Don’t ask Icelanders how to make their traditional Christmas cake

Ask a Canadian: vinarterta has become a holiday staple in the homes of Icelandic expats

Photograph by Nelson Gerrard, a customer and Icelandic genealogist based in Iceland, who claims Arden Jackson's vinarterta is the best he's ever tasted.

Few Christmas traditions are as culturally sacred to Canada’s ethnic Icelanders – nor as touchy, for that matter – as the baking of a 150-year-old fruitcake.

Vinarterta is a hefty, layered torte customarily served in rectangular slices, usually with coffee, and ideally by a doting Amma (grandmother). In thousands of kitchens across the continent this week, members of the Icelandic diaspora are almost guaranteed to devour the prune-filled, shortbread-layered confection.

But ask a native Icelander in the capital of Reykjavik how one prepares a classic vinarterta and expect a bemused look, and maybe requests to explain what that is. Put the same question to a Manitoban of Icelandic ancestry, though, and you’ll get an earful.

“When I first came to Canada, I was asked by people working with my husband at the University of Manitoba for my special vinarterta recipe,” recalls Margret Björgvinsdóttir, who left Reykjavik for Winnipeg in 1978. “I had to tell them the truth – that I really didn’t know what they were talking about.”

A staple in Icelandic households in Canada and the U.S., vinarterta is all but forgotten back in Iceland. Some even consider the cake to be a quintessentially Canadian treat. (Consider that Katherine Barber, the lexicographer-in-chief at the Oxford University Press, included a “vinarterta” definition in her 2007 phrase guide Only in Canada, You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language.)

Laurie Bertram, a history and immigration expert who wrote her University of Toronto PhD dissertation on vinarterta’s origins, calls it “an obsession” among North Americans of Icelandic descent.

Baking the torte in some unconventional way can be a provocative act. In Gimli, Manitoba — dubbed the “Heart of New Iceland” for its historically high concentration of Icelandic settlers — subbing any other preserved fruit for prunes in the filling is blasphemy.

As the late Icelandic-American writer Bill Holm put it in his essay about the dessert: “Say Vinarterta in a room full of the descendants of North American Icelandic immigrants and quarrels begin.”

There’s no shortage of debate over the right spice blends (cardamom, almond, cinnamon or vanilla?), the jam filling (rhubarb, prune, strawberry or apricot?), the icing (should it be spiked with bourbon or vodka, or should there be no icing at all?), even the number of layers.

Holm notes that “[in] Canada, Vinarterta is in six or seven layers, flavored with almonds, frosted with butter cream,” but adds his emphatic judgment that such a preparation is “wrong!”

That such a cherished cultural import could go lost in the homeland may seem odd, admits Bertram, considered to be the academic authority on the cake.

“I think for modern Icelanders, vinarterta is confusing. They don’t get what all the big fuss is about,” she says.

Bertram dates the recipe to the 1860s, a time when prunes were a luxury. Without regular stoves, Icelandic families were happy to cook the layered cake over open hearths.

When an unusually long deep freeze around that time sent icebergs into the harbours, crippling the vital fishing industry and blocking shipping routes, a wave of immigrants fled to the New World. The eruption of the volcano Askja compounded the physical and economic isolation, forcing an estimated 25 per cent of the island’s population to seek new lives elsewhere between the 1870s and 1914.

Vinarterta, en vogue at the time, was among the recipes the early Icelandic settlers brought to Canada and other welcoming nations. The 19th-century dish has changed remarkably little since. “Like a culinary time capsule,” Bertram says.

That also explains why Toronto’s Arden Jackson believes some in the community might consider her to be a “heretic” for adapting her Amma’s vinarterta recipe into an haute-cuisine product for sale in Canada and abroad.

Her vanilla icing is spiced with organic Madagascar vanilla beans, infused with Reyka Vodka (an award-winning Icelandic spirit filtered through lava rock and made with glacial water) and the cardamom in her prune jam comes special from an Indian merchant in Southwestern Ontario.

