Fermented shark, scorched sheep's head and salted ram's testicles.
These are some of the delicate creations that made Icelandic cuisine famous and infamous. It is food that can bring even the most hardcore food explorers to their knees, and especially rotten shark, reeking with ammonia, is so demanding that even Icelandic natives decline the treat.
Among those natives are chef Ragnar Eiriksson from celebrated Icelandic restaurant Dill in Reykjavik. This year, Ragnar took over from former head chef Gunnar Gislason after Gislason was headhunted by new Nordic guru Claus Meyer to head up Agern in New York.
For a kitchen with strictly Icelandic ingredients, Ragnar—also known as "Raggyman"—is pretty much the perfect anchor. With his long, red beard, unruly hair, and light skin, the jolly head chef fits the image of a North Atlantic culinary viking.
"Here you have the ugliest serving in the world," Ragnar says, with slight triumph, as he places a dish of trout, smoked over shit, in front of tonight's guests. Ragnar is in Copenhagen to create an Icelandic-themed dinner with his North Atlantic "brother from another mother," Solfinn Danielsen from the Faroe Islands, who owns the wine shop Rødder & Vin in Copenhagen, which specializes in natural wine.
When spring reaches Iceland and sheep are released onto the green pastures, they leave behind a thick layer of compressed straw and excrement in the stables. The mixture is cut into blocks which are dried and which quite literally become pieces of shit that are an incredible source of fuel. And it is perfect for smoking fish. This is useful when you live on an island with practically no trees.
Just like most other Icelandic specialities, the shit-smoked trout is not the result of experimental chefs fooling around with ingredients.
"Shit-smoked trout is probably not something they did for the hell of it," Ragnar laughs. "It was sheer necessity back in the days."
Ragnar gets his trout from a local smokehouse outside Reykjavik, but the method is used all over the island. The dish is so common that you can get it in supermarkets, he explains, while arranging the shredded pieces fish in a simple manner, scattered on top a pile of mashed potatoes and a scoop of Icelandic .
Solfinn, who has visited Dill before, matches wines to Ragnar's food at the dinner in Copenhagen's bohemian Nørrebro district, where eight guests get a crash course in modern Icelandic cuisine. In Ragnar's version, that cuisine features neither fermented shark nor ram's balls.
However, you do get shit-smoked fish and dried puffin.
The trout is not that different from your usual smoked fish, but there is a animalistic element to the flavor that stands out. Kind of like the smell of stables, full of wet straw, and soaked in animal piss.
"Yeah, it sounds fucking disgusting," says the wine man Solfinn. "But it gives something unique to the taste, an element of something wild, which actually works quite well."
The Icelandic specialities and the dry, smoked and fermented taste elements are more than welcome in Ragnar's kitchen. His approach is to only use the more extreme flavors as spices and taste enhancers instead of letting them dominate the dishes.
"It's like when you adjust a sound system. You can't turn up all the knobs at the same time, but then it sounds like shit. I like using the extreme flavors for adjustment."
Two years ago, Ragnar returned to his native island in search of love. Before that he had followed in the footsteps of his mentor Paul Cunningham for seven years, initially at The Paul in Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens and later at Henne Kirkeby Kro on the Danish west coast. The Englishman's predilection for simple dishes with massive flavor has clearly influenced Ragnar's cooking.
His serving of puffin, pickled beet, rehydrated cherries, and cream cheese is all the proof you need. The salted and dried puffin breast has turned into an Icelandic take on "beef jerky." The pickled beet is the star while the dried puffin is grated over the dish, providing umami and depth, intensifying the earthy taste of the beet.
A giant piece of monkfish cheek is served with a reduced sauce made from chicken stock mixed with the herb , which is often used for aquavit, and lots of dried Icelandic seaweed, known as söl. We sample Icelandic saltfiskur, dried and salted cod, steeped and rehydrated before being served. The pieces of cod are garnished with crumbled rye bread baked in a geyser. A gimmick, granted, but still clever, when you live on an island with unlimited amounts of raging thermic energy underground.
Even though the two North Atlantic gentlemen look like raw vikings at first glance, they really aren't all that hardcore when it comes to the specialities of their homelands. Solfinn's first and only encounter with fermented Greenland shark was not exactly a pleasure.
"I threw up immediately. My body simply said 'no thank you'. I'm a little picky, like that. I wont eat blubber either."
Ragnar's first and only experience of tasting the rotten herring speciality surströmning was at a party at Henne Kirkeby Kro: "We opened the can in the middle of a field. I vomited instantly. We were drunk, so obviously I tripped later on and fell with my knee into the whole stinking mess. It was the middle of July so we didn't dare throwing the rest in the trash because of the smell. We ended up burying it."
On this night in Copenhagen, nobody vomits and nothing is buried. More than ten years after Icelandic lamb, skyr and seaweed helped inspire Claus Meyer to kickstart the Nordic kitchen revolution, the Icelanders and the Faroese are now themselves on the forefront of a food culture where the extremes of nature are the driving force.
And where it is finally time for shitty trout and puffin.