There are several odd traditional foods of Iceland, including Hakarl, putrid shark meat, and Svid, singed sheep head, sawed in half and boiled. I thought it would be fun to have Ethan try one per day on our eight day visit to the world’s youngest land mass. After all, when would he get another opportunity to eat pickled ram’s testicles?
“I can blog about it!” I said, hahahaha.
“Why don’t you blog about you doing it?” he asked.
“That wouldn’t be as funny,” I answered, plopping a tiny tin of frozen (because fresh would be too… fresh?) rotten shark on the counter of the small Reykjavik market.
“I want to twy the pewtwid shawk!” Ado yelled, the little linebacker always as enthusiastic about food as James Beard. The Greenland shark is so hard on human tummies it has to be buried for six months before it can be digested, and our Lonely Planet guidebook described the smell as being “a cross between ammonia and week old road kill.” Yum.
“But I don’t want to,” Ethan said, sounding as petulant and stubborn as Griffin at bedtime. “It doesn’t sound good.” I glared at him like he was just another whiny child, paid the ten dollars for the shark, and stuck a toothpick into what looked like a cube of feta cheese.
“Rotten fish is not supposed to sound good!” I insisted, the blue-eyed, buxom Icelandic shopkeeper watching to see what would happen next. “You’re doing it in the name of journalism!”
Iceland is a rocky island of purples, browns, yellows and greens rising in splendor from an Atlantic ocean the color of concrete. Slashes of brilliant white glacier bisect fields of wild lupine and lava rock, forever frozen in exotic whirls, bubbles and spikes as it once-upon-a-time tried to reach the sea. In mid July, black storm clouds hung so low across the landscape they seemed to have raked the ground clean of people, wildlife and trees as we headed south from Reykjavik. In high summer, the sun dips only briefly beneath the horizon—and in deep winter it barely comes up. We passed a small church built on top of a twelve-meter deep lava field, and I wondered how hard and how long the locals must pray if they want to stay sane during those long, dark hours.
It’s pretty obvious why the original Icelanders, descendants of Norse sailors who set foot on the island over twelve hundred years ago, had to come up with gourmet dishes like Slatur (a mixture of sheep intestines, liver and lard tied in the animal’s stomach and cooked); to keep from starving they had to use every part of the animal. Sheep happen to fare well in Iceland’s lush, glacier fed valleys, their dainty hooves surefooted on volcanic rock mountains, the tips of which reach into the sky like the gnarled fingers of old women.
The wooly little animals are everywhere, white, brown and the occasional black, even when there is no farm for miles. The rams especially, yellow eyed and surly, seemed to have an uncanny knack for bolting into the road only when my seatbelt was off. Several times, my body snaked halfway into the backseat trying to dig out a coloring book or referee a fight, Ethan would slam on the brakes, sending me hurtling toward the windshield, tires swerving toward catastrophe. Only when we finally skidded to a stop did the horned ones deign to slowly trot off the road. Dumb little buggers they are, but in traditional Icelandic meat soup they are absolutely delicious.
Iceland is a place of firsts for most Americans. In addition to putrid shark and ram’s balls, Iceland has: eight dollar a gallon gas, unpronounceable words like lagarfljotsormurinn (a giant, seafaring worm), a Phallological Museum with 300 penis displays, including a whale and a walrus, liquor stores that are open only from 5-6p.m., and not one McDonald’s on the entire island. It also boasts astonishing, turquoise colored fjords; 100% literacy; friendly, helpful, bilingual people; smoking, burping, bubbling black holes in the ground; and landscapes that make you feel like you’ve landed on the moon–or at least the most desolate side of heaven.
But it is the isolation that felt most strange in Iceland—especially when you leave the Ring Road (the well-traveled tourist track that circles the island). Get off it, and you can drive for miles on dirt roads with only sheep for company and the occasional lonely, old farmhouse if you run out of gas. Every so often, a string of telephone poles served as a reminder that we were in the 21st century instead of the 18th–that machines now milk cows instead of hands and that a person only has to eat putrid shark and drink “Black Death” (the local Icelandic schnapps) if they want to.
In Iceland, we spent our first night of this entire journey in a guest room with a shared bathroom (it wouldn’t be the last). With the local Viking beer costing ten dollars a pint, a codfish dinner forty bucks, and motels $200-$300, we had to choose where we spent our money wisely—and fish and beer easily trumped having our own space.
But when we arrived at the inexpensive Gistiheimilid Hafharnesi in a small fishing village on the Northwest shore, Ethan and I stared in dismay at its third world concrete block appearance. Still jetlagged–and worn out by whiny children and watching icebergs bob around a lake in a freezing summer rainstorm–I almost started to cry. We followed Nina, the young owner, up a metal staircase that would have been more appropriate on a rusty ship to the second floor, where she unlocked the door to Ikea Nirvana. Fluffy white down pillows and comforters lay neatly on three sturdy birch beds. Naked white walls and floors glimmered. And outside our picture window, the Joklasyning glacier sprawled across the mountainside like a spilled blue raspberry snow cone. My three boys snored me into the gift of restful sleep.
But the next morning, over hot coffee and fresh fruit, Nina gave us some bad news. Katla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanos, was acting up.
“There was a big flood last night. The bridge to Reykjavik is washed away,” she said. Washed away as in gone? The same bridge we’d driven over the night before, while reading in Lonely Planet that Katla was a few decades overdue for a catastrophic explosion? We grabbed the guidebook to review this section.
“It’s expected that when Katla does blow,” Lonely Planet warned, “days of poisonous ashfall, tephra clouds and lightning strikes will follow the initial explosion, with flash floods due to the sudden melting of glacial ice.” Oh goody! “Local residents receive regular evacuation training…” Blah, blah, oh shit.
I wondered what Icelandic boat captian I would have to trade all my American dollars, my camera, computer, and I-Pad, and my body if need be to get my family off this cursed rock! Then I realized that since there was nothing we could do to keep Katla from blowing her stack, we might as well just head on down the road. So we bid Nina goodbye and went north, away from the angry Katla, toward a village that the guidebook said served excellent reindeer liver pate.
As of this writing, Katla has not erupted. And Ethan has not eaten one ram’s testicle or sheep eyeball, although I refuse to give up hope. He did, however, try a piece of putrid shark, but only after Adrian shamed him into it by nipping off a small chunk and exclaiming “Yummy in my tummy!”
“It’s not bad,” Ethan agreed, as he munched the rancid flesh. “It’s got a great texture.” But then he began to look alarmed and turned away, looking for somewhere to spit. The shark’s aftertaste, apparently, is the worst part.
“Are you going to puke?” I asked, giggling along with the blue-eyed shopkeeper as he tried to hold onto his fish ball and potato lunch. Then he ran for the bathroom, quite green around the gills. Iceland—it’s food, landscape, prices, volcanos, weather, and scalding hot water that pours from every tap—is not for the wimpy. But it is one of the most incredible places we’ve ever been.