George Burden samples an Icelandic delicacy, hakarl, which is a nice word for decomposing Greenland shark. It’s a meal fit for a Viking. Maybe.
In Iceland, since the time of the Vikings, the consumption of decomposing Greenland shark has been considered to be the height of culinary delight. The dish is locally called hakarl, which spoken in Icelandic sounds like the English words “half cut” pronounced with a Klingon accent, and appropriately reflects the state of intoxication needed to enjoy this treat.
I had read about hakarl in several different tourist guides and on Wikipedia. All paint a grim picture. Apparently even the smell has been known to evoke brisk vomiting in some individuals, and it was always recommended that it be consumed near a handy water-proof container. You would wonder why anyone would develop a taste for rotting fish but because of a historical scarcity of food, the Vikings in Iceland had to use every scrap of nutrition available. For example, another delicacy here is baked sheep’s head, the eyeballs being the favored morsel. In the case of the Greenland or basking shark, when eaten fresh it is poisonous, but after being buried for a two to three months, bacterial action rids it of the nasty toxins. It is then hung out in strips to dry before being savored by Icelanders, often as a traditional mid-winter festival goodie.
During a recent sojourn in Iceland I was determined to try hakarl. Arriving on a Saturday I knew that the weekend Kolaportid flea market, at the Old Port, was just the place to track down and sample “cured” shark (to use the euphemistic English translation).
Unfortunately, this weekend was the Whitsuntide Holiday, one which the Icelanders take very seriously, so the flea market was closed. Nevertheless, I was determined I’d sample hakarl before my couple of day sojourn on the island ended.
I asked the young ladies at the desk of my Reykjavik Hotel, the Centrum, where I might sample cured shark. One suggested I try the “Sea Baron”, a local fish joint which served a large variety of sea food. That evening I worked up an appetite walking down the waterfront trying to locate the “Sea Baron”. The restaurant is miniscule with crowded benches and is located in a partially refurbished fish factory on the dock. While there was no shark to be seen, I contented myself with kebabs of ultra-fresh, silver dollar sized Icelandic scallops. Washed down with the local Viking beer, the scallops even whetted this jaded Northeastener’s seafood appetite. Altogether I’d rate the “Sea Baron” a “find”, albeit not one for lovers of decomposing shark.
The next day, after a brisk walk on the hundred thousand square kilometer Solheimajokull glacier, my appetite was once again whetted for hakarl. I checked with the hotel’s bartender, a lad named Gunnar, who looked like he’d be more at home swinging a Viking battle axe than slinging drinks.
“Oh, you should try the Café Reykjavik. They probably have some in the freezer.” (I wondered why you would need to freeze it. It’s already rotten!)
I scurried to the café, only to find that the establishment was closing its doors for the night. A young lady with ice blue eyes, white blond hair and a stunning physique intercepted my attempt to enter, advising me to come back tomorrow after six pm. Since my flight left the next day at four pm this would have proven problematic I explained.
Taking pity, the youthful Valkyrie suggested that I try the Ten-Eleven Store as they were open late and might have some. Thanking her, I hustled around the corner to the shop and asked the clerk (another youthful Valkyrie) where the hakarl was located.
With a look of distaste (hopefully for the hakarl) she directed me to the back of the shop in the seafood section. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed an older Icelandic gentleman looking at me as if I had grown an extra head.
I reached the back of the store and ecstatically discovered a plastic tub labeled hakarl. Grabbing it, I headed for the front of the store. As I paid the dubious looking sales clerk, I was intercepted by the older gent I’d spotted on entering. He introduced himself as Magnus, a retired engineer who had travelled extensively and who had some advice to offer first time tasters of cured shark.
“I would recommend you eat no more than two or three pieces the first time you try this dish,” he said. “It is very heavy on the stomach. Also, you must consume it while drinking brennevin.” (Brennevin, which means “burnt wine” in Icelandic, is the country’s national spirit. Colloquially it is referred to by most Icelanders as “Black Death”.)
I carefully stored away this information, thanked Magnus, and headed back to the Centrum. Entering the hotel bar, I showed “my find” to my bartender buddy, Gunnar who promptly laid out plates, napkins, utensils and a plastic bucket.
Gunnar then placed a glass of “Black Death” next to my plate and I dished out a few whitish cubes of decomposing shark, stuck a toothpick into one of them and popped it into my mouth. Gunnar watched me intently.
Now, in the past, I’ve eaten tarantulas, scorpions, cane rat and other exotic delicacies, mostly to avoid offending my hosts in far off lands. Frankly, I found the hakarl quite tasty. After six or seven pieces the high ammonia content was giving me a bit of an aftertaste (sort of like bathroom cleaner), but a shot of “Black Death” quickly cleansed the palate allowing me to down more.
Gunnar looked disappointed.
“How’d you like it?” he asked.
“Great!” I replied. “It reminds me of pickled bull’s testicle.”
“Now, perhaps you can tell me where I could locate some sheep’s head?”
“Thingvellir, Iceland” © George Burden. All Rights Reserved.
“Here’s looking at You” © George Burden. All Rights Reserved.
Hakarl hung for drying, Bjarnahöfn, Iceland. By Chris73, Wikimedia Commons.
“A plate with Hakarl and a glass of Black Death” © George Burden. All Rights Reserved.