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Lonely planet gave this restaurant an outstanding review, so for our very last meal in Iceland, we headed for Við Tjörnina. The restaurant is very quirkily decorated, like a “1950s drawing room” (Lonely Planet guide), and very brightly lit and inviting.
When we opened the menu, I was delighted to find that they had a starter called “Pickled herring with ryebread, shark and schnaps”. This was what I have been searching for every since we set foot in Iceland. In Iceland, there is a strange local ‘delicacy’ called kæstur hákarl, which translates to “fermented shark”. It is shark meat that has been cured with the most peculiar method.
When fresh, the shark is actually poisonous, so you’d think that people would simply give up and not eat it. However in Iceland, perhaps due to lack of alternative foods, desperate times call for desperate measures. What Icelanders do is that they gut the shark, and place it in a hole in the sand, and pile sand back over the hole to press out all the water in the meat. They leave the shark in the hole for 6-12 weeks to ferment. At the end of it, the shark is taken out and cut into strips and hung to dry for several more months. The result is kæstur hákarl. The dude who first discovered this strange delicacy must have been sick in the head.
So what does it taste like? Surely, after all the effort to preserve and cure this otherwise inedible meat, kæstur hákarl should be the ultimate most delicious thing in the world. I’m sorry folks; this was the singularly most disgusting thing I have ever eaten.
When it arrived, it was placed in a very small bowl at the corner of the plate, with other traditional starters like marinated herring and ryebread. Those were pretty good, but I really wanted to try the shark, as I have heard so much about it. Every source that has commented on the shark has called it foul and disgusting with a strong ammonia smell. The shark was just 3 little innocent pieces, about the size of a cornflake perhaps, and I thought, how bad could it be? I was in for a huge shock.
It was foul and disgusting, just as it was advertised. When I first bit into it I felt the ammonia rush to my nose, and then all of a sudden my entire mouth was filled with the most revolting taste I have ever experienced. I reached for the schnapps immediately, and took a swig. This strong alcoholic drink was the perfect thing to distract me from the taste of that disgusting shark, and even then, it definitely took me a while to get rid of the aftertaste of the shark in my mouth.
Our waiter told us that we’d be surprised how many people actually enjoy kæstur hákarl. We think they’re lying. They probably think it’s manly to say that they enjoy kæstur hákarl, when they’re secretly gagging inside. There is no way in hell that anyone could possibly enjoy that dish. In fact, why anyone would eat it is just beyond me. It’s such a small piece of crap (I mean, shark) that it won’t fill you up, and it takes such a long time to prepare. Worst of all, it’s not even remotely pleasant tasting! I absolutely hated it, but I was very glad that I tried it. This was however, going to be the only time I would voluntarily put that nasty thing in my mouth.
The rest of our meal went on very well.
A’s starter of fried salt cod mousse and langoustine tail on tomato salad was incredibly fresh and the mousse was light and wrapped in the most delicate pastry ever. Our fish soup with cream was also outstanding – full of flavor and yet not too heavy for a starter.
Our mains were also very successful. A had the Langoustines with spinach, garlic-butter and lobster-mayonnaise and I had the Marinated Cod chins. A’s langoustines were perfectly grilled and very fresh. Marinated cod chins seems like a weird choice for me, but it was highly recommended by our guide, and our server, and hey, I’ve ordered weirder things haven’t I? It was also excellent. It seems bizarre to be eating cod chins – it has never crossed my mind for one moment until that meal that fishes actually have chins, but you soon forget that when you dig in. The chins were tender and very tasty.
This meal wrapped up our culinary adventure in Iceland. We were glad that we got to try a lot of exotic meats, Icelandic specialties and delicacies, for better or for worse. We didn’t eat in that many restaurants, but when we did, we made it count. Overall we had a fantastic time travelling in Iceland, seeing the most amazing scenery, the most beautiful waterfalls, and expanding our food horizons.