How Canadians are keeping this classic 'Icelandic' holiday cake alive

Vinarterta is a classic holiday cake that has become more common in Canada than Iceland, where it is believed to have originated.

Icelanders have all but stopped making vinarterta but Canadians still consider it a traditional Christmas dish

Carrie Arsenault, who lives in Gimli, Man., has built a business on making vinarterta, a layered cake that is a traditional holiday dish for Canadians with Icelandic roots. (Angela Johnston/CBC News)

The timing really couldn't have been worse for Carrie Arsenault.

A little more than a week before Christmas, her small bakery flooded as she was trying to fill a big stack of holiday orders.

"I've had to cancel a lot of very big orders," she explains as she starts to roll out dough in a new temporary workspace.

Right now, she's doing all she can to bake dozens of fruit cakes — in particular, multi-layered tortes with prune filing.

It's a speciality known as vinarterta. Ask any Canadian of Icelandic heritage, and they will tell you their amma (grandmother) has the best or most authentic recipe.

For many, vinarterta is more than a cake; it's a passion and an identity.

"I ship them to Vancouver, out East, all over across Canada. It seems like there are pockets of Icelandic communities all over," Arsenault says.

Arsenault, left, and her assistant, Gunnvor Danilstdottir, put the filling into a fresh vinarterta. (Angela Johnston/CBC News)

In the largely Icelandic community of Gimli, Man., she's built an entire business on vinarterta.

"I came from making them in my kitchen, of course, to start, going to local markets, to buying a bakery. It's a full-time job."

Something about that prune- and cookie-layered pastry just seems to strike a cultural chord.

"Someone who hasn't had it for a long time, when we give them a sample, you can see that it just shoots them right back to the past," Arsenault said. "They remember being a child. They remember being at a family function."

Not common in Iceland

Now what actually constitutes a vinarterta is an open and sometimes passionate debate. It's generally accepted that the cake dates back to at least the 1870s, when the first big wave of Icelandic immigration came to Canada.

An estimated 20,000 Icelanders — almost one-fifth of the population — left for North America. They were fleeing poverty, ruthless cold and environmental catastrophe in the form of a volcano that had spewed ash all over the island, rendering its agriculture useless.

By the early 1890s, "New Iceland," located around what is now modern-day Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, would become the largest Icelandic settlement beyond the island's own shores.

In the following decades, many of those Icelanders ended up changing their names and losing their language; yet somehow, that cake endured, the recipe passed down from generation to generation as a sort of cultural touchstone.

The Canadian version of vinarterta, left, differs from what you'll find these days in Reykjavik, right. (Angela Johnson/CBC/RUV Iceland)

Purists will tell you it's a round cake, with several very thin vanilla-flavoured, cookie-like layers, bound together, without exception, by a filling made of prune and spices, including cinnamon, cloves and cardamom — ingredients that would have been considered specialty items in 1870s Iceland.

These days, you will find different takes on it — blueberry, strawberry, even maple syrup versions. (My own amma would have scoffed at that.) 

Most interestingly, what many in North America believe to be the quintessential Icelandic dish is not all that common in Iceland.

On the streets of Reykjavik, questions about vinarterta draw shrugs, and that's not surprising to baker Thorsteinn Goubjornsson. 

"It's not like we do it today," he says.

Some in Iceland still see it as a traditional dish, Goubjornsson said, but the square, four-layer vinarterta he makes today has evolved from the more classic version.

"We put strawberries, cream; we do a new thing with it today."

Just like the descendants of those first migrants, the classic vinarterta's roots are Icelandic — but it's become distinctly Canadian.

Reyjkavik-based baker Thorstienn Goubjornsson says vinarterta has evolved into something different in his home country. (RÚV Iceland)

More than just cake …

Thordur Gudjonsson, Icelandic consul general in Manitoba, is preparing to head home to Iceland for the holidays.

Since assuming his role as consul general earlier this year, he has come across vinarterta at each festival, function and official event he has attended.

It's become a symbol of special ties between Iceland and Canada and the cultural heritage we have in Canada.— Thordur Gudjonsson, Icelandic consul general in Manitoba

"I was surprised. I was not aware how popular it was in Canada," he said.

He'll be taking one of the cakes back to Iceland with him for Christmas.

Gudjonsson says he sees the Canadian version as more than cake; it's also an enduring symbol of cultural pride.

"It's become a symbol of special ties between Iceland and Canada and the cultural heritage we have in Canada," he says.

"We could even say it unites Iceland and Canada."

Baker Arsenault's own family is a good example of that.

Back in her Gimli kitchen, she's teaching her assistant how to properly roll the dough to achieve those thin layers.

Gudjonsson receives a vinarterta from Johanna Wilson. He'll take it home to his native Iceland for the holidays. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC News)

Even the most discerning amma would call Arsenault's cake Icelandic — but Arsenault herself is not. She married into an Icelandic family, winding up with both a husband and a vinarterta recipe.

"My mother-in-law was so gracious to teach me her mother's recipe," she said.

Once her Christmas orders are filled, she'll focus on getting that flood damage fixed, to get full production going again.

These days, she bakes more than 1,200 vinartertas a year. But it's more than just a business opportunity.

"I have a son that is Icelandic and that's important to me, to carry on the tradition for him."


Cameron MacIntosh

Senior reporter

Cameron MacIntosh is a senior reporter with CBC national news based in Winnipeg. He has spent most of his career in Western Canada while covering stories across the country and abroad for CBC News.

With files from Karen Pauls and Angela Johnston