Fermented Shark and Black Death: A Traditional Icelandic Pairing

by Rebecca Rhoades
( October 6th, 2014 )

Shark head at Shark Museum

Iceland is renowned for its simple, farm-fresh food. Menus throughout the island are replete with lamb, potatoes, and lots and lots of seafood. But despite the quality of product and the ever-imaginative preparations being presented by today’s top Icelandic chefs, the one item that everyone seems to ask about when you mention Icelandic cuisine is hákarl, or fermented shark.

Every TV travel show about the island has to include a segment about this local delicacy, possibly because it’s unique to the country or possibly because it’s notorious for its, how shall I say, unusual flavor. Anthony Bourdain called it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever eaten, and Andrew Zimmern, known for eating just about anything, said hákarl was “hardcore food” and “not for beginners.”

So naturally, when I had the chance to go to Iceland, I knew that I had to make a stop at the country’s epicenter of hákarl, The Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, about 20 minutes west of Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

A large shark-shaped sign on road 54, points you down a long dirt road toward what at first glance appears to be a private farm along the rocky coast. But continue around the first building, and you’ll come across the front of the museum, an unassuming door with a simple sign saying “Come and taste the shark and see how its made.” Admission is 1.000 Icelandic krónur or about $8 U.S.

Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum

I was able to meet with the owner of the museum, the famous “Shark Man” Hildibrandur Bjarnason, a congenial white-haired man with a ruddy complexion, twinkling eyes, and an infectious smile. Hildibrandur spoke little English, but he gladly showed me around the room, filled with mementos of his family’s shark fishing business that dates back more than 400 years. A wooden fishing boat, built in 1860, dominated the center of the room, surrounded by vintage fishing equipment, historic family photos, and taxidermied birds and sea life.

Hildibrandur Bjarnason

A video, in Icelandic, showed how the hákarl is made. Printed materials were available in Icelandic and English for a better understanding.

“This is the Greenland shark,” said Hildibrandur, his wife translating for him. “We can’t eat this shark fresh. It is toxic fresh. There is a lot of ammonia [urea] inside of it.” This urea, along with other toxins, acts as an antifreeze when the shark is alive, allowing it to live in the cold arctic waters.

Hildibrandur no longer fishes for shark like his ancestors did. He purchases 50 to 60 sharks annually. An average Greenland shark weighs about 1,100 pounds and is about 13 feet long.

The shark meat is placed in large containers and weighted down for about six weeks. As the meat decomposes, it oozes toxic ammonia. Afterwards, it is hung in an outdoor drying shed—Hildibrandur’s is located behind the museum—for about four to six months to complete the breakdown process. During the drying process, the toxins form a thick brown crust on the meat, which is then cut off, revealing an edible rubbery white flesh.

Shark drying shed

Shark drying in shed

Detail of drying shark meat

“We eat the shark at special times,” said Hildibrandur. “It’s for when friends come together, family comes together. We eat it like a snack.” Hákarl is also a signature dish of the Thorrablot midwinter festival. And it is washed down with another Icelandic tradition: Brennivin, a clear schnapps made from fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway, cumin, and angelica.

It was soon time to taste the hákarl. I took a piece of dark rye bread and a small cube of shark meat. I sniffed it. There’s no kind way of saying this: It smelled like cat pee. Luckily, the smell is much worse than the taste. The shark was chewy and fishy, with a strange, rather unpleasant, ammonia aftertaste. I downed a shot of Brennivin.

Hakarl or fermeted shark

Sampling the hakarl shark

Known as the Black Death, 80-proof Brennivin tastes similar to vodka, with a slight herbal aroma. Many people I met in Iceland said it tasted heavily of caraway; others leaned more toward the cumin. To me, it was sharp, burning, and flavorless—the perfect follow-up to cut through the fatty film left behind in my mouth from the shark.

Brennivin at Shark Museum

Overall, the experience of eating hákarl was not as bad as I was expecting. As I finished my sample, Hildibrandur stood by, a large grin on his face. He was clearly pleased.

“We are the favorite [hákarl producer],” he said proudly. “People like the shark from here.”

If you’d like to try some hákarl, it is available through some online shops. But if you’re ever in Iceland, be sure to stop by the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum and try some of Hildibrandur’s famous family recipe. Until then, you can learn about the museum at www.bjarnarhofn.is.

Have you been to Iceland and sampled the hákarl? What did you think of it? Or, was there another local “delicacy” that you tried but wished you hadn’t? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Veni, Vidi, Bibi!


—Rebecca


 

All photos © Rebecca L. Rhoades

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Give Your Tongue a Spanking With New Liquor-Infused Spices

by Rebecca Rhoades
( August 22nd, 2014 )

Cooking with alcohol is nothing new. From vodka sauce to tequila-marinated chicken to bourbon balls, spirits have long held a prominent place in the kitchen. I’ve even been known to add a little booze to my meals to give them that extra ‘oomph.’

I also love peppers. A Mexican meal—my favorite, by the way—just isn’t a the same without the smoky goodness of a rich chipotle sauce or the fiery bite of some chopped habeneros.

