Thursday, September 1, 2011

Drinks Around the World: Brennivin and Hakarl (Iceland)

Iceland is packed with natural wonders, a wild landscape undergoing constant changes by smoldering volcanoes, thunderous waterfalls, steaming lava fields and meandering glaciers.

Iceland's remote existence introduces unusual traditional drinks and food. The traditional national drink, not consumed regularly today, is brennivín. Literally meaning burnt wine, it is made by fermenting the pulp of potatoes and mixing it with caraway seeds. Enjoyed (and I use the word loosely) from a shot glass and served freezing cold, brennivín tastes like a fiery molten rye bread singeing the throat as it is swallowed. This potent caraway-flavoured schnapps is ominously and appropriately nicknamed 'Black Death' (svarti dauði) and could warm the body with one mouthful during the harsh winter months.

For the full traditional Icelandic experience, this firewater is taken with hákarl,a kind of fermented shark meat.

In times past, the long harsh winters and rough seas necessitated a survival instinct with food. Seafood, lamb and seabirds were preserved in many ways, smoked, salted, dried and pickled to provide nutrition and sustenance during the cold. One of the most bizarre foods, from Viking times, is hákarl.

And not just any shark, but Greenland shark. Born without kidneys, the shark is poisonous if eaten fresh. Caught, packed into the shoreline's gravelly beach and weighed down with stones, the toxic liquid is leeched out over a few months before the flesh is wind-dried on racks.

The resulting product is deceivingly served with toothpicks in small cubes like the finest cheese. The pungent ammonia-ridden flavour strikes before the cube first touches the tongue and with a further eye-watering aftertaste similar to cleaning fluid. Once the shock subsides, the next morsel or two are better (blocking the nose helps a little) but hákarl is an acquired taste that most modern Icelanders must struggle with.

I encourage everyone to explore the various local food and drink delicacies of the various countries. Only eaten on a special occasion or served to unsuspecting visitors, brennivín and hákarl provides one of the most challenging and unique eating experiences, with Viking heritage, that shouldn't be passed up and which encapsulates the spirit of this stunningly scenic and rugged volcanic nation.

Photo Credit: black table


Carolyn said...

Thanks for sharing this post as part of WanderFood Wednesday ( The shark sounds, er, interesting... But I'd try it - once!

Mark H said...

@carolyn: It was once for me too with a mixed plate of other equally unique taste experiences.

Mark H said...

@carolyn: It was once for me too with a mixed plate of other equally unique taste experiences.

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