Today is one of the most important and anticipated days in Shetland’s calendar. This is the day to celebrate a proud Viking heritage, and to burn away the cold of winter with a rip-roaring fire festival. Today is Up Helly Aa!
Up Helly Aa is a mad, raucous, and jaw-droppingly remarkable celebration, and one that is ingrained in Shetland culture and identity.
The celebrations revolve around squads of “Guizers”, costumed men who have spent months preparing an act to preform throughout Up Helly Aa night in a succession of halls throughout the town. Central to the event is the Jarl Squad, lead by the revered purveyor of the event and Cheif Guizer; the Guizer Jarl. The Jarl Squad are the Vikings of the day. The Guizer Jarl wears a silver helmet adorned on each side with raven wings. He carries a gleaming silver shield emblazoned with the emblematic raven, and wields a battle axe. His squad spends on average 2 years designing and making their Viking outfits, and they are spectacular. It is a huge honour and usually a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of the Jarl Squad, and the members take it very seriously.
The day starts early with the Jarl Squad marching from one location to another around the Town, regaling those that they visit with traditional songs, and with a stop at the Market Cross to inspect the Bill.
The highlight of the festivities comes once night has fallen. The near 1000 strong group of Guizers muster on Hillhead, and the street lights are turned off. There is an air of quiet and anticipation before the night is suddenly ablaze with torch light. Each Guizer carries a blazing torch as they follow the Jarl Squad in procession, lead by the Guizer Jarl standing proudly in the Galley(a 9.2m long Viking long boat complete with dragon’s head and built especially for the occasion). The procession winds its way through the streets of Lerwick and eventually congregates around the Galley in the center of town. The Jarl leads the group in songs and cheers before the proceedings culminate with the torches being flung into the Galley sending it off to Valhalla in a breathtaking blaze.
Following the procession and Galley burning, onlookers make their way to the various halls to watch the Squads acts, to dance, and to celebrate through the night.
I remember the first time I attended Up Helly Aa. We went up to Hillhead to watch the light-up. There was a constant light drizzle of rain that night, and when the torches were lit the rain evaporated! It is truly spectacular, and people come from all over the world to experience it.
So in honour of Up Helly Aa 2016, and the Jarl Solmund Sigurdsson, I decided to make a Viking recipe. I found a whole load of recipes on the Ribe Viking Center’s website, and settled on viking flat-bread as a fitting tribute. Taking inspiration from some of the Center’s recipes I came up with this barley honey flat-bread, some hearty whole-grains for all of the ferocious Vikings out there (it should probably be consumed with some good mead).
- 225g or 1 1/2 cups barley flour
- 120ml or 1/2 cup water
- 1 Tbsp honey
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Set a griddle or large frying pan on the stove over medium-high heat.
- Measure out the flour and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine well.
- Stir in the water and honey until it forms a rough dough. It will be fairly stiff.
- Turn the dough out onto a counter top and knead it for a few minutes until it forms a smooth even dough.
- Roll the dough out thinly (do this in two parts if you don’t have enough counter space or would like a more manageable amount to work with) and cut large circles from it. (To cut out your circles you can use anything round with a think edge, I used a measuring jug, but a small pot lid could work. If you prefer you can just cut it up with a knife into squares or rectangles, or cut out smaller circles.)
- Gently place the cut out pieces onto the hot griddle and allow them to cook for about 2 minutes on the first side, and then flip them over and cook for another minute or two on the second side. They should be a bit crispy when finished and have golden brown patches. They may curl up a bit while you’re cooking them, which is fine.
- Repeat until you’ve used up all of the dough.
- Eat them as is, or dipped in honey and yogurt, or with some cheese, meat, or dip.