Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 1. Hákarl

Every country is plagued by it's own stereotypes, some of which the citizens might not even be aware of. I heard recently that America has no trains. America would hardly exist if it weren't for trains, but I suppose that in the eyes of some Europeans, Americans rode around on horses or surf boards, and unless a train is a high speed bullet, it's not really a train. But I digress.
When you stay in a country for a short time, as a tourist, it's difficult to sort through the mess of stereotypes and I think that's how many of them get perpetuated. The Reykjavik Grapevine wrote an article recently talking about a similar phenomenon attributed to "lay-over journalists" (writers who stop in Iceland on their way somewhere else and end up using that experience to sum up the entire country), and NPR followed up with an article written by an admitted lay-over journalist. But even that article, despite being self-conscious of it's position, managed to slip in another mistake on Icelandic culture and cuisine. So here's my top five list of the most common misconceptions about Iceland in no particular order, starting with a particularly stinky one....

1. Hakárl
More commonly referred to as "disgusting rotten shark". I think by now, everyone has heard of this purely Icelandic delicacy. Some famous chefs have vomited upon trying this, and claimed it as the most putrid, horrible food available on planet Earth. It's been described as  tasting like a combination of mouldy cheese and ammonia. The summation of the hákarl process is that a shark is buried underground for a few months, then dug up and hung to rot for a few more months, cut into chunks, and then happily scarfed down by natives. Visitors love to tell stories of their encounters with hákarl, and they most likely sampled a small cube from the Reykjavík flea market which opens every weekend. Vendors there sell tiny cups with a few bits in for tourists to taste, although few actually end up trying it once they open the container and get a whiff. Part of the story involved telling the story of how it´s made, which is where the inaccuracies begin. Of course, the worse it sounds, the better the story seems, and the braver the taster is, so I´m not surprised that things get a little mixed up.
This might be a bit nit-picky of me, because while everything about making hákarl is relatively true, it's exaggerated a bit, and I want to clear up a few things.
I visited (with a friend of mine) a hákarl production facility in the northwest recently and we got to see the entire process from start to finish.

Hákarl is made from the flesh of the Greenland shark. This shark swims in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean and is one of the largest sharks in the world. It never stops growing in it´s entire life, and can grow over 6 meters in length. Not too surprising when you take into account it´s lifespan: 200 years!
When we visited the farm, there was a freshly caught shark in a trailer that we could have a look at.
This shark was too heavy for the scales, but it was estimated to be 700kg. And based on it's length, our host told us that it was probably between 70 and 90 years old. But don´t be sad. Fishermen don't go out hunting for these creatures. They occasionally get caught up in other fishing nets, and rather than throwing their bodies back out to sea, they are sold either to this place, or the other farm that makes hákarl.
That´s Christian peeling back the tarp. Our super-awesome host for the hákarl tour.
There's not much to do to prepare the shark for the first step. It is placed inside a plastic box for about four weeks, in which is has ample time to ferment in it's own urine. Christian, our very charming host, explained that hákarl has likely never been made by burying it underground. It´s possible, he says, that this was done a very long time ago when people were still experimenting with the process, but now it´s much more efficient and sanitary to just throw it in a plastic box.
At this point, you may be wondering why anyone would go through all of this trouble just to make a smelly bite of shark meat. The flesh of the Greenland shark is very poisonous, and cannot be consumed unless it's been given plenty of time to leech itself of toxins. Apparently, some Greenlandic people still repeatedly boil the meat (throwing out the water each time) to make it edible, but the fermentation method is tried and true.
After the shark has been left in the box for a month, it is cut into hefty chunks, each about 5kg, and hung in a drying house. The pieces hang for about four months, depending on the weather. When the outside of the meat turns a crispy brown color, it's ready to take down. The brown crust is cut off to expose the white meat inside, and this is then cut into small cubes which are then ready to eat.
The hákarl shown here was very fresh. Well...ok...if you can call five months old "fresh". I've had hákarl a few times before and it always did have a fairly sharp sting to it. Not the worst thing I've ever tasted, but it certainly didn't leave me asking for more. This, however, was amazing. My friend and I both asked for seconds and thirds. There was no ammonia taste, but I still though it was a little cheesy. When I asked Christian about it, he explained that it does "go bad" if it's left out too long (which would explain the putridness of the flea market samples).
So there you go. Hope that clears up some things about how this traditional snack is made, and I hope it proves that it's nothing to be afraid of, no matter what Gordon Ramsey says. If you want to try real Icelandic hákarl that you don't need to hold your nose for, visit Christian and his family at their farm in Bíldudalur and don't be afraid to ask for seconds!

Stay tuned for four more exciting updates on how everyone is wrong about everything, except for me. Including whatfor's on;

2. Iceland and it's beautiful women
3. Whaling
4. Vikings
5. Fairies and elves

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