February 13, 2016

VINARTERTA An Icelandic Celebration Cake like in Christmas

It was early December and churches and immigrant associations were having their annual Christmas Fairs and Bazaars.  In very very costly Vancouver, these fairs are an affordable alternative from sticker shock shops malls.
One of them, the Oakridge Lutheran Church on Cambie Street and 41st Avenue had a street placard advertising their Christmas Bazaar on a Saturday 5th of December 2015.   I wanted to go because I read that a year hence, the Church’s 1950’s building (dedicated on July 8th 1956) will be gone, to be demolished for a Vancouver phenomenon: a “development” project.

In the church’s basement, which was the Fellowship Hall and kitchen, were the various wares and goodies on display.  On one table, I spotted slender deep-fried doughs called Kleinurs about 6 inches in length, selling for CAD$3.00 for a Ziploc of six pieces.  I was told the Kleinurs were made by an Icelandic lady who was there wearing a red sweater.  Late 60ish Inga Hendrikson told me that in addition to Kleinurs, she also made Vinarterta but the last one has been reserved for.  She advised me to heat the Kleinurs in a 200˚celsius oven for four minutes.  “And with cold milk, it is heavenly,’ said a smiling Inga.  Kleinur is similar to other fried doughs in other parts of the world.

But what about the difficult to pronounce at first Vinarterta (often misspelled as vinerterta)?  Inga went back to the kitchen, took out a wrapped block from the fridge and showed me gently holding what looked like a rectangular loaf with dark layers in-between.  Inga explained those black-blue fillings are “CPR strawberries”.  CPR as in Canadian Pacific Railways?  Yes.  Before cars, train was the only way to cross continental Canada.

The story goes, in the 1920s, in CPR’s dining cars, strawberries were on the menu.  But the waiters would often say “we are out of strawberries but we have prunes”.  Prunes were inexpensive as opposed to seasonal fresh strawberries.  During the construction and depression the railroads made prunes handy and cheap, could be kept in all weather, hence the moniker “CPR strawberries.”  In a similar vein, during World War II, prunes were known in Canada as “lumberman's strawberries.”

Back to Vinarterta, a torte of five to seven-layered shortbread with prune paste filling with or without an icing.  In Manitoba where many Icelanders settled, they do seven layers to symbolize the seven days in a week.

Surprisingly, today’s Icelanders in Iceland do not know much about Vinarteta, a Christmas and festive dessert  that was popular 150 years ago but no longer, except with the descendants of Icelanders who immigrated to North America.   Vinarterta is almost a twin to a popular Icelandic cake in Iceland – the Randalín, a four layer cake with a rhubarb filling.  Toronto baker Birgir Robertsson told blogger Jan Feduck that “the first bakery in Iceland, Bernhöfts Bakari, in Reykjavik was Danish in origin, but had an Austrian baker. He thinks that the name Vínarterta is a combination of the Austrian capital, Vienna and Terta, (which means a fancier version of a cake in Icelandic.) He was careful to tell me (Jan Feduck) that this is his theory and not based on any factual information.”

May I order one?

Fortunately Inga agreed and two Sundays later, I had my first Vinarterta for CAD$15.00 – a steal by Vancouver standards.  I gave CAD$20.00 inducing a closed smile from Inga who proffered, “I was in a good mood when I made this one.”

“It freezes well,” Inga said.  And that proved true as we got to taste the confection mid-January 2016.  

Inga e-wrote: “I use prunes only in the cake. Never any liqueur or dates. Spices for my filling are cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and vanilla.  Icing is butter iceing with almond flavoring.”

In our first meeting, I thought she said dates, not prunes.  They're both dried fruits, but not the same fruit.  Dates come from a date tree.  Prunes are a type of dried plum – hence referred to as such, or also as “plum raisins”.

Icelanders in Canada have arguments in serious jest on who makes the best Vinarterta, whether there should be icing or not, and what is the genuine recipe.

Inga’s Vinarterta was certainly a delight to have with tea or coffee.   But she repeatedly told me that for 2016, I can buy Vinarterta at the Icelandic community Christmas bazaar.  Implying, she no longer takes orders.

Interested in making the real McCoy?  See a link at the end of Laurie Betram's article for a 1949 recipe.

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