“Puffin. I want to eat puffin.”
"Ah ... puffin? Why don't you try something a bit more, um, standard. Rack of lamb, perhaps," the helpful tourism representative from Iceland was saying on the other end of the phone.
His efforts to steer me away from what he suspected I'd have second thoughts
about failed. I'd been set on tasting something truly and uniquely Icelandic ever since I decided to visit Iceland.
Today, Iceland ... an Ohio sized chunk of volcanic rubble practically atop the Arctic Circle ... is all modern buildings and hordes with their cell phones and polite manners. Visitors forget these folks are descendants of bold, fearless, somewhat bloodthirsty Vikings. They also forget that snowy volcanic rubble doesn't produce much food and in early days, people weren't very fussy about what they ate.
Since the lack of arable land meant traditional agricultural staples weren't available in Viking days, the people welcomed any protein that fluttered or swam within arm's reach. It led to some truly intriguing cuisine choices. Enter marinated puffin, boiled sheep's testicles, singed sheep's head, rotten shark, plus an endless array of concoctions made with sour milk.
Thus, nothing is more dear to an Icelander than food. And in February, after a damp, dark winter where genetic instinct has been screaming, "eat!!!" it all comes to a head in the frenzy of the Thorrablöt festival. Outsiders have to be a bit adventurous for Thorrablöt but to a local, this month of gorging on old Viking food is nothing less than treasured history.
Everybody has at least one Viking meal for Thorrablöt, (translated roughly as “homage to Thor,” the Norse god of thunder, war ... and agriculture). So they descend on the local grocery and stock up on lamb parts, blood sausage, rotten shark, steamed volcano bread, and endless varieties of herring.
But you don't have to wait for February to experiment. Plenty of restaurants in Reykjavik, Iceland's capital city, serve the stuff year round, sometimes complete with snarling Viking in costume as your guide. Along with rotten shark, there’s usually dried fish and (to a visitor perhaps more appealing) meat soup which is a hearty broth of lamb and veggies.
This is exactly how it went for me on my trip to Iceland. Ever curious about native food ... hey, I actually LIKE seal oil ... I absolutely had to try old (very, very old) Viking food.
On my latest trip to Iceland, I was in the far eastern town of Eskifjordur at Randulff’s Seahouse, an old herring processing cabin that is now a rustic restaurant, when I came upon their rotten shark, or Hákarl.
Okay, most people gag.
“They really didn’t pee on the shark. It only smells that way,” a friend once told me. It was the fermenting and hanging that led to the taste and rumors of that “secret” ingredient.
But to me, the shark was soft, silky, rich, yes, a bit fishy and if I really tried, I could sort of taste a hint of something acid-like. I liked it. You’re supposed to chomp a cube and chase it with the local schnapps, appropriately named Black Death. But, geez, that kills the taste which, as I said, I like.
The dried fish I also tasted was crunchy and, yes, fishy. And of course I liked it, too ... so much so that the manager gave me a bag of the stuff to take home. My cat promptly tried to bury it, but who’s accounting for taste?
On my last trip to Iceland, I visited a Reykjavik restaurant that, sadly, is no longer open. But I had a chance to taste a wide array of Thorrablöt foods.
The sous chef, Jon Bjorgvinsson, hovered over his wooden tray and explained the goodies as I nibbled. There was no mistaking the sheep's head, which was singed, then boiled.
"The meat just under the jaw is best," Jon confided as he handed me a forkful. It was tender and intensely flavored.
Next came Slatur (slaughter), a combination of guts, blood, fat and unidentifiable meat bits all neatly stuffed into sausage casings made of stomach lining. It's like haggis but not as spicy. The smoked lamb had a distinct taste of campfire, as did all the smoked food I encountered in Iceland. It was a treat compared to the chemical smoke taste we get at home in North America.
Most meat in the old days, however, wasn't smoked but packed in sour milk, which turns out to be an extremely effective preservative. This led to a host of somewhat mouth puckering dishes involving sausages, assorted lamb parts, and ram's testicles.
At Jon’s restaurant, the latter were an anticlimax. They were chopped and pressed into disturbingly round pink chunks with aspic jelly. But the bottom line is they tasted like lunch meat.
