykjavík, and is well worth a visit.

Sir William Jackson Hooker became the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; his son, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who succeeded him at that post, was a great friend of Charles Darwin's. Jorgen Jorgenson's entire extraordinary career is admirably recounted in Sarah Blakewell's The English Dane: From King of Iceland to Tasmanian Convict.

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