So when I first heard about the new Liquor & Heat spice line from Chicago-based Tonguespank Spice Company, I was intrigued. I was also skeptical. After all, there are a million spices on the market, and to be honest, why would I want to trade in my handy bottle booze and fresh peppers for a powdered mix?

Tonguespank Spices

Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and I contacted Tonguespank, which generously sent me some samples to review. But first, a little about the spices.

Or maybe I shouldn’t call them spices. After all, Tonguespank likes to refer to them as dry hot sauces. “These are not traditional cooking spices, but condiments meant to replace the old standards of salt, pepper, parmesan, and crushed red pepper at the table,” said the company in an announcement hailing the release of the product line, which consists of four regular blends and one superhot “premium” blend. The current lineup of flavors consists of:

• Smoky Bourbon
Made with Koval bourbon, the blend also features morita chipotle peppers and garlic. According to the marketing materials, it finishes with a slow habenero-and-ghost burn that builds. Recommended uses: eggs, burgers, grilled vegetables.

• Garlic Grappa
Italian brandy mixes with Tuscan herbs, balsamic vinegar and habanero chilies. Recommended uses: pasta, marinara sauce

• Citrus Rum
Spiced rum combines with three different citrus fruits and cloves, with a dash of habanero heat at the end. Recommended uses: pork, seafood. Or, combine with sugar for a spicy tropical cocktail rim.

• Wasabi Sake
The kick of sake pairs perfectly with the up-front hit of wasabi and horseradish, while habaneros leave a long burn that lingers. Recommended uses: fish, seafood.

• Scorpion Bourbon
Tonguespank takes Smoky Bourbon and turns the heat up to 11 by adding Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, the world’s hottest pepper with a heat of
2 million Scoville heat units (SHUs). By comparison, jalapeños come in at just 20,000 SHUs.

It just so happened that the evening I received my samples (Smoky Bourbon, Garlic Grappa, and Citrus Rum), I was planning on grilling burgers for dinner, so I decided to give the Smoky Bourbon a try.

Cooking with Tonguespank spices

The smell was complex—a smoky aroma with just a hint nose-burning heat. But it wasn’t overpowering at all. In fact, I was a little worried that the flavor might not live up to the marketing promises. But in order to truly test the flavors, I chose not to add any additional seasonings or spices to my meat.

The finished burgers were not only juicy, they were extremely flavorful. The initial bites weren’t too hot, but soon the burn kicked in—a little too much burn perhaps, making me wonder if I had used too much of the spice. A little goes a long way. And while the presence of bourbon was questionable, the chil-pepper taste was spicy and rich. This wasn’t just heat for the heat’s sake. This was a complex piquancy that accentuated and complemented the beef—and all without the need for any additional high-calorie sauces or sloppy condiments. Best of all, Tonguespank spices are all-natural with no preservatives.

Burgers

I definitely can’t wait to try the other spices. Next up, some grilled citrus chicken washed down with a rum punch rimmed with Tonguespank spice.

Sound good? Tonguespank Spices are sold exclusively online. You can buy them at https://tonguespank-spice-company.myshopify.com/.

 

Veni, Vidi, Bibi!


—Rebecca


 

Note: I received media samples of these products free of charge. My opinions are completely my own based on my experience with the products.

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Tempt Your Taste Buds With These Tequila-Based Tipples

by Rebecca Rhoades
( July 24th, 2014 )

tacos and margarita

As I mentioned in my previous post about National Tequila Day, there’s more to tequila than margaritas. Following are just a few creative concoctions that will take your taste buds on a tantalizing trip south of the border.

¡Salud!

 

Minted MuleMINTED MULE
Created by Pete Vasconcellos of The Penrose in New York City; photo courtesy of Blue Nectar Spirits Company.

Ingredients
2 oz. Blue Nectar Silver tequila
½ oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. ginger beer
mezcal to float (about ¼ oz.)
5 mint leaves

Instructions
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add tequila and lime juice and shake well. Pour in to a highball glass. Top with ginger beer, and float the mezcal. Garnish with fresh mint leaves.

 

PALOMAPaloma
Recipe and photo courtesy of Trianon Tequila.

Ingredients
2 oz. Trianon Reposado tequila
1 oz. grapefruit soda
Fresh-squeezed lime juice
Kosher salt
Lime slice

Ingredients
Rime a glass with salt and fill with ice. Add tequila and grapefruit soda. Squeeze in fresh lime juice and a pinch of salt. Stir, and garnish with lime slice.

 

 

 

Charro NegroCHARRO NEGRO
Photo and recipe courtesy of Trianon Tequila.

Ingredients
2 oz. Trianon Blanco tequila
1½ oz. cola
Fresh lime juice
Sea salt
Lime slice

Instructions
Rim glass with salt and add ice. Add lime juice, cola, and tequila. Add a pinch of salt and stir. Garnish with lime slice.

 

Veni, Vidi, Bibi!


—Rebecca


Taco and margarita photo © Dave Pisani

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