Going to Iceland? Try the hákarl (fermented shark).
We were ten days in, road tripping the island in our rented camper van with “CampEasy” written in big cursive letters on the side. We spent nights at campsites and days on the lookout for fun activities. So, when we saw signs for the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum, of course we were going to stop.
Bjarnarhofn sits on the northwest side of Iceland on the Snaefellsness peninsula, surrounded by a volcanic lunar landscape. Passing massive lava rocks covered in moss, we wound our way off the main highway (think two-lane road) toward the museum. We slowed around each curvy bend, me driving with the window down and taking photos at the same time.
Just another view of the Icelandic countryside, near the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.
We arrived and pulled up next to a few other vehicles, more than we’d seen in many miles, actually. Apparently sharks are popular. The museum looked like a farmhouse with shark jaws hanging decoratively around the windows (kind of like holiday lights in the US?). At a distance, we could see rocky shores where entire generations of Vikings fished the cold waters, presumably with large Viking nets or when they didn’t have nets, perhaps large Viking spaghetti strainers.
Inside, it was more like a house with a big den that belonged to a hoarder. Old pots and pans, farm tools, taxidermied birds, fish, and rodents. They were kind of smiling at you and hanging from the walls, cabinets, tables and shelves, highlighting the wonders of rural Icelandic life. This wasn’t as modern a museum as you might find (in Iceland there are some amazing high-tech museums), but for the steep entrance fee and a taped-up sign that said “Shark Museum” we decided it counted as a museum.
One of the docents (who looked suspiciously related to all the other docents) discussed the antique artifacts while demonstrating the national Icelandic skill of speaking to you in English that’s better than your native English. The artifacts spoke their own stories of long-forgotten tales:
While very old Icelandic shoes, this style is hip again today.
Antique Nordic blend – warning: beans may be a bit dry.
At the end of the “tour”, we were wowed with a grand video (via a flat screen tv hanging from the ceiling), describing the local tradition of hákarl or “fermented shark”. Best of all, they had some for us to try.
Prior to offering the Icelandic delicacy, they explained why it’s important – nay, required to prep the shark meat before eating it. In layman’s terms, sharks don’t go to the bathroom like you and me. Instead, sharks pee through their skin. Yes, you want that removed from the meat.
In technical terms, making kæstur hákarl goes like this: The delicacy starts with catching the Greenland shark which can grow up to an astounding 24 feet long and live up to 500 years – unless of course it’s caught by daring Icelandic fishermen. The meat is poisonous when it’s fresh (how would you like to be the Viking to figure that one out?!) due to the presence of urea and trimethylamine N-oxide. To treat the meat, you dig a hole, bury it, and then cover with sand and stones. Let sit for up to 3 months. Then remove the meat and dry for another 6 months. The result? A non-toxic, but still ammonia-smelling spongy sort of tofu that apparently goes “best” by washing it down with as much Brennivín as needed. Brennivín is Iceland’s national drink, a schnapps made from potatoes and caraway seeds.
But no worries! The tofu sized piece of shark we were about to eat from a toothpick had been treated, and was ready to go!
Note the skeptical eye, looking up from the bottom right of the image.
While Kymber showed off a bit by not reacting dramatically – I tried it next and had a harder time not throwing up in my mouth. But I had to set a good example for Beija – I really wanted her to try this potentially (hopefully?) once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience. And I was really curious how she’d do with it. Therefore, I felt justified in a white lie, saying that it wasn’t “that bad.” She resisted. But I used a Jedi mind trick of emphasizing how eating the shark would give her bragging rights among her friends. It worked – though she may not trust my food recommendations ever again.
Kymber’s note: I have a very visceral memory of the ammonia shooting up my nose as the toothpicked hákarl passed my lips. I don’t remember it tasting as bad as Jay and Beija’s faces might have implied, but I did down that tall shot of Brennivín like lightening. My stoic English ancestors would be proud.
But gee honey, now you have bragging rights!
So, when in Iceland, flex your adventurous palate. And don’t think battery acid chunk o’ sponge, but blue cheese with ten-times the amount of blue. Just try the shark. Trust me.