Vinar Terra, Vínarkaka, or Vínarterta
While in Iceland a couple of summers ago I made a rustic Vínarkaka in Valur Gunnarsson’s Reykjavik kitchen with ingredients from the Bónus grocery store. The eggs were incredibly yellow, the butter was the most buttery ever, the flour was fluffier, the sugar more granular, the cream was heavenly, the cardamom was an extract, and the resulting cake character was totally different than one made in my Ontario kitchen.
As the cake making marathon is upon me once again, I got to thinking about that summer rustic Vínarkaka based on an old Icelandic recipe today, and how true it is that Vínarterta can be Vínar terra. Across North America dreams of perfect holidays begin around the making of our beloved ‘terta that few people seem to know how to spell.
“I loved vínar terta, everyone does, after the surprise of the prune filling.” – Bettyjane Wylie
But really, what is it about quirky traditional Icelandic food, and the cake that’s hard to pronounce and spell that we love so much?
What I know is that Western Icelanders’ connection to food is nicely said in Bettyjane Wylie’s book ‘Letters to Icelanders Exploring the Northern Soul’ Chapter Six, ‘Food, Letter to my Grandmother.’ It’s a wonderful heart and recipe filled expression of appreciation, and sometimes bemusement of traditional Icelandic food and taste sensations experienced as a child. Mýsuostur (Whey Cheese), Skyr, Harðfiskur and ‘Vinar Terta’ are highlights. You´ll find out how to make the best coffee in the world, Icelandic brown bread, rúllupylsa, fish dishes and more. I’m missing Gimli, Riverton and Lake Winnipeg just thinking about it all. The book is out of print, but you can find used copies on the web.
Bettyjane regularly intentionally spells ‘Vinar Terta’ with two words believing that this configuration is consistent with our cake’s origins in the Manitoba community cookbooks. How do you spell it? Recent emails from Bettyjane refer to ‘Vinar terra’ in a nod to pretty much everyone who spells it the way they think it’s spelt.
People seem to spell it based on the sound they heard as a child without the added knowledge of the Icelandic language. Vina tata, Vinartata, Vinatera, Vinettata, Veneteta, Veenartara, Veinertera, are just a few spellings we know of, with the closest to the correct spelling, Vinaterta. They are all wrong, technically, but perhaps the various spellings really do refer to different versions, number of layers, flavouring and fillings? Nope. Mostly it’s just a very real indicator of the loss of the Icelandic speakers in our community, and maybe a culture that thrives on argument.
I yearn to get folks back to spelling Vínarterta correctly to preserve our traditions and language. And through this awareness I think we can keep alive our precious cake and how it importantly defines us as Western Icelanders.
Perhaps Vinar Terra and all the other permutations are descriptors of Vinarterta, and of our moment in time and evolving cultural landscape. It is fascinating how many people are still in shock about how popular and culture-wide the phenomena of our Icelandic Cake really is. And even more, how protective they are of their family’s ownership, and disturbed by buttercream icing or lack thereof.
One of the original recipes from Iceland is called Vinarkaka made with four layers and filled with plum jam. Icelanders mostly maintain this four layered configuration and change up the filling. North American Icelanders have tended to vary the number of layers and spices, and make it iced or not based on family preference.
A clue as to why Vínarterta evolved and became so popular with Pioneers of New Iceland though, is found in Bettyjane’s book.
“Like people, food has to adapt to new surroundings. People take the tastes, the memories, habits and cooking methods and apply them to whatever similar material they can find in a new local.”
The beauty of Vinarterta is that it could be made with minimal equipment, baked over a fire without an oven and last a long time without refrigeration. Even with the abundance of wheat in North America, Icelanders kept up their traditional methods of making a little go a long way. More layers made it more special. Like all things that appear complex, like the Delicious Striped Icelandic Cake, it’s really simple. Many an Amma made a very pragmatic cake with what was available, especially at Christmas, as an expression of love for their family.Their families never forgot it because of its incredible uniqueness and great taste.
Wanting to hang on to moments of closeness, love and connection and share them with others through food is a constant over time. The taste of a sweet has a powerful impact on the brain. We remember with precision what is good, rare and only available in certain places seasonally. Why this generation can’t seem to get their heads around the spelling of Vinarterta is confounding, but maybe that will change. Regardless, what makes it great is that it reminds us of good and happy times. It reminds us of home.
“The easiest way for most of us to hang onto the past, however, is through the food. And I guess that’s why arguments can become so heated about the right way to make vína terta.” Says Bettyjane.
What I think is true about quirky traditional Icelandic food, and the cake that’s hard to pronounce and spell that we love so much is this; it’s all about preserving the past, a taste of home and a connection with the Icelandic heart. And a culture of argumentativeness.
It is Vínarterta. It is us.
Across North America dreams of perfect holidays begin around the making of our beloved ‘terta.
Thank you Bettyjane and everyone for carrying on holiday traditions. And thanks to my dear customers for supporting this crazy-making mission we have for sharing a bit of love and pioneer spirit with you.
Thank you for being an insufferable romantic, nostalgic for the past, for Amma, Afi, aunties and uncles, cousins, friends, coffee made with a bag, rúllupylsa, hangikjöt and some form of Vínarterta.
And thank you for just loving storied cultural food, all things Icelandic, the delicious striped Icelandic cake and for being a part of the Vinarterta Tribe.
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