Although I’m here in Iceland to take a traditional cheese making class, I took full advantage of the one day we had off to drive eight hours to try hákari, the traditional Icelandic fermented Greenlandic shark. This is a traditional food is at least 400 years old and is considered by many to be the most putrid food in the world! I’ve wanted to try this delicacy, for many, many years but didn’t know much about it other than what I’ve seen on television and read in magazines.
Certainly, I had to try this for myself, but in addition to wanting to experience the taste and smell and texture, I wanted to learn the story about this seemingly peculiar food.
I feel food traditions such as this are so important to learn about for inspiration as we build the Eastern Shore Food Lab. Certainly, we will not be fermenting Greenlandic shark at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. But, are there aspects of this practice that make sense and should be adapted to the resources we have available in the Eastern Shore and become a part of the food lab’s program? After all, one of the goals of the Food Evolutions project and core to the mission of the Eastern Shore Food Lab is the creation of new traditions. We are taking inspiration and knowledge through time and place to address the issues facing us today.
As strange as the practice of fermenting Greenlandic shark may sound, this tradition began out of necessity and over time became imbued with so much meaning and importance it was raised to an almost mystical level. It made sense in the context of 600-year-old Iceland and, continues to persist in the context of modern Icelandic tradition.
This is exactly why I am here – to find what some consider the most putrid food on the planet and make sense of it. There is no better way to do that than to go to the source!
The Icelandic Shark Museum is located on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in an extremely rugged landscape at the base of a large mountain and overlooking to the sea. It is picturesque and rough same time. There is absolutely nothing else around except a few buildings and shed that make up what seems to be the museum, processing sheds and a home. A small sign labeled “museum” point me to the right place to park for the museum – with only three parking spaces (and an opportunity to create a few additional ones if needed). I parked the car and entered the small museum. As I paid my entry fee, I saw a couple in the other room talking to someone and realized that that other room made up the entirety of the museum and the other voice was the tour guide. When the couple, who ironically were from Virginia, had left, I was ushered into the room and instructed to spend some time in there to look around and someone would be with me in a little while.
I wondered around the museum by myself for about 20 minutes looking at the historic tools used for catching and processing fish, shark, whale and seal. In addition to these traditional Icelandic fisherman’s tools there were a variety of local knickknacks and oddities sprinkled about. Exactly what you would expect from a small, local museum with character.
Eventually the tour guide, Cxudfón Hildibraudss, entered the room and introduced himself. He informed me that he is the last remaining member of his family and is carrying on this tradition. As we talked he walked me towards a corner of the room and then picked up a remote to turn on a television screen hanging from the wall. The next stop on this tour was a 7 ½ minute video to which he personally added a live narration. Between this video, his narration, and the lengthy discussion that followed I learned about the history and tradition, the process, and the current practice of making and using this mysterious food.
Being here, talking to Cxudfón, one of the only people on the planet still engaged in this practice, looking out over the sea from which these sharks are taken, feeling the ruggedness and barrenness of the landscape scarce with food resources, and learning about the practice of preparing this food was exactly what I was looking for. By the time he and I were finished, the entire process made complete sense.
Transforming my view
Every description reporting on fermented shark I have seen focused on the romantic or “disgusting” aspects of the taste and smell. Eating this food in that framework always ends up in a dare situation and the food, without context or tradition, loses all meaning. He explained 600 years ago the Greenlandic shark was caught and processed in Iceland for the sole purpose of extracting oil from its liver to light lamps. The liver of this fish comprises 10 – 25% of its overall body weight! The process is much more laborious that extracting oil from other sources such as whale blubber, but the final results are far superior and burns much more cleanly.
This shark was never seen as food due to the fact that its flesh is the most toxic of all the sharks on earth.
No one knows how it was discovered (although Cxudfón has a theory), but it was eventually discovered that the process of fermentation not only transforms the texture and flavor of the flesh, but also detoxifies it and renders it completely safe to consume. However, the trade-off are very strong flavors and aromas. His family stopped fishing for the sharks 60 years ago because they became by-catch in the turbot fishing industry.
And, instead of letting them die and go to waste, this unfortunate situation became a source of shark to ferment and a fantastic way to make use of a resource that was going to waste.
Cxudfón explained that traditionally the shark would be buried in the sand or placed in above ground stone cairns and left for a few months during the winter months to ferment. In either case, it was important to provide an opportunity for the liquid to drain and some air to be able to get to the fermenting flesh.
Nowadays, the same conditions are reached by dividing the flesh in to 5 to 10 kg pieces and leaving the skin attached to provide some stability to the very soft meat. A small slit is cut in the skin towards one end to serve as a handle as well as a place from which is could be hung during the drying phase which comes later in the process. These manageable cubes of flesh are then stacked neatly in to wooden boxes. These wooden boxes provide the perfect container within which to ferment and mimic the stone cairns that were used historically. Space between the boards provide a place for the liquid releasing from of the flesh to drain and also allows necessary oxygen to get to the fermenting mass. What’s really interesting about this process is that it doesn’t require any salt whatsoever.
