It is never easy to talk about Hákarl because the description of this typical Icelandic dish tends to confuse people. In brief, you have to taste it for yourself to realize how it is perceived by the palate. Are you wondering why we are introducing it in such a diplomatic and circumspective manner? This is because the idea of eating shark meat isn’t for everyone. Then, when it comes to eating shark meat that stinks of urine, its level of appeal falls drastically. But… and there is always a but: if you manage to get over the initial impact, possibly by holding your nose between finger and thumb, you may discover a particular flavour which some people even find enticing.
The history of Hákarl
The history of Hákarl is somewhat nebulous, even though it is generally associated with the Viking age. Until then, sharks were contemplated as enemies, or, at the best, as a source of fat for using as a lubricant. Indeed, the meat of the Greenland shark is poisonous and can intoxicate whoever eats it for several days. This is because sharks have no kidneys and therefore expel urine from their entire body. In a few words, its flesh is full of it, with a concentration of urea and trimethylamine oxide that is certainly not very inviting.
It is said that, around 1600, in a fiord to the north west of Iceland, the carcass of a large shark was washed up on the shore. Instead of letting it rot, someone thought of trussing it up in ropes and leaving it to dry. And when, driven by hunger, they decided to eat it, not only did they realize that the meat was edible, but they also found it quite tasty, all things considered. Just a legend? For once, it would not seem to be so, because this is exactly the method habitually used to prepare Hákarl: the shark is hung up vertically, leaving the sun and wind to dry it.
The making of Hákarl
This is obviously a simplification because in actual fact, the process – which has been refined down through the centuries – is much more complex and lengthy. You must bear in mind that fresh shark meat is very fibrous, tough, smelly and, frankly, quite disgusting. This is why the freshly caught shark is beheaded and gutted, these being the parts which deteriorate more rapidly, and buried in a pit excavated in the sand. Then the entire carcass is covered with large stones which act as a sort of press. In this way, the more nauseating fluids are absorbed by the earth during a period which ranges from four to six months. At this point, the shark meat may be cut into strips which are then hung up to dry for a further three or four months.
When ready, Hákarl is served without its characteristic outer crust, diced into small pieces. They are eaten just as they are by habitual consumers or served in a glass topped up with Brennivín, the Icelandic aquavit. In this way, the smell is mitigated and the approach to this food is a bit more gentle.
You will probably have gathered that eating Hákarl is more of a challenge than a pleasure and, in actual fact, it is usually presented to the unwitting tourist in this light. However, there are some who, after tasting it, and this includes myself, liken it to cheese with an intense smell and taste, such as gorgonzola.
De gustibus non est disputandum, as the Latin saying goes. When you taste this delicacy, try not to breathe in through the nose and let your taste buds do all the work, without being overpowered by the strong and nauseating smell.