Hakarl and Brennivin:
An Acquired Taste
To globe-trekking celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain it’s “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever eaten. Gordon Ramsay exclaimed “Bloody hell!” before violently spitting it out. But in Iceland, Hakarl and Brennivin is a quintessential dish, equivalent to American apple pie.
OK, maybe hákarl is not quite as common as apple pie. But the fermented shark meat is most definitely a uniquely Icelandic “delicacy” (depending who you ask, of course). Traditionally, hákarl is prepared from the meat of a Greenland shark, which is so full of chemicals urea and trimethylamine oxide that it’s poisonous when fresh.
Fortunately—and we use that word loosely—Icelandic Vikings came up with a solution: the meat is buried in a hole and then covered with sand and gravel for two months, allowing the earth to rid the meat of its toxic chemicals. It’s then hung and dried for several more months, where it develops a brown crust that’s removed before serving. Traditionally, eating hákarl has been interpreted as a sign of strength, which makes sense once you’ve actually smelled it; it’s said hákarl smells even stronger (note that we didn’t say “better”) than it tastes.
As Ramsay briefly mentioned in the clip above (before reaching for a bucket), hákarl is often served with brennivin, Iceland’s signature spirit. Brennivin is traditionally served cold and in a shot glass, but if you’re hoping it will wash away the taste of hákarl and return your mouth to a pleasant (or at least neutral) state, think again. Literally meaning “burning wine,” brennivin is an 80-proof liquor made from fermented grain or potato mash, similar to vodka, and flavoured with cumin, caraway, and angelica, among other things.
While neither hákarl nor brennivin are for the uninitiated, both are considered delicacies by those who have acquired the taste. (Though you may have trouble finding such people…)