They say necessity is the mother of invention. In Iceland, the need for foods to last through potentially lengthy periods of shortage and strife is clear in the ways they’ve been traditionally prepared. Some foods are salted, some are fermented and others still are putrefied. But another culinary practice that has stood the test of time without (to our knowledge, at least) boosting blood pressures or inducing nausea is drying.
If there were a poster child of dried foods in Iceland it would be the humble harðfiskur. Traditionally, the dried fish would spend months air-drying on wooden seaside racks before being pounded with a mallet into supple strips of fish jerky. But modern times call for modern methods.
“In four or five days we’re imitating the process that has been done for centuries in Iceland.”
We spoke with Von Iceland owner and managing director Þór Hauksson about the longevity of harðfiskur and how it’s made today.
“Harðfiskur is dried fish,” Þór explains matter-of-factly. “It is one of the oldest materials (Icelanders) have sold abroad and something we have been eating since people first came to Iceland.”
The dried fish remains a beloved staple of the Icelandic diet and can be found in just about every grocery or convenience store you’ll come across around the island — usually with packs of butter nearby for a quick combo buy. At Von, Þór and his team are producing the traditional food in much the same way Icelanders of yore did, with an upgraded assist from the elements.
“(Our ancestors) dried the fish outside, so our factory process is imitating how it was done in the past, where you’re using the wind, which we have a lot of in Iceland, and the cold, as we also have a lot of that,” Þór explains. “Originally, they were hanging the cod outside for five or six months, but today we’ve cut that down to four or five days. So in four or five days we’re imitating the process that has been done for centuries in Iceland.”
Luckily for food purists — and the healthiness of harðfiskur is one of its major selling points today — cutting back on drying time doesn’t require that anything is added to the fillets.
“The main thing is that the fillet or fish is prepared as if you’re going to put it in the oven to cook it yourself. But instead of putting it in the oven, we put it on trays and it goes into the driers,” Þór says, only having to clarify when I note that I would hit my fillet with some salt and pepper before tossing it in the oven. “We don’t add any ingredients with the fish. It’s more of a sushi method.”
“More and more young people are reading packaging and are more mindful of what’s in the food they’re eating,” Þór explains, diving into the ways Von is modernising more than just the way harðfiskur is made. The Hafnarfjörður-based family-run company has also updated its packaging to appeal to younger Icelanders and has made all its packaging recyclable — a far cry from the twist-tied clear plastic bag the pungent strips of fish were exclusively sold in just a decade ago.
“We don’t add any ingredients with the fish. It’s more of a sushi method.”
Oh, and about the smell, apparently the thinner the fish is cut the less it smells. Þór and his team found that out when creating their latest take on harðfiskur. Crunchy Fish are uniform potato chip-like morsels of harðfiskur that look like a chip but they’re actually 100% fish. They’re dried in a way that makes them puff up into crunchy little bites. “It’s just like any other dried fish we make, but it’s thinner and they all look the same,” Þór tells me. “We don’t know why, but it doesn’t have the same smell as the other harðfiskur.”
It’s a mystery for the ages.
To Skin or Not To Skin?
Getting back to how modern day harðfiskur is made — you know, because the article is called “How It’s Made” — one key step Von takes when preparing their fillets is removing the skin before drying. Since the skin on harðfiskur isn’t edible, you’d think that’s a no-brainer, but then you’d be wrong.
“A lot of older people in Iceland like to have to peel the skin off,” Þór says. “It’s kind of a custom for some people, but there aren’t many people who still like to have it with the skin on.”
It turns out that making harðfiskur less messy, less smelly and less work makes it far more appealing for consumers who want to eat it in public.
Order your own Crunchy Fish from the Grapevine Store for a protein-rich taste of Iceland.
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