Jon added that people today tend to modernize their Thorrablöt prep routine. They use Tupperware for the marinade, sugar to cut the sour taste of the sausage, gas lamps to singe the hair off the sheep head.
However, rotten shark is still made the old way ... buried after gutting and beheading the shark and placing it in a shallow hole dug in sand. The shark is then covered with sand and gravel, and in the old days, stones were placed on top of the sand in order to press fluids out of the body. These days, though, the pressing is done in a plastic container with drain holes. The shark ferments in this fashion for 6–12 weeks depending on the season. It’s then cut into strips and hung to dry for four or five months.
It is possible to witness the traditional preparation process at Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum on the Snfellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland.
Icelandic food, though, is not all about boiled ram's jewels. Traditional Icelandic dishes include lobster so tender it's almost ephemeral, steamed bread -- it used to be cooked in thermal pits -- that tastes like cake, the most delicious lamb you’ve ever tasted, reindeer so tender you can cut it with a fork and skyr, a milk curd with cream that's like yogurt but much livelier.
What about the puffins? Despite the tourism fellow's misgivings on my last trip, I scarfed down three helpings of this soft, dark, faintly fishy meat with the berry aftertaste. It didn't taste like chicken. It was more reminiscent of liver. And I finished every bite.
ICELAND’S SURPRISING SECRETS
1. Winter is a great time to visit with mid-February to the end of March being the best time. When the skies are clear, the northern lights are fantastic and along the coast, the temperatures are mild, barely dipping below freezing thanks to warm ocean currents. Even at its darkest, there is light ... a dreamy blue that is starlight and moonlight reflected off the snow. And there are plenty of winter activities from snowmobiling to caving, skiing and camping on glaciers.
2. Virtually all Icelandic people speak English. They study it from early grades on.
3. Vikings never wore hats with horns (though they probably drank local grog out of them). Credit this myth to Wagner's Valkyrie opera. Nor did they "bury" their dead by sending burning ships to sea. We've got a Kirk Douglas movie to thank for that.
4. You never hear of “Viking moms,” but there would have hardly been any Viking exploration without them. Your average Viking, we learned on a half day tour of Viking lore, was maybe 17. Before the trip, mom washed him, sewed his clothes and packed food in a special wooden chest for the boat before admonishing him to “be a good boy.” Whereupon he and his buddies set forth to, yes, rape and pillage. And, also, especially important, look for good farmland.
5. It takes about five hours to fly here from the US from the east coast, seven or eight from the west.
6. The Island is slightly smaller than Cuba and is one of the youngest landmasses on the planet.
7. Iceland is the least densely populated country in Europe.
8. Icelanders LOVE grilling (BBQ’s can be found in almost every garden and balcony). And they grill during blizzards as well!
9. If you get lost in your average Iceland forest you only need to get off your knees and stand up to see where to go.
10. Oh, and Leif Erikson found America – not Christopher Columbus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leif_Erikson
The height of tourist season is July and August, though people do visit Iceland year round.
Activities in summer focus on the out-of-doors with trips to glaciers, waterfalls and riding stables.
Activities in winter turn to cultural events in Reykjavik, a city where 200,000 people have two dozen theaters.
The weekend bar scene is wicked year round and Christmas month (all of December through the first week of January) is one huge party and buffet.
Should you prefer more standard fare, Iceland also does grilled fish (especially salmon and trout), eggs, lamb, cheese, skyr and these days, things at upscale restaurants can get quite gourmet)
SUGGESTIONS FOR MODERN AND TRADITIONAL ICELANDIC FOOD:
Cafe Loki (click on English in dropdown link) - http://www.loki.is/
Fjörukráin - http://fjorukrain.is/en/
Sægreifinn (The Seabaron, click on British flag on top for English) - http://saegreifinn.is/
Randulff’s Seahouse in Eskifjordur in the Icelandic east: http://www.mjoeyri.is/en/veitingar.html
And for the best fish and chips downtown, Reykjavik Fish - http://www.reykjavikfish.is
Icelandic Tourist Board - www.visiticeland.com
Thorrablöt Festival - www.iceland.is/the-big-picture/people-society/traditions/thorrablot/
Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum - http://www.bjarnarhofn.is/#_=_
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