Mouthfuls are sweet, dense and crammed with cardamom and vanilla flavouring.

“Places to buy vinarterta have been few and far between, especially in this part of the country,” says Gail Einarson-McCleery, the Icelandic consul for Ontario. “So I’m really happy that Arden is making it for those of us who don’t necessarily have the time to do it ourselves.”

Bertram, who has sampled Jackson’s original version, endorses it as a faithful reproduction – “up there with the best.” Some curious customers even order it for delivery to Iceland.

Jackson’s twists on the classic vinarterta — chocolate and maple-flavoured versions commissioned by the Lodge at Pine Cove resort in Northern Ontario — are more controversial.

She knows it’s not the most economically viable plan, but it’s her ultimate passion project.

An interior designer by trade, Jackson has for now put her day job on hold while she spends 15 hours a day, every day, baking, packing deliveries and responding to email orders.

“My dream business plan is simple,” she says. “Keep the cake really good because it is really good, and retire as the vinarterta plum fairy.”

 




Browse

Don’t ask Icelanders how to make their traditional Christmas cake

  1. Fun to read. As an icelander I can say that the Vínarterta is not forgotten nor confusing but definitely not as important as to the Canadians. Here some people bake it at home and you can buy in every grocery store and in most bakeries. But it’s usually more yellow than the one on the picture.

  2. I loved this article. My amma (grandmother) and aunts used to bake vinaterta all the time and served it at coffee time every morning, afternoon and evening when I was a kid visiting them in Manitoba. The table would groan with sweets – cakes, cookies and squares of all kinds and always with vinaterta. It waasn´t a real Icelandic coffee time without it. Meredith MacFarquhar, Toronto

  3. Great article! I associate Vinarterta with the love and warmth of childhood family gatherings, community celebrations and just good times. In our house, it is still a must at Christmas and for the August long weekend, when, although we live in Ontario, we acknowledge the Icelandic Celebration being held in Gimli, Manitoba. Whether our distinctive striped cake is enjoyed in dainty rectangular bites or devoured stripe by stripe from the bottom up, savouring the smooth almond flavoured icing last, it is always a sweet reminder of our Icelandic Canadian heritage.

    Arden’s version of Vinarterta is the “real thing” and brings a little taste of home right across the continent and, beyond. She truly is the Vinarterta plum fairy!

  4. Just to let you know that vínarterta or randalína (which is another name for it) is still a big tradition in Iceland, you’ve just met one if the latte drinking pricks from Reykjavík who don’t even know what a sheep is. In my family for example we bake 4 kinds of vínartertur for christmas, but the only thing that has changed in the years is that people have started to use rhubarb instead of prunes.

    • I can’t imagine making Vinarterta with anything but prunes..My Grndmother, Mother and her cousins have made this since was a little girl and I’m 77…Mom used Cinnamin and cousins used cardamom. I actually liked both..Chrismas isn’t right without it, so I make it every year..Also, I’m an American of Icelandic descent..

  5. My Amma taught me to make Vinarterta when I was a child and I make it every Christmas. I inherited her “Cook Book Tried and True” second edition published in 1962 by the Dorcas Society of the Gimli Lutheran Church in Gimli, Manitoba and still make it exactly by that recipe. My Amma passed away 30 years ago but I still feel her watching over my shoulder and giving me hints as I make Vinarterta, and it is such wonderful time in my Christmas preparations. Thanks for this wonderful article!

  6. Love vinarterta but don’t like making it – everything in the kitchen gets sticky. Now if you’re talking ponnokokur – that’s something everyone loves from the first taste!

  7. Fantastic! It’s not Christmas without Vinarterta! I’m a 3rd generation Canadian on my Icelandic side and I love this treat. Funny note, a friend of mine claimed it was Ukrainian Christmas cake. I guess here Manitoba relatives “borrowed” the recipe.

Sign in to comment.