H2 IN ICELAND: YEP IT’S A SHEEP’S HEAD
The next morning, Magga decided it was time to introduce me to some weird shit.
I knew it was coming, and had steeled myself but, nothing quite prepares you for Swid (pronounced swith) one of the most traditional dishes in Iceland.
Bizarrely, although it can be found in the chiller section of the supermarket, there are only a couple of restaurants that still sell this and the best known is situated in the island’s main bus station, where travellers can be found chowing down on a bit of head action before getting a bus to some remote part of the country.
We trudged up there in the snow, past the city lake which, in temperatures that reached -11o, had frozen over allowing the local college kids to use it as a makeshift football pitch.
By the time we arrived, I could barely feel my toes and, those who know me will not need me to give any description of the state my ears were in. I was ready for something warm and filling. I wasn’t quite ready to have something that stared back at me.
But, that is what you get with Swid, a dish that basically comprises a sheep’s head that is split in two, has the brain removed, is then singed with a torch to remove the wool and then boiled. It is served with the teeth still very much in the jawbone and the eye (considered a bit of a delicacy) staring balefully back at you. To make sure the food groups are all covered, it comes with a mound of mashed potatoes and swede.
Magga dived in like a good ‘un and insisted that I take the choice morsel that was the eye while she hacked at the fatty jowl. After cleaning that, the next stage is to rip open the jaw to reveal the tongue, another hidden treat.
It is not as bad as one would imagine and, as you can see from the pictures, we did a pretty good job of cleaning the skull down to the bone. Magga, a woman after my own heart, then picked up the whole thing and began to chomp on it. Although hardly the prettiest plate of food you will see, the combo of salty, fatty lamb is strangely addictive and certainly warms the cockles.
The snow was really whipping down by now and Magga had to head off to do some of her own stuff but pointed me in the direction of Bæjarins Beztu, reykjavik’s most famous street stall serving Iceland’s own particular version of the hot dog. As well as the frankfurter, it involves a filling of crispy fried onions, raw onions, sweet mustard and a remoulade sauce. The whole makes a pleasing combination and the sausages are good quality which combine well with the crunch of the two types of onion. Almost inevitably there is a picture of Billy Jeff pinned up inside the stall. Is there a hot dog stand on earth he hasn’t visited?
By now, it was time to get ready for the evening. Reykjavik is, quite rightly known as one of the great party towns of the world and its main drag, Laugavegur, has more bars than you can shake a sheep’s head at and attracts visitors from all over Europe for its club scene.
Given the price of drinks in bars, the SOP is for people heading out to go to the local liquor store and buy beer and wine to drink at home so they are well and truly buzzed before heading out to the clubs where they limit themselves to one or two of the horrendously priced drinks.
So, it was I found myself sucking down a few beers, sitting in the flat of my host Erla while Magga and her group of twenty something, Icelandic friends walked around in various states of readiness, primping and preening for their night out all the time talking about their love lives and boob sizes. The fact that they had a plump, forty something man sitting in their midst with a big grin on his face seemed to phase them not at all. Every now and then life stops kicking you in the ass.
It was nearly midnight by the time we went out and I was dragged from club to club for nearly five hours not getting back until way past my bedtime, which did make me a little tired and emotional yesterday. I am, quite frankly, too old for this shit and have to admit that the sight of young Icelandic lovelies cavorting did not stop me pining for a warm bed, a mug of cocoa and my latest James Lee Burke novel.
It also meant that, when combined with some foul weather, I was tempted not to stray too far from my accommodation on my last day in town
I did however return to the UK with a few foodie reminders of my trip. This time of year, originally named after the god, Thor, saw people preparing to use up the last of their preserved meats in preparation for the new Spring. The Thorroblot was a celebration of the end of the coldest part of winter and involves a feast comprised of some of the more challenging foods you are going to find, well just about anywhere.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to subject HP to sour ram’s testicles or sour seal flippers, but, I did mule back three staples of a thorroblot feast. Blodmor, a haggis like black pudding. Brennevin, a schnapps made, I think, from carraway and, finally, the mother of all challenges, Hakarl which is shark meat buried and allowed to rot for six months until it stinks of bad cheese and amonia.
It is sitting in the fridge waiting to be tried tomorrow.
Never let it be said I am less than the most thoughtful of brothers