Weird food: Hakarl (putrified shark)
THE PEOPLE of Iceland have a lot to be proud of: Bjork (apart from that dodgy swan outfit she wore), eye-crampingly awesome volcanos, gushing geysers and the Northern lights – swirls of pinks and greens streaking across the sky like something from a Disney film. But its most famous dish of Hakarl, otherwise known as putrified shark? Not so much.
I’m sitting in Cafe Loki in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Just off the main high street, crammed with quirky shops selling fish-skin handbags and bowls made from radishes, there are so few people, it is as Bjork said, ‘oh so quiet.’
Out of the window I can see the Hallsgrimskirkja, the famous church designed to look like waves of volcanic lava. From its tower, you can see the yawning mouth of the harbour and a medley of multi-coloured corrugated iron roofs. It looks like a Lego village created by someone with a penchant for pastels.
The scenery’s a welcome distraction from the array of culinary horrors on my plate: Rye bread, black bread, dried cod (more about that later), a shot of the country’s signature spirit Brennivin, also known as Black Death, and a pot containing creamy lumps of Hakarl.
The history of Hakarl goes back to Viking times. Greenland sharks, while plentiful, were full of toxins that made them dangerous to eat so the Icelanders found a way of making them (questionably) edible – bury them in sand for six months and leave them to rot.
Dubbed as ‘hardcore’ by Andrew Zimmern and causing Gordon Ramsay to throw up, I don’t fancy my chances with Hakarl but I feign bravado.
‘The pieces aren’t that that big,’ I say. ‘Surely they can’t taste that bad.’
Down the hatch.
It’s cold, clammy, chewy and tastes like the shark had a bad case of Athlete’s foot. Imagine eating the flesh from a corpse and you’re on the right lines.
Worst still, is the overpowering smell of ammonia – that’s right, the stuff in your bathroom cleaner and in urine.
It’s caused by the decomposition of the shark and burns my mouth as it goes down. And how can I put this delicately? What burns on the way in, burns on the way out too!
As the Hakarl slips down my throat and my belly gurgles like a volcano about to explode, I neck the Brennivin. It lassoos my tastebuds and rips them out but I don’t care. It’s heaven after the Hakarl.
So, thanks Iceland for the experience but I think I’ll give Hakarl a miss next time. It’s great to keep up traditions but it feels like my innards have been in a Viking brawl. After all that, I think I owe it to myself to indulge in a less strenuous Icelandic tradition…a soak in the Blue Lagoon.