Putrified shark anyone?

I’ve been spending a few days in Iceland with a few friends and came across this interesting little place – Iceland’s Shark Museum – that I thought you might like to hear about. The highlight of the museum is that they offer tastings of putrified or rotten shark, a local specialty, apparently. 

Original shark hunting boat (1860)

There’s a seven minute video presentation that is narrated, in real life, by the most cheerful-looking Icelandic chap you can imagime. He looks like he might have a little of the local elf-blood in his heritage and wears a wide, cheeky grin from ear to ear. 

We learned that shark physiology is quite different from humans, having huge livers a tenth their bodyweight but tiny kidneys. Urine is dissipated around their body as an antifreeze, which makes fresh shark meat unsuitable for human consumption. 

Shark skin: like a jagged rough grade sandpaper

Our guide’s family have been hunting sharks for generations. The oil from sharks’ livers was used as a lamp oil – it burned slower and was less sooty than other oils. However, demand for the oil disappeared in the 1950s with the introduction of mass produced electricity. 

At some point around 400 years ago, someone in Iceland discovered a method for making the shark meat edible. The shark is gutted and cut into 10kg chunks. It’s packed into crates making sure the skin is on the outside to protect the flesh from the elements and from flies. Apparently flies LOVE rotting shark flesh. Luckily Iceland’s climate is so cold most of the time there are hardly any flies. 

After the flesh has been left for two months, the 10kg chunks have drained most of the toxins and now weigh around 2kg. At this stage, our guide says the meat smells absolutely terrible, and he has to have at least two showers a day, but usually 3. Any clothes worn when handling the meat need to be discarded as the smell can’t be washed off. 

Don’t sniff, just pop it in!

The drained flesh is then hung up for another 4 months to dry, during which time it develops a hard brown crust around the white meat. This crust also helps prevent against attack from flies. The family has a saying: “When it smells bad enough, it smells good”. This is how they know it’s ready to eat. Our guide joked that it’s “Pure shark – gluten free and everything”, adding that it’s super healthy and full of protein – too rich to eat a lot of. 

Putrified shark & rye bread

We then had a chance to taste the putrified shark. As a hardcore vegetarian I gave it a miss, but I did have a good sniff. The smell was fishy ammonia that left me feeling nauseous for hours. Some of our travelling companions tried it and a few seemed to like it. Surprisingly, it looked fresh and tasters reported it had the consistency of paneer cheese. I asked one of the tasters what it tasted like and the reply was “Like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. There’s a bizarre aftertaste of ammonia that you get in your nose a few moments after popping it in your mouth”. 

Stuffed seal on display

As well as the local delicacies on offer, there’s also a museum showing shark bones, lots of taxidermy from the local wildlife and other shark paraphernalia. They’ve found some incredible things inside sharks’ stomachs, such as sealskin but even more surprisingly, polar bear skin (by the way, apparently polar bears occasionally swim all the way from Greenland and end up on Iceland). 

Polar bear skin from a shark’s stomach

There’s lots to see in the local area. Obviously volcanoes, lava fields and bleak snowy landscapes are everywhere. The fjords that have been carved out by ancient glaciers form beautiful valleys and lakes. There’s also a load of folklore associated with Icelandic literature that’s been written in a geographically correct way. Reading the Sagas whilst exploring the landscape would make a very fun break. 

Where to find the shark museum