Rotten shark, anyone? Iceland's menu goes wild
Saturday 01 May 2010
One thing you won't hear in Eythor Halldorsson's restaurant are complaints about the shark being rotten.
It's meant to be.
Months-old, decomposed shark flesh is a delicacy in Iceland, where the traditional menu is as wild as the country of volcanoes and icy waters.
Halldorsson, chef at the Icelandic Bar restaurant in the centre of the capital Reykjavik, serves the dish, called hakarl, in a sealed jar - "to stop the aroma escaping".
That aroma, the diner soon discovers, is between ammonia and blue cheese. So is the taste, accompanied by fishy texture and a burning fizz on the tongue.
The potato vodka called Brennevin that follows is part palette cleanser, part anesthetic.
And hakarl is only one corner of Iceland's exotic culinary landscape.
Whale, puffin, reindeer, horse, ram's testicles and entire sheep's heads are all in the repertoire - not food for the squeamish, but ancient dishes that Halldorsson believes have a place on the modern table.
"I think it's important to stick to your roots," he says.
Vikings would probably approve of the menu at Icelandic Bar, which opened a year ago.
But they'd gasp at the small portions, inventive uses of herbs and artistic arrangements on the plates that accent Icelandic Bar's nouvelle cuisine style.
Halldorsson, just 27, says he doesn't want simply to reheat the methods of his parents' generation where boiled cod or puffin and overcooked whale were the norm.
"I'm trying to do something new," he says.
That bid to add elegance to the exotic could also be the only way to save this gastronomic heritage from oblivion in a country moving from the isolation of the north Atlantic into the globalised, fast-food world.
Ulfar Finnbjornsson, a renowned chef writing for the popular Gestgjafinn food magazine, said "all those disgusting, but very juicy things" are still widely eaten, particularly during the darkness-filled winter festival called Thorrablot.
But he added that times are quickly changing.
"At home we used to eat fish three or four times a week, but now it's different because fish is more expensive and things like pizza and pasta are taking on a growing role."
Outside Reykjavik it can be hard to find much beyond hotdogs, pizza or elaborately named, but mushy hamburgers.
For example, the hotel in the village of Vik, on the treacherous southeast coast, boasts the "Commissioner", a burger topped with a fried egg, while the main cafe in nearby Hvolsvollur offers a burger called "Old and Trusty", a moniker which appears to be at least half-accurate.
- Ancient, modern... or both? Chefs debate -
Not all chefs appreciate Halldorsson's drive to reinvent and reinvigorate the traditional menu.
One skeptic is Fridgeir Eiriksson, chef at the Gallery Restaurant in Reykjavik's Hotel Holt.
He's as inventive as they come: when a volcano produced a minor, but glowing eruption in March, he and three colleagues flew up in a helicopter to cook a gourmet meal with "lots of champagne" on the lava.
He fears the fast food invasion, which he said has gathered pace since the economic crisis here drove up food prices by 10 to 20 percent.
But he thinks no tears should be shed over "old traditions from Iceland like eating the balls of sheep", or "the crazy shark thing with the horrible smell".
"We don't do that stuff here," he says. "We respect traditions about food, not just Icelandic, but also French or European. And we try to use Icelandic ingredients as much as possible."
Finnbjornsson loves the classics, but thinks adding a 21st century touch is futile.
"It's so old-fashioned that I can't imagine making it modern," he says. "I can't imagine ram testicles marinated in whey with ginger and coriander."
Halldorsson, whose restaurant only opened a year ago, is passionate about his calling.
Pointing at a map of Iceland, he explains how this island of just 317,000 people under the Arctic Circle abounds with fresh, organic food, nearly all of it having to be caught, fished or shot.
He gets his whale meat from the north, lobsters from the south-east, puffins from an island in the south, shark in the west, and reindeer meat in the center. "Mutton is good everywhere because the sheep are almost wild," he says.
Availability depends on seasons, even the meat from Iceland's much-loved, long-maned little horses: "I can't put horse on the menu in summer," Halldorsson smiles, "because people are riding them."
Much of what he serves is first smoked, since that was a principal method for preserving food in former times.
The shark is different, being first buried under gravel for two months to drain acids produced by the animal's urine, then hung up for another long spell.
Halldorsson said the Icelandic pop singer Bjork is a fan of the outlandish fare. "She always eats here when she's in Reykjavik."
The young chef says that when he was growing up his family ate pizza one day a week as a treat. Although that balance has been turned on its head, he believes interest in the old ways is being rekindled.
"The biggest selling cookbook last year was on traditional cooking," he says. "People want to do it at home - and have pizza the other six days."
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