A Rotten Bite of Iceland

Icelandic people have a famous delicacy – a vice, some might say – that they hang in little drying houses and eat with pinched noses.  It’s called kæstur hákarl, but is more commonly called just hákarl.  What is it?  Rotten and dried shark meat.  Is it all that bad? Well…
Here, a small family drying house sits by a chilly bay.  The meat inside had crusted on the outside and turned yellow.  It was protected from varmints by chickenwire, but left open to the wind and flies.  It smelled of fish, ammonia and barnyard.  This is a delicacy that’s not exactly delicate.
Hildibrandur Bjarnason (left) and his son, Brynjar Hild Brandsson, are the biggest hákarl producers in Iceland, processing about eighty of the big sharks a year on their remote farm, Bjarnarhöfn.  Hildibrandur is a jolly man who seems to thoroughly enjoy his product and his life.  Besides rotting fish, the men are especially proud of their prize Icelandic horses, which roam semi-free in green pastures by the North Atlantic.  The father and son have the mixed sturdiness of fishermen and farmers; they live solidly and simply.  We were shown pictures of Hildibrandur hoisting one-ton fish with the bucket of his tractor, the earth muddy beneath the wheels, the sea misty behind.
Hildibrandur’s family ferment only the native Greenland shark, a coldwater species that lives further north than any other shark.  The huge fish can grow over twenty feet long, weigh as much as a ton and fish at depths of seven thousand feet. Extreme levels of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide in the flesh act as anti-freeze, allowing the shark to stay alive in water barely above freezing – but also making the meat highly toxic to humans.
A frighteningly easy process has evolved to deal with the problem.  Hákarl is simply left to rot for six to twelve weeks until it’s completely putrefied and (supposedly) ready to consume.  At Bjarnarhöfn farm, they assured us that this was done in the colder months, so that “it never goes bad.”
To get rid of the toxins, medieval Icelanders discovered that they could piece and bury the fish in sand, then let it slowly rot until most of the poison was gone.  Huge rocks were placed over the sand to press out liquid.  After unearthing the huge creatures, to preserve the meat, they let it dry in open-sided barns.  As Brynjar noted, the process was still much the same – “we never use salt,” he said, “no chemicals, no smoke, it is just pure.”  He did say that the rotting process was done in plastic now, instead of sand.  At their drying house, we could smell the sea better than the shark.  Chickens scratched in the high grass, show horses grazed in the meadows nearby.  Everything felt perfectly clean, scoured by the cool ocean breeze.
We were given a tiny taste of the hákarl, accompanied by a nibble of strong rye bread.  The taste wasn’t as extreme as some have made it out to be – it smells intensely of ammonia, but not more so than a piece of too-old cheese.  The texture was softly chewy, there was little nuance.  It’s fishy stuff, but not overpowering.  One little bite was enough, though, and we had no desire to buy ourselves a packet.  Even Hildibrandur and Brynjar admit that Icelanders only eat the stuff on special occasions, and then only in small quantities.  “It’s very healthy,” they said defensively, perhaps misunderstanding the problem.
Greenland shark have become rarer in recent years, mostly due to unintentional killing by commercial trawlers.  Because there’s not much demand for hákarl, and the fish aren’t eaten otherwise, it’s not a seriously threatened fish – but Bjarnarhöfn Farm has still given up fishing itself and relies on bycatch specimens brought to them by larger boats.  In the past, the big sharks were thrown overboard when they were caught in nets, but now they’re sometimes saved to be sold and cured.
By one of the barns, we noticed this shark’s head drying, stretched out over a plastic barrel.  The skin was rough and studded, the little teeth were less frightening than numerous.
There’s a little museum attached to the farm, where the family has displayed their collection of shark artifacts and other island curiosities.  There are fishing lines and harpoons, stuffed puffins and seals, horse yokes and seashells.  Two wooden boats take up most of the room indoors, and one wall is haphazardly arranged with shark teeth and jaws.  There were baby sharks in formaldehyde; because of the intensely cold water, the Greenland shark incubates its hatched young internally, giving birth to a live litter.
Brynjar showed us a dried patch of polar bear fur, two polar bear claws, the skull of a young whale and a very strange fish skeleton – the oddest things they’ve found in shark stomachs over the years.
Bjarnarhöfn is a beautiful place to visit, on a little triangle of green between the water and the rocky mountains, hemmed in on a third side by the Berserkjahraun (Berserkers Lavafield, in English).  Driving in, we had to stop to let a dozen horses cross the lane in front of us.
It's too bad that Iceland's most infamous specialty food is known primarily for being hard to stomach, but visiting Bjarnarhöfn it was hard not to feel a certain fondness for hákarl.  I can't say that I love it, but it is different and romantic in a certain way - Iceland is a tough landscape, with long winters and cold weather.  One can picture the older inhabitants of the farm holed up, slicing thick hunks of shark, growing to love the peculiar taste, waiting for summer and something fresher.
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