Fjallagrös (Cetraria islandica) is a lichen, a symbiotic association between algae and fungi. Icelanders have collected and used Cetraria islandica from the beginnings, both for culinary and medicinal purposes.
They were very valuable in the old times as it was often used as a currency for other goods. It was strongly prohibited to collect Cetraria islandica in other people’s lands as it was extremely valuable. It is considered to have strong medical affect, especially for gut and respiratory organs. They vary in size, texture and color, they can be found black, dark or light brown and even green. Fjallagrös can be easily picked; the hand-picking tradition was especially strong in North Iceland. Distances were often too long to go picking it, as it only grows where there is no winter grazing and they were more abundant on heaths and mountains. It was also considered a woman’s job that took weeks of work.
After picking the cetraria islandica, it was spread out on a newly cut field and let to dry. This tradition is not as common as before but some Icelanders keep the tradition alive. Lichens were used to eke out grains which were of sort supply for bread and porridge. Cetraria islandica were considered to be a big benefit for Icelandic household in the past when resources were scarce. It was very commonly used into bread, offal (slátur), soups, porridge, drinks and in cough mixture. Mixing it with skyr (icelandic dairy product) was also common, making it more nutritious. Cetraria islandica was also used to color fabric and yarns as it could give red and yellow color. It is still playing a part into the Icelandic culinary tradition, even though the custom to collect it is not as common as before, largely due to import and more selection of other goods. It is still known and well accepted as a remedy against many diseases and in the last decade some innovative attempts have been made to bring fjallagrös back into Icelanders’ consumption of food.
Cetraria islandica should be picked and dried before it can be used for culinary purposes. The plant is very fragile and it is important to avoid stamping it down while collecting on the field, as it can easily break because of its brittle texture. It is best to be collected when rainy or damp. The same area for collecting should not be used year after year as the plant needs 3-5 years to replenish. The herb is nowadays both used in flatkökur (traditional Icelandic flatbread) as well as in making normal bread. Many people also use it in soups, porridges and stews. Fjallagrasamjólk is a drink considered to have great health benefits where cetraria islandica is boiled with milk and honey.
It is used as a condiment in Icelandic snaps called Fjallagrasasnaps and in liquors. Modern scientific research has confirmed the old folk belief that the herb can have very good affect on all kinds of respiratory diseases. Because of that reason it is used in Icelandic cough-mixtures and cough pastilles. It is also a well known way of making tea.
Image: Slow Food i Reykjavik