I had been stubbornly ploughing through mounds of snow overlaying a sheet of ice one Sunday morning when a blind turn greeted me with a wall of snow the height of my Grand Cherokee. Everything went white and the SUV licked the edge of the sheer 200-foot drop into the portion of the North Atlantic known as Breiðafjörður before it slid back to the rock wall and stranded us in a ditch. I learned that my last words will probably be a protracted “fuck.”
We were eventually dragged out of the ditch by a tow truck semi-trailer that had gotten stranded further up ahead and ended up paying it forward by pulling two other cars out of ditches that weekend. Despite the inauspicious start, my belief that West Iceland should be the nexus of Icelandic food tourism was unshaken. West Iceland (not to be confused with the Westfjords) has been growing into a foodie’s paradise. Highend restaurants are in short supply, but the region boasts the only heritage goat farm; several farm-to-table operations with organic mutton and beef; yearround vegetable markets; excellent creameries; and Iceland’s most famous fermented shark purveyor, Hildibrandur Bjarnason of Bjarnarhöfn, the man I had risked my life to find. The literal translation of his name and farm is “Battlesword Son of Bears from Bear Harbour.”
Blind seal-eaters from the cold abyss
Being considered the face of rotten shark may not be everyone’s idea of a prestigious title, but Hildibrandur wears it with pride. A rosy-cheeked and erudite man with a playful glint in his eyes, Hildibrandur speaks with the breathy and elevated tone you sometimes get with older gents in the rural areas. When we arrived, he was in the midst of discussing local politics with a visiting farmer over milksop biscuits and black coffee. However, he happily got up to give us a private tour of his shark museum.
“The shark we use is caught off the coast of Iceland and Greenland. It seems the ones caught off the northern coast of Norway can’t be processed as well. And processing the fish elsewhere is simply not possible—the Faroe Islands are too dry and Greenland is too wet,” Hildibrandur tells us. “There are a few places that seem to work best for the processing here in Iceland. I will get into trouble if I say that Bjarnarhöfn is the best place to process shark… So I won’t say that,” he laughs.
He tells us that the sharks aren’t caught near Bjarnarhöfn, as it’s too shallow for them. “The Greenland shark is a deep-sea fish, living in cold, dark waters, as deep as 3,000 feet, and has evolved some of the most acute electroreceptors on the planet,” Hildibrandur says with unbridled admiration for his prey. “They don’t rely on their eyesight much and many of them suffer from a parasite that eats at their corneal tissue, leaving them almost completely blind. But the upside is that the parasite glows in the dark and the shark’s prey is attracted to it.”
Poisoning the magistrate
The traditional Icelandic fermented shark, known locally as “kæstur hákarl” after it has been processed, is made exclusively from the flesh of the Greenland shark. It is one of the largest species of shark, growing up to 2,000 pounds and 24 feet in length. The Greenland shark can live to be 200 years old, meaning that you might have eaten a fish that remembers the battle of Waterloo (there were fighting sharks there, right?). Their mouths contain rows of interlocking teeth, an upper row used to lock into place and a lower row to saw through the flesh of its prey. This is why Hildibrandur has to bait the shark using chains as opposed to line. “We mostly use chunks of seal,” he says when I ask him how they catch them. “The bait needs to be fat because it leaves an oil slick in the water that attracts the sharks.”
The Greenland shark is a cartilaginous fish and doesn’t have kidneys as we’d know them, which causes a buildup of urea and other toxins in the flesh, which can’t be extracted using traditional cooking methods. Thus, the method of fermentation.
“The tradition is said to have begun in Asparvík up north in the year 1601,” he says. “It was discovered by accident, as the shark had always been considered poisonous. A shark was pulled to land and left to rot, and then someone thought to hang it up to dry but no one was brave enough to taste it. The story goes that the county magistrate and his cronies would demand food wherever they went, even from peasants unable to feed their kin. So the farmer invited him to the wooden shed to try the shark as no one would care if it turned out to be poisonous. Quite the contrary, the magistrate and his men, who all suffered from scurvy and dysentery, found themselves in robust health after a week of eating fermented shark.”
The fermented Greenland shark has not been fully researched, but there is some evidence to suggest that it is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamins A and D, and it may also strengthen the immune system by increasing white blood cell and platelet counts. In particular, Hildibrandur says the liver, a 300-350-pound slab of which is found in each Greenland shark, seems to have the highest concentration of beneficial nutrients, and laments the missed opportunity in health marketing, as it could be a way to restore the shark liver to its glory days of the 19th century, when every European metropolis was lit up with burning shark oil.
Huffing bags of raw shark
The museum doesn’t look like much from the outside but it’s actually quite a fascinating little place. The space is jam-packed with antique tools and weapons, boats, shark info sheets, shark skeletons, shark stomach contents, and stuffed local fauna.
On the hill above the museum sits a drafty wooden shack where the shark meat hangs. It’s the size of a large garage, made of worn-out wooden planks with wide gaps between them. “We pack the meat into boxes for six to eight weeks for fermentation without salt or other preservatives. Temperatures can’t go over 5°C but the lower limits are not an issue because of the shark fat’s natural resistance to frost. Then we hang it from the rafters of the hut in early spring where it is left exposed to the elements for four to five months. The meat takes on a thick dark crust but underneath you will find the familiar pallid yellow colour.”
As mentioned, the ageing and fermenting is essential, as the meat is chockfull of urea and neurotoxins. A little further research tells me that the Greenland shark neurotoxin is trimethylamine oxide, which breaks down into trimethylamine and can cause a feeling of drunkenness. Now, I am not advocating that teenagers start huffing bags of raw shark in alleyways, all I’m asking is that they consider it.
Anthony Bourdain is a big old sissy
So, we have toxic, urine-soaked sea monsters from the freezing abyss. The next logical question is: What does it taste like?
Fermented shark most resembles durian, a ten-pound fruit that looks like a spiked ball and smells like leprosy. It’s known to some as the Burzum of the fruit kingdom. When raw, shark has the same texture and creamy colour as durian flesh. It is encased in a similarly spiky exterior—and once it has experienced weeks of controlled rot, it starts to take on a similar smell.
It’s hard to describe the flavour of fermented shark, but a tangy cheese comes close. It’s far less fishy than you’d expect, although visits to the fermenting shack are not for the weak of stomach. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain famously called “hákarl” the worst thing he had ever eaten. This may have been coloured by an overall miserable visit to Iceland or by the fact that Anthony Bourdain is a huge sissy.
Don’t listen to Bourdain, go try some hákarl. And if you have the chance, make the trip up to Bjarnarhöfn to visit Hildibrandur and get it straight from the shark’s mouth. Just remember to pack some snow chains.
1,000 ISK buys you access to the museum and a free tasting of hákarl and Brennivín. The museum is located about two hours from Reykjavík on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and is easily accessed during the warmer months. The museum is open 09:00-18:00, you can contact it via phone on 438-1581, or visit its website.