I can’t write about Iceland without talking about the food. Fresh Arctic char, perfectly prepared lamb, creamy yogurt, roasted root vegetables, tasty ice cream, every kind of homemade bread, fish soups, smoked fish and meat, were on the menu every day of our tour. However, talking about gustatory pleasures will only make readers feel hungry, bored, or resentful that they aren’t eating this well. So I’m going to write about a simply awful food experience that will produce immediate feelings of relief for anyone who escaped it.
According to Insight Guides, Iceland, “One of Iceland’s most notorious food rituals is the ceremonious intake of rotten shark and schnapps.” Not only was our tour group invited to take part in this ritual, but we got to do it on the farm where the shark meat was cured and dried. Margret, our guide, told us that according to Icelandic tradition, everyone must eat this delicacy(?) on Christmas Eve. She assured us we would be more likely to appreciate it, as her grown children did, if we had started eating it as children, though she admitted that living here most of her life hadn’t yet made her a fan.
The challenge of preparation starts with the local Greenland sharks themselves. Having small kidneys, their urine spreads throughout their bodies making fresh meat poisonous to the eater. From the farmer’s smiling, exuberant son, we learned all about the process of removing the poison. As our induction into eating putrefied shark, he directed us to a table laden with bowls of small chunks of white flesh, tiny pieces of rye bread and toothpicks to skewer the two together, plus an array of small shot glasses of brennivin, the local, high-octane liquor.
Margret demonstrated the process and in doing so set the bar high by eating her sample without curling up her lips or squinching her face. While some fellow travelers jumped in, I hesitated. Why? Rotten shark stinks. Surprise, surprise.
One fellow traveler prepared her shark snack. After taking a whiff of it, she lowered her arm and paused to get up her courage. The family dog came up behind her and took a bite, leaving her with the empty toothpick and an end to her distress.
I too, hesitated. But the samples in front of me were tiny. How bad could eating one be? I dove in. The fish didn’t have much flavor and the first few chews did nothing to alarm my taste buds. What was the big deal about eating putrefied shark? Only after I finished swallowing, the after-taste of ammonia flooding my mouth and overpowering the brennevin, did I understand how big a deal it was.