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 Hákarl. 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 Brennivín until half an hour later at the end of the museum tour and a (much milder) cube of Hákarl.