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Sheridan Sun: On rotten shark and seared sheepskull

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Iceland is a unique nation. The tiny country with a population of just above 200,000 straddles the meeting point between two tectonic plates, and is slowly being pulled apart at a distinct geological seam. As such, it is ferociously volcanic, with vents spewing pungent sulfur gas scattered all over the nation.

They call it “The Iceland Smell” and it does stick to you – after spending just over a week in the tiny island nation I had become inured to it, but it clung to me like a heavy chainmail of rotting eggs. The water issuing from the showers is loaded with it, and it is quite impossible to avoid.

Another olfactory experience worthy of acquainting oneself with is the odour of ammonia. It is wise to steel yourself for the experience of eating Iceland’s infamous “rotten shark” dish, Hakarl. You can practice by inhaling household cleaners – this is not advised – or take a swig of Buckley’s Cough Mixture; the taste and aroma are quite similar.

“Very few Icelanders actually will eat this garbage,” says Andri Reynir Einarsson, native of Reykjavik, Iceland. “It’s mostly a test of toughness. We eat it around a holiday, Thorrablot. We also love giving it to tourists, since if you eat enough, you’ll get hilarious deadly diarrhea.”

Iceland by virtue of its historical isolation had to depend heavily upon food preservation. Its populace of kill-crazed Vikings had to get inventive to make it through the winter. The dish Hakarl starts out as a ferocious Greenland or basking shark. This shark is then pummeled into submission by the fists of enraged Vikings (or modernly, captured by Iceland’s massive trawler fleet.) It is quite poisonous at this stage, so the only sensible thing to do is bury it in loose gravel and rocks for a few months, allowing the beast’s carcass to ferment and drain of fluids. It is then hung out to dry for another number of months, followed by a de-crusting (yummy!) and finally arriving in the form of tiny cubes on shelves across Iceland, where it is ignored by anyone with an ounce of sense.

My own encounter with Thorrablot cuisine was brief. The fish-monger offered a plastic tin of the little cubes. I ate two, commenting on its similarity to Buckley’s. My Icelandic chaperone and the monger both regarded me with skepticism, as I claimed to enjoy the bizarre, alien taste.

As our eyes met, I realized they all knew I was lying.

I next met with eyes in another example of capital cuisine –it had two of them, and a face – an once expressive, emotive mammalian face that now lay before me on a grand silver platter, its fire-blackened expression frozen in an open-mouthed bray of mortal horror. I was eating Svid, or as it’s commonly known, “burnt sheep’s head.”

“This one is actually good. I don’t mind eating it. Some people in Iceland will eat the brains, which I think is pretty horrible. But the face, especially around the cheeks, is the best meat that comes off a sheep. Most people from the States that visit Iceland will never eat it,” explained Einarsson.

Only the Vikings could come up with a dish so brutal and simple in its separation. Step 1: Behead sheep. Step 2: Throw head in fire; perhaps add spices. 3: Cleave skull in twain and dig out the brains (or leave them in to cook inside the brainpan.)

I am reminded of Silence of the Lambs. Not by this particular lamb’s silence, but by the film’s demented antagonist, and his propensity for the consumption of faces. Would I be any better than Hannibal Lecter if I engaged in this tasty taboo?

Thhhpppttt.

This story originally appeared in the Sheridan Sun.

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Written by tomczerniawski

March 14, 2010 at 11:42 am

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