CBC News’ Cameron MacIntosh has a wonderful story examining how Icelandic-Canadians still make vinarterta, a classic Icelandic Christmas cake that is now more popular among descendants of Icelandic emigrants in Canada (and elsewhere) than in Iceland.
Now what actually constitutes a vinarterta is an open and sometimes passionate debate. It’s generally accepted that the cake dates back to at least the 1870s, when the first big wave of Icelandic immigration came to Canada.
An estimated 20,000 Icelanders — almost one-fifth of the population — left for North America. They were fleeing poverty, ruthless cold and environmental catastrophe in the form of a volcano that had spewed ash all over the island, rendering its agriculture useless.
By the early 1890s, “New Iceland,” located around what is now modern-day Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, would become the largest Icelandic settlement beyond the island’s own shores.
In the following decades, many of those Icelanders ended up changing their names and losing their language; yet somehow, that cake endured, the recipe passed down from generation to generation as a sort of cultural touchstone.
Purists will tell you it’s a round cake, with several very thin vanilla-flavoured, cookie-like layers, bound together, without exception, by a filling made of prune and spices, including cinnamon, cloves and cardamom — ingredients that would have been considered specialty items in 1870s Iceland.
These days, you will find different takes on it — blueberry, strawberry, even maple syrup versions. (My own amma would have scoffed at that.)
Most interestingly, what many in North America believe to be the quintessential Icelandic dish is not all that common in Iceland.