Hákarl, or fermented Greenland shark, is for sure one of the most ‘Marmite’ moments you’ll ever have. On the northern coast of the peninsula and across the intriguingly named Berserker lava field is a farm that specialises in the production of Hákarl. There’s no way to pretty it up. The smell is one of the worst and in my view, the only way to eat it is when followed by a chaser of Brennivin, Iceland’s alcoholic fire water. I’ve also decided that even then, I’m really only prepared to commit if I can raise a substantial sum for charity or in aid of my own tree planting project.
Even though this is the only thing about Iceland that I really dislike, the story of the shark is fascinating. Facts about the Greenland shark are many, but other than its great longevity (between 250-500 years), and that it eats just about anything, it’s because its flesh contains high levels of a urea-type chemical that makes this such a significant culinary tale. The Greenland shark is not hunted by Icelanders, but every now and then in the past, one would be landed along with other fish and as food was always scarce and nothing wasted, the shark could not be discarded. Through hard-learned lessons, the Icelanders discovered that the flesh of this enormous potential food source was toxic to humans and that the way to overcome this was by fermentation.
Over the years, the determined Icelanders worked out that the flesh could be drained of its toxic fluid and fermented, before being cut into large strips to be hung out to dry. The slabs of drying shark turn a rich brown on the outside and really do look like legs of lamb.
The drying sheds have roofs but no sides and the drying shark strips are exposed to the winds that blow in off the sea. The final stage of the process is to cut the flesh into small white cubes that look very much like feta cheese, especially as they will often be served on a cocktail stick accompanied by thick rye bread slices and Icelandic butter. Though it’s likely that the aroma of ammonia will warn you that this isn’t the feta that you are used to, best to beware when you see a small white cube on a stick. Years ago, I bought a few postcards from the farm, where there is also a large collection of maritime memorabilia. When I got back home and unpacked, I couldn’t work out what the smell was until I came to my paper bag containing my special perfumed postcards from West Iceland!