Much as I love Iceland when I visit earlier this year, it's responsible for the single most disgusting eating experience I've had in my life. And no, I'm not talking about that sheep's face.
I've heard about hákarl, or to give it its proper name, kæstur hákarl (Icelandic for "fermented shark"), as being an unmissable and unique part of Icelandic cuisine, so on my arrival in Reykjavik, I'm determined to track some down.
Like svið, hákarl is traditionally served as part of a þorramatur, the Icelandic banquet served at the midwinter festival þorrablót. Luckily for me however, it's available in Icelandic supermarkets throughout the year. In fact I find a packet of rotten shark in a freezer store (Iceland's Iceland) and nearly buy some to take back home, but then realise it might be considered a bit anti-social on the plane.
Made from a type of shark which is actually poisonous when fresh due to a high content of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide, the process for rendering the shark remotely "edible" is described eloquently in Wikipedia:
"Hákarl is traditionally prepared by gutting and beheading a Greenland or basking shark and placing it in a shallow hole dug in gravelly-sand, with the now-cleaned cavity resting on a slight hill. The shark is then covered with sand and gravel, and stones are then placed on top of the sand in order to press the shark. The fluids from the shark are in this way pressed out of the body. The shark ferments for 6–12 weeks depending on the season in this fashion.
Following this curing period, the shark is then cut into strips and hung to dry for several months. During this drying period, a brown crust will develop, which is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving".
I expect all sorts of thoughts are rushing through your head right now, such as "Why?", "How?", "What?", and "Why?" again. As my husband says, someone must have really been determined to eat that shark.
So we bomb it down to Cafe Loki, a bright and airy cafe above Textill, a handicraft shop owned by the same people, in a quarter of Reykjavik with wonderful Asgardian names. In sight of the stunning Hallgrims Church, I order a traditional Icelandic tasting platter, and my husband wisely orders the safe option of lamb pate and soup.
More on this delicacy from Wikipedia:
"Those new to it will usually gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it due to the high ammonia content".
Never mind attempting to eat it, we're gagging long before, as the caustic stench of the shark assaults us before the food gets to our table.
(So moved am I by the noxious fumes - like ramming bleach right up your nostrils - I break my self-imposed holiday Twitter ban that night to tweet that it resembles "a tramp's sock soaked in urine").
The hilarious thing is how (in contrast to svið), hakarl appears to be the most innocuous thing in the world - little creamy-white cubes stuck on toothpicks - like 70s party food, if that party was held in Hell.
Traditionally it comes with a shot of the local spirit brennivín (a type of aniseedy akvavit or schnapps) which I presume is to soften the blow, although itself is not particularly pleasant and is known as svarti dauði ("black death").
Eyes watering with pain, I decide the easiest way to get rid of the unholy fug is to just eat the damned stuff. Holding my nose, I poke a cube of shark in my mouth and chew.
Hákarl is in fact a good approximation of the sound your throat makes as it contorts and constricts in a desperate attempt to regurgitate the chunks of fetid fish.
So anyway, this piece of advice, dear readers, is my Christmas present to you: please go to Iceland but do not eat the shark.
Merry Christmas Everyone!
I look happy, don't I? It's all a facade.
I bow down.
This post is going to haunt me for a long time. I feel sorry for you as you have the actual memory of eating it.
I need a section of my browser to bookmark this but it has to be the opposite of "Favorites" (sic)
@Keith - It seemed like a good idea at the time. "Anti-favorites?"
@Dom at Belleau Kitchen - Hahahaha
Meems, that is RANK. And you put it in your mouth. The mind BOGGLES. And boggles some more. And then wants to hide at the sheer insanity of it.
@Kavey - You love it.
Must say a tramp's sock soaked in urine doesn't sound pleasant at all but well done MiMi anyway.
It had closed down at the thought of what you were about to do. *shudder* I think that even trumps (literally...?) andouilette as the ultimate horror food.
The name is so innocuous - fermented shark - sounds like a decent nordic brew to me. Rotten Hell Shark might be a better name.
Well done for even ordering it, though actually eating it may and veered from the brave to the insane ;).
PS, Surely Hallgrims is the world's biggest lego church?
@The Grubworm - Yay, I broke your mind!
But Lego is beautiful, goose bhuna man. Look at my other pics of that church eg here.
I'm not sure if I'm deeply awed in admiration or somewhat worried about your sanity. Maybe both. xxx
@The Grubworm - Oh, all right then.
@BeccaRothwell - You're doubting *my* sanity? I'd rather eat a shark than swim with one like you did :P
Either way I feel the urge to cover it in chocolate.
@tori - I love weird stuff :D
@Kaz (mrs.chutney) - Thank you - you too x
@Sarah, Maison Cupcake - Thank you :)
@Nicky - I saw a doc from the late 80s early 90s which did show someone eating the ancient sushi. I tried to find some last time I was in Japan but failed dismally.
@chumbles - Courage or stupidity? *strokes chin*
While I was away I tried rats, bats and snake, but they weren't anything in comparison to a tramp's sock soaked in urine!!
@Nicola - Ha, you really did go on an adventure - I've just discovered Little Lost :)
Thanks to you I have now added Hákarl to my list. (Naga Jolokia chili pepper first though).
I knew what to expect, and so did most of the rather well educated journalists and designers. But that bastard also knew if you dare a Finn, he or she is obliged.
I know it was a cruel joke and we laughed at it for the whole week the piss taste lingered in our mouths. But I'm still saying the good old man had a sadistic streak.
I think it was in 2002.
Wow, Icelanders are cool, and reincarnated