Go Vikings

Story and photos by Ted Alan Stedman

Among Iceland's magnificent sights is the Arch at Dyrholaey.

It was lovingly presented to me on a silver tray at the Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse in Hofn, southern Iceland. The inn keeper gleamed like a proud new mother as she lifted the cover to display her culinary creation, fresh from the kitchen. What I saw nearly cracked my cast-iron stomach.

“I hope you enjoy svio. It is one of our most popular traditional Icelandic delicacies,” said a slightly smirking Odin, my dinner companion and taciturn local guide with whom I’d been exploring Iceland the past week.

Svio, as I immediately discovered, is not a dish for the faint of heart. It’s a blackened sheep’s head, singed to remove the wool, then boiled and split length-wise. The halves stare at you with intact, vacant eyes and a toothy sneer. Cheeks, lips, eyes, brains – everything is reputedly edible. To make matters less appetizing, I was in an adjacent barn just 20 minutes earlier coddling a newborn lamb. And then there I was, with what I suspected was the lamb’s relative, reduced to a crispy critter.

While I pondered this distasteful dilemma, Odin showed his true form and became the consummate carnivore as he nonchalantly held the creature’s cranium in both hands and skillfully tore into its opaque flesh with his incisors.

At some woozy point in this spectacle I recalled what French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin so famously wrote: “Tell me what you eat; I will tell you what you are.”

Suddenly, the implication of a powerfully built man dispassionately devouring a sheep’s head made perfect sense. It was, in essence, my Eureka moment – one that gradually coalesced since setting foot on this quirky, isolated, spectacular sub-Arctic island.

Here you are still among the Vikings.

Gullfoss, the country's most famous waterfall.

Like most adventure seekers, I was lured by the call of the wild to this North Atlantic outpost. But after a week of kayaking, ski touring, volcano hiking and weaving a Zodiac through a maze of icebergs, the greatest adventure proved to be Iceland’s porrablot menu, the country’s traditional food and drink “specialties” that have persisted since apparently famished Vikings first settled this austere island in the 9th century.

Thingvellier National Park is a tourism mainstay.

Take my first night in the capital of Reykjavik, where I wound up with Odin in the hip Nasa Nightclub. I was approached by two jovial Norsemen named – and I’m quite serious – Merlin and Thor, who correctly pegged me for an “outsider” and challenged me to a drinking game. As in, see if you can drink this.

“It is a tradition in Iceland to drink the Brennivin,” said one of them, thrusting me a shot of the liquor made from fermented potato pulp flavored with caraway seeds. The vile concoction is aptly nicknamed “Black Death,” a drink Vikings once swilled to fortify themselves before pillaging villages. Tossing back a shot of the oily substance burned my esophagus and made me grimace like I’d swallowed, well…Black Death. Of course the amusement at my expense was not wasted. “Ha! That is why we call it the Black Death,” the trio of would-be Vikings said between belly laughs. I don’t recall the exact course of the night other than when we left Nasa, day had already broken and I felt as if I’d consumed industrial cleanser (Note to self: sucker).

Merely several hours later Odin appeared at my tiny, acetic hotel room for our sightseeing drive to the nearby port town of Hafnarfjorour on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The town sits in the otherworldly landscape of the craggy Burfell lava field, one of the essential features of an island forged by fire and ice. That humans claimed and somehow prospered on this tortured piece of volcanic real estate lashed by the Atlantic seems slightly miraculous. Naturally, the town is also known at the “Viking Center” of Iceland. How appropriate.

If you want to revel in the ways of the Vikings, go to the town’s Fjorukrain restaurant near the harbor. The Vikingfest atmosphere, with its lively song, period artifacts and overall ambiance, is as genuine as it gets. It was here that Odin introduced me to blodmor, or blood pudding, a once-Viking staple that I reckoned must be consumed not for flavor but for masochistic tradition.

As I stared at a blackish sausage-shaped object that had the consistency of a pate well beyond its expiration date, memories of my prior evening’s encounter with Black Death percolated in my mind –  and gut. “You don’t look so well,” Odin playfully chided as I opted instead for cold-smoked salmon. I mustered my best phony smile and told him not to worry. “It is alright,” he stoically assured. “You will have more opportunities to sample our traditional foods.”

Tourists take a dip in the Blue Lagoon.

A couple days later, after visits to the surreal spa waters of the Blue Lagoon and the immense Gullfoss waterfall, we toured farther east from Reykjavik along the Ring Road. Odin seemed intent on providing the full range of Viking-inspired experiences, namely gross foods. And he surreptitiously made sure I had a heaping helping of culinary items off the insidious porrablot menu.

Southern headlands near Vik.

At Vik, a village set along an incredibly dramatic stretch of black sand coastline, we wandered along the cliffs to take in views of the towering Reynisdrangur rock pinnacles jutting from the sea. Along the steepest edges I heard the cries of birds, and looking down saw the distinctive puffins that nest along the cliff bands.

“Cute birds,” I blurted out, taken by their amiable, expressive faces.

“Yes, I suppose. Puffins are the national bird, you know,” said Odin with a certain measured detachment.

An hour later we were seated at a remote country inn ordering lunch. Most Icelanders speak English, but travel away from Reykjavik and the unintelligible Icelandic language becomes the norm. That goes for food menus, where a single word appears as an endless string of consonants punctuated by a handful of letters not known in English. Rather than have the hieroglyphics explained, I asked Odin to simply order something good. His curt recommendation: “Bird.” So bird it was, a rather oily tasting mystery meat that wasn’t half-bad, but gamey and, well…peculiar.

“Is this some type of chicken or quail?” I asked Odin.  

“Oh no. That is puffin.”

I was slightly horrified that the beautiful birds I admired earlier, the country’s national birds that I assumed were protected as eagles are in the United States, could be eaten. “They are a traditional delicacy – very important food to early Vikings,” he affirmed in a matter-of-fact way that I’d come to expect as the standard Icelandic response.

Further testament that the way of the Vikings still lives.

Ski-touring the Vatnajokull Glacier.

The next day out I ventured into the interior of southeast Iceland, where Europe’s largest ice cap, the sprawling Vatnajokull Glacier, lies. With several other travelers I ski-toured one of the most bizarre, alien landscapes I’d ever seen – one with icy craters and overhanging headwalls, tourmaline-colored crevasses and rocky volcanic pikes protruding through the ice like 100-foot daggers. The day-long tour left me exhausted, and back at the trail hut where Odin was waiting for me I said something about my “I could eat a horse” appetite – an American idiom that apparently doesn’t translate well in Iceland.

Which is how I found myself at the Smyrlabjorg Guesthouse. But before the decapitated ovine, and at Odin’s insistence, I ingested other Viking-inspired porrablot delectables. There was slatur, a sort of sausage made from blood, guts, fat and a dash of meat sewn up in a sheep’s stomach. The pickled, rubbery ram’s testicles known as hrutspungur weren’t as nasty as I envisioned, though I didn’t order seconds. And I won’t easily forget choking down a grayish cube of hakarl, or putrefied shark. It carries a horrendous eye-watering ammonia stench that is the ultimate acid test as to how far humans might go to avoid starvation.

Yet this was all a prelude to svio, a barbaric gastronomic finale if there ever was one. Odin sensed my queasiness, if not my anthropomorphic sensibilities.

“What, you can’t eat the cute little lamb?” he playfully chided before demonstrating the proper dining technique (two hands required, bite and tear as needed…and don’t forget the eyes). I told him I’d had enough. I drew the line with svio. And no, I would not make a very good Viking.

“OK. But now we must have a toast. You will drink the Black Death?”

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