The eye is the best part : Icelandic cuisine

“Are you going to eat the eye?” Jón asked casually. “That’s the best part.”

He pointed his fork towards the eye in question, still attached to  the unfortunate sheep whose head we were dining on. I say dining, Jón (my Icelandic friend and guide to his country’s cuisine) had had the wolf’s share of this grisly meal, while I had merely choked down a few morsels of gristle. I had always been a keen carnivore, but eating a sheep’s head turned my stomach.

It was my second day in Reykjavík and I had begged Jón to show me some traditional Icelandic food. The previous evening in town I had been shocked by the Icelanders’ obsession with hot dogs and pizza, which they guzzled down at alarming rate on every street corner.

“It’s the Americans’ fault” Jón  sighed while tucking into a greasy hot dog, referring to the unpopular airbase in nearby Keflavík. The airmen may have gone home but their food still remains. “But,” he continued, “it’s a hell of a lot better than what we used to eat!”

Suddenly intrigued, I insisted that the next night we should eat like his ancestors. Jón’s face lit up, both in surprise and devilish delight. What had I let myself in for?

Having somehow forced down the sheep’s eye (which actually proved surprisingly tasty) the food grew yet more bizarre. A plate of what looked like dog food was placed before us, with the grayish meat neatly sliced into bite-size cubes.

“I want you to guess what this is” Jón said with a grin.

The meat was sour and left a metallic taste at the back of the mouth, but yet again proved oddly delicious. Shoveling in another mouthful, Jón ruined the moment:

“That’s pickled ram’s testicles you’re eating.”

It would have been better not to know. Still, it was more interesting than fast food and probably much healthier too, in a very strange kind of way. My friend agreed:

“I am glad that we still eat this stuff, even if it’s just for fun these days. Not so long ago this stuff kept the people alive during the winter.”

In a country obsessed with its history and sense of identity, traditional foods remind the people what it is to be Icelandic. Although now they enjoy all the comforts of the 21st century, with one of the highest standards of living anywhere, through their cuisine Icelanders remember the struggles their forefathers encountered in an often unforgiving climate.

Taking a shot of schnapps with the unnerving name of “Black Death”, Jón fixed me with another devilish look.

“Now, how about some rotten shark?”

This is an article written for a competition at Rough Guides, for which I was shortlisted in May 2013.

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