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.