Published July 13, 2007
The journey down to the BSÍ bus terminal for my first bite of boiled Icelandic sheep’s head was not a cakewalk. I wanted to be a man, but I wasn’t sure about this particular rite of passage. How could I possibly devour the head of the cutest animal in the book? I asked myself what kind of pervert does this stuff just for a restaurant review? As a non-Icelander, I knew that finishing the sheep’s head and all its meat would put me into an irreversible category of carnivore – and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be placed there at age 21.
Things got worse when I actually saw Svið for the first time. I simply had not realised that I would be eating a face with eyelids, ear holes and a mouth. For the first time in my life, my food was looking back at me. Until my fork had utterly ravaged the features of the poor sheep I couldn’t help but picture a girl named Mary posting “lost sheep” flyers around 101.
But the difficulty with stomaching Svið was mainly conceptual, as most of the flesh was quite edible. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t rotten shark either. The meat of the cheeks was stringy (like beef pot roast) and certainly the easiest part to digest. At times it was a little salty, but not too different from eating Swiss steak. The cheek meat disappeared to reveal the hideous gum meat, which looked and felt like the inside of a bell pepper, but my formula of four parts ground turnip for every one part Svið helped me to manage it. It also helped to look away from the plate while I chewed the gums, as the sheep’s flat little chompers were fully exposed at this point.
Once I got over the bizarre reflexive complex of tasting another creature’s tongue, I found that this meat was the best. Ultimately, the only parts I avoided were the fatty underside of the animal’s mouth and the thin layer of skin above the nostrils.
While I won’t be one of the hundreds of customers who buys Svið at BSÍ every week, I can understand where the Icelander’s Svið tradition comes from. Yeah, it’s a sheep’s face, but it’s probably one of the cleanest pieces of meat you’ll ever have. Much cleaner than that hot dog you just ate, anyway.