Iceland is renowned for its simple, farm-fresh food. Menus throughout the island are replete with lamb, potatoes, and lots and lots of seafood. But despite the quality of product and the ever-imaginative preparations being presented by today’s top Icelandic chefs, the one item that everyone seems to ask about when you mention Icelandic cuisine is hákarl, or fermented shark.
Every TV travel show about the island has to include a segment about this local delicacy, possibly because it’s unique to the country or more likely because it’s notorious for its, how shall I say, unusual flavor. Anthony Bourdain called it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever eaten, and Andrew Zimmern, who’s known for eating just about anything, said hákarl was “hardcore food” and “not for beginners.”
So naturally, when I had the chance to go to Iceland, I knew that I had to make a stop at the country’s epicenter of hákarl, The Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, about 20 minutes west of Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
A large shark-shaped sign on road 54 points you down a long dirt road toward what at first glance appears to be a private farm along the rocky coast. But continue around the first building and you’ll come across the front of the museum, an unassuming door with a simple sign saying “Come and taste the shark and see how its made.” Admission is 1.000 Icelandic krónur or about $8 U.S.
I was able to meet with the owner of the museum, the famous “Shark Man” Hildibrandur Bjarnason, a congenial white-haired fellow with a ruddy complexion, twinkling eyes, and an infectious smile. Hildibrandur spoke little English, but he gladly showed me around the room, filled with mementos of his family’s shark fishing business that dates back more than 400 years. A wooden fishing boat, built in 1860, dominated the center of the room, surrounded by vintage fishing equipment, historic family photos, and taxidermied birds and sea life.
A video, in Icelandic, showed how the hákarl is made. Printed materials were available in Icelandic and English for a better understanding.
“This is the Greenland shark,” says Hildibrandur, his wife translating for him. “We can’t eat this shark fresh. It is toxic fresh. There is a lot of ammonia [urea] inside of it.” This urea, along with other toxins, acts as an antifreeze when the shark is alive, allowing it to live in the cold arctic waters.
Hildibrandur no longer fishes for shark like his ancestors did. He purchases 50 to 60 sharks annually. An average Greenland shark weighs about 1,100 pounds and is about 13 feet long.
The shark meat is placed in large containers and weighted down for about six weeks. As the meat decomposes, it oozes toxic ammonia. Afterwards, it is hung in an outdoor drying shed—Hildibrandur’s is located behind the museum—for about four to six months to complete the breakdown process. During the drying period, the toxins form a thick brown crust on the meat, which is then cut off, revealing an edible rubbery white flesh.
“We eat the shark at special times,” says Hildibrandur. “It’s for when friends come together, family comes together. We eat it like a snack.” Hákarl is also a signature dish of the Thorrablot midwinter festival. And it is washed down with another Icelandic tradition: Brennivin, a clear schnapps made from fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway, cumin, and angelica.
It is soon time to taste the hákarl. I take a piece of dark rye bread and a small cube of shark meat. I sniff it. There’s no kind way of saying this: It smells like cat pee. Luckily, the smell is much worse than the taste. The shark is chewy and fishy, with a strange, rather unpleasant, ammonia aftertaste. I quickly chase it with a shot of Brennivin.
Known as the Black Death, 80-proof Brennivin tastes similar to vodka, with a slight herbal aroma. Many people I met in Iceland said it tastes heavily of caraway; others leaned more toward cumin. To me, it was sharp, burning, and flavorless—the perfect follow-up to cut through the fatty film left behind in my mouth from the shark.
Overall, the experience of eating hákarl was not as bad as I was expecting. As I finish my sample, Hildibrandur stands by, a large grin on his face. He is clearly pleased.
“We are the favorite [hákarl producer],” he says proudly. “People like the shark from here.”
If you’d like to try some hákarl, it is available through some online shops. But if you’re ever in Iceland, be sure to stop by the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum and try some of Hildibrandur’s famous family recipe. Until then, you can learn about the museum at www.bjarnarhofn.is.
Have you been to Iceland and sampled the hákarl? What did you think of it? Or, was there another local “delicacy” that you tried but wished you hadn’t? I’d love to hear your experiences.