Travel Eats: Smoked Fish and Bagpipes

In the summer of 2019 we spent two weeks in Scotland.

My wife and daughter are competitive Highland Dancers with a dance school here in Canada, and every four years or so the school makes the trip overseas with a busload of dancers, parents, and teachers to participate in an authentic Scottish Highland Games.

They all get to stress about dance. I get to wander around, take photos, and eat interesting foods.

for whatever one photo is worth:

In early August 2019 I found myself on a rain-soaked morning meandering around the muddy grass of Strathallan Games Park in Bridge of Allan, UK, where the annual Bridge of Allan Highland Games are held in the shadow of the Wallace Monument towering in the misty, rolling hills a few kilometers away.

The games themselves are wrapped around a race track. Running and cycling field events that happen on the track itself are more modern additions to the more familiar caber tossing and hammer throws that take place midfield. The dancers huddle around a stage at one end of the inside field, the bagpipe bands set up at the far opposite end (though their warmup hum can be heard forever away.) Scattered in the empty spaces between food and craft vendors find customers like me wandering through the games action.

The column of smoke can be seen from nearly everywhere, and I found myself organically attracted to the action to see what was cooking at its base.

From an article on the website itself this is what I found:

Arbroath Smokies are famed throughout Britain and beyond for their wonderful flavour and smooth, flaky texture. For those new to this particular delicacy, smokies are smoked haddock, prepared according to highly traditional methods by a number of producers in and around the wee North East fishing community of Arbroath.

I stood at the back of a very long line and when I reached the front I ordered two.

Delicious. Amazing. Perfect food for a perfect morning.

If (or when) we return for another Highland Games in a couple years, I’ll be saving some room for a second round.

I’m a huge fan of smoked fish… which is a difficult kind of fan to be when you live in a city on the land-locked Canadian prairies. I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking (and maybe even smoking) fish over an open fire. In an upcoming sequel and follow-up post to my Suburban Fire Craft (Part One), I recently purchased a new movable fire pit for my backyard. I’ll be doing some cooking on it (so long as the weather cooperates) this coming weekend and writing about it here. It probably will not be fish. I’ll save that for when I’ve practiced a bit more. It will be backyard cooking over an open fire, though, and that’s almost as exciting as a day of Highland Games.

Almost.

Now, obviously, my new fire bowl isn’t an old whiskey barrel, nor is it the foundation for a multi-generational history of smoking famous fish. But my neighbours might soon be wondering what cooking at the base of a column of smoke from my backyard. I’ll save the bagpipes for another year.

Iceland: Rotten Like a Shark

It’s Travel Tuesday and digging through my collection of interesting travel pictures I’m reminded of a half-dozen years ago when we went on a ten day family vacation in Iceland.

My goals for that trip were:

Find lots of epic scenery.

Take lots of amazing photos.

Eat lots of interesting foods.

for whatever one photo is worth:

Hákarl is an Icelandic delicacy. Go Google Icelandic fermented shark and you’ll find all sorts of history of this curious dish dating back centuries and linked to the survival of ancient peoples in a harsh and unforgiving land.

From what I recall, Greenland Sharks whose flesh is mostly unpalatable and composed of high quantities of toxic ammonia were buried on the beach and left to rot. When they instead fermented (and the dogs didn’t die from eating the remains that were dug up) they became a food source, and eventually a deliberately crafted one.

Today, Icelanders largely only consume it on special occasions, in particular at a mid-winter festival in small bites and chased by a shot of the local vodka-like drink Brennivín.

We went to one of the spots in the northern part of Iceland where on a small, remote farm the man in the navy blue shirt ran the Iceland Shark Museum (check the link, he’s on the homepage as of me posting this!) where he shared the history of the industry to create H√°karl. He also produces a lot of the volume of the dish.

Most visitors show up to visit the museum and (from what I understand) pay their Euros to enter the museum. This small fee also includes a small cube, roughly half a centimeter to a side, of some mild, tourist-friendly Hákarl on a toothpick and a thimble-full of Brennivín.

The day we went I pulled out my camera and started snapping pictures even as we stepped out of the car. And though I don’t speak Icelandic from what I could tell the man in the red jacket was (best guess) a commercial buyer who had come to investigate some serious samples. The man in the navy blue shirt was slicing off fresh slabs of fermented shark with that knife in his hand and they were tasting it, and me and my camera-nosy-self was snapping happily away.

I looked up and man in the navy blue shirt had extended the tip of his knife towards me and laying across the tip was a sliver of fermented shark roughly the size of my pinkie finger.

Again, I don’t speak the language and I was a total tourist… yet I had intentionally come here for an experience exactly like this.

So… I hung my camera loose around my neck, thanked him, and popped the slab of freshly sliced fermented shark flesh into my mouth.

Delicacies are such for the precise reason that they are best consumed wrapped in story, steeped in tradition, and savoured in small quantities. To me in that moment, the consistency and taste of what I had just eaten was something that I could only articulate by comparing it to what I imagined it might taste like were I to scoop a bit of congealed bathroom cleaner from the bottom of a particularly old bottle and slip in across my tongue.

Six years later I still have that one moment firmly planted in my mind across ten very full days in Iceland.

And I didn’t even get my chaser of Brenniv√≠n until half an hour later at the end of the museum tour and a (much milder) cube of H√°karl.