Angelica in the cultural and nutritional history of Iceland

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Angelica in the cultural and nutritional history of Iceland
Áslaug Helgadóttir and Laufey Steingrímsdóttir

Agricultural University of Iceland, Keldnaholt, IS-112 Reykjavík, Iceland
Angelica archangelica spp. Archangelica belongs to the umbelliferous family Apiaceae and is unique amongst the Umbelliferae for its strong aromatic odour. It is one of the largest plants in the flora reaching a height up to 2 m. It can be found over the whole island and grows most commonly along waterways in the interior where it can become very conspicuous in the landscape. It is sensitive to sheep grazing and as grazing pressures are reduced and more farms become deserted, it expands rapidly into old hayfields and common rangelands.
Angelica is indigenous in the Icelandic Flora and has probably survived the Ice Age. It could possibly have been introduced by settlers but this is considered unlikely. Its history in Iceland is as old as that of the settlement of the country and there are several accounts of it in the Icelandic Sagas. This implies that its uses were well known in Norway at the time of the settlement around 900.
Not much is known about angelica’s utilisation during the Middle Ages, though it is mentioned in the charter of several churches and convents, and there are references in the old law books such as Grágás and Búalög implying that angelica was a valuable commodity, used as currency in trade and an export item until after 1500.
During the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, Icelandic scholars encouraged the use of wild and cultivated plants, including angelica. Food from plant sources was scant in Iceland, with all grain being imported and vegetable cultivation limited. In that context wild plants were of great importance for the diet. In the extensive work of Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson, first published in 1772 in Danish: Reise igiennem Island, the use and harvesting of angelica is described for most areas of the country. Expeditions were made to the highlands for gathering angelica in the fall, where groups of farm workers and families would dig up the roots with a special tool and bring them home to dry. The roots were mostly eaten raw, often with butter and stockfish, the daily fare of most Icelanders at that time, or sliced in hot skimmed milk. The stem was even more popular as food. It was usually cut in early summer, when it is still soft, and consumed fresh. The leaves have also been used as a salad, or as cooked vegetable.
Angelica has also been revered for its medicinal qualities through the ages. In his book Grasnytjar, published in 1783, the cultivator and reverend Björn Halldórsson describes its use against a series of ailments. He suggests storing angelica in wine or brandy and consuming the drink as a remedy. He also recommends that farmers establish angelica gardens by their homes, taking wild plants from the highlands for the purpose. The remains of that practice are still evident around old, abandoned farm houses in Iceland, where angelica flourishes among the ruins.
The use of angelica is still alive in Iceland, both as food, fodder and as a herbal medicine. An Icelandic firm, SagaMedica, has recently developed and marketed herbal medicine based on angelica. Another novel use of angelica is the raising of sheep that have grazed on angelica fields, as the meat seems to pick up a distinct flavor and qualities from the plant. Finally, angelica is used in the development of new local foods based on tradition in connection with cultural tourism and specialty, niche foods. Salads with the leaves are served in restaurants, dried angelica is used as a flavor in soups and breads, leaves are wrapped around fish or legs of lamb and sweetened stems are savored as dessert. Angelica seems still to have a place in modern nutrition and culture in Iceland.

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