The thinking goes, that during respiration the sharks build up salts in the flesh and that these salts that are naturally present in the flesh keep the fish safe during the early stages of the fermentation process and help to draw moisture out. The flesh also contains quite a bit of ammonia, and seems to have something to do with the fact that it is a cartilaginous animal and they do not urinate, rather they excrete the urine through their flesh. Even with all of this going on, the reason that the flesh is poisonous is because the sharks swim in such incredibly cold water that there’s some sort of a natural anti-freeze in its body to allow it to survive.
After fermenting for 6 to 9 weeks, the boxes are unpacked and the flesh hung in a covered barn with plenty of ventilation, to dry for 3 to 4 months. It is during this time that the flesh looses the rest of its moisture firms quite a bit. Once it is finished the fermented shark can be eaten right away or packed up and stored for a long time.
While some Icelanders eat hákari all year round for special occasions, Cxudfón explained that it is consumed primarily during the late winter festival in late January. In fact, he sells 70% of his stock each year during this time. Nowadays, it is often consumed with Brennivín liquor made potatoes and Caraway. But, since this seemingly traditional liquor is only 40-years old he sees nothing traditional about mixing a 400 year old tradition with one that is so young and chooses to consume his hákari on its own.
He also explained that in Iceland they do a very similar process with skate. Even though its flesh is not toxic, it is tradition in Iceland to ferment the skate and, on December 23 to prepare it by boiling it with potatoes and to serve it drizzled with fermented sheep’s fat.
The look on his face when he described this dish conveyed what it meant to him – it was nothing short of special. I thought this was an ideal thing to try to experiment with back home, because on the Eastern shore and most people consider skate a trash fish. In fact when some rockfish fishermen catch them by mistake, they club them over the head to kill them and throw them back in the water.
Perhaps this traditional preparation added flavor and texture to the holds potential to elevate the skate to different level. I’m certainly inspired and ready to bring it back for sure to the Eastern Shore Food Lab..
Either way, trying this food rooted in so much tradition is a very special treat, and is simply a magical experience to be here in Bjarnarhöfn with the man that actually made it, and try it for the first time.
He walked me over to the table that contained an upside down goat horn filled with toothpicks, a bowl of Icelandic brown bread, and a bowl containing diced pieces of fermented shark. His instructions were simple – he said that I first for the first time I should try it with both the bread and the shark. And, if I felt up to trying a second piece that I could just try shark. Here was my moment – I was about to try fermented Greenlandic shark, in Iceland, right next to the sea from which the shark came, with one of the last remaining people who actually make this!
But, as I picked up my toothpick he turned and left the room!
I am not really sure why he felt the need to leave the room, but I was left the all by myself and my biggest concern was how I was going to take an adequate picture of the event if no one was there to hold the phone!
A selfie would have to do!
I picked up the bowl containing the hákari and brought it to my nose. The strong smell of ammonia hit my nostrils immediately! It wasn’t a foul smell exactly, but different than what I’m used to putting in my mouth. The only thing I can compare it to, was my first batch of camembert cheese I made at home years ago.
I had converted a small refrigerator to serve as a “cheese cave” and, through the use of a humidifier was able to reach the necessary humidity, I did not have adequate ventilation. The ammonia that was released during the aging of the cheese built up to high levels and when I opened the door the strong smell of the gas hit me in the face.
That’s what this smells like. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the texture when I pierced it with the toothpick. It was firm, but not dry. Its color was off-white, almost amber. In fact, it looked like it was smoked, although I knew it was not. I then also stabbed a piece of bread with the toothpick and put both the bread and shark in my mouth. The first taste to hit my palate was salt and the second was the salt flavor mixed with ammonia and immediately the glands in the back of my cheek began to salivate.
I had felt that response before and immediately recognized it as what happens when I eat the Swedish black licorice that is covered with ammonia salts instead of sugar. Nothing about the experience was disgusting – in fact, it was quite the opposite. There was something special about it. Perhaps it was the context, trying it here in Iceland next the sea for the first time. Perhaps it was learning about the history and process before I put it in my mouth. Perhaps it was the buildup of excitement over so many years of wanting to try it. Perhaps it was all of this simultaneously.
Trying a strange food for the first time and trying a strange food for the first time with context are two completely different experiences.
One is prone to failure and will usually end up in a dare situation while the other is meaningful. I truly enjoyed eating this shark and ventured a second attempt with the shark alone. It was just as I expected – a little more intense and a little more special without the bread.
I left the room, found my tour guide, and asked him if I could go visit the drying shed to stand among last year’s catch almost ready for eating. The drying shed was only a hundred meters away from the museum located on a slope perfectly situated to take full advantage of the breeze coming up off the sea.
Standing among the hanging fermented flesh, knowing what it all meant and how much work went into it was truly special.
Here is a fish that was caught, killed, and thrown away for 200 years.
Yet, human technological innovation beginning 400 years ago, provided a way to transform this toxic flesh into something that can provide sustenance to humans.
In fact, over the 400 years that Icelanders consumed this flesh it became something special and an important source of identity.
How many other untapped sources of food exist that we have not yet discovered?
How many of these might become important components of our diet in the future and, perhaps even a source of identity?
I am empowered by this thought as I head back to the museum to thank them for everything, and ask if I could try just one more piece of shark so that one of them can take a picture . . .
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