I was jet-lagged, sleep-starved, and plain ol’ morning-aftered, standing at a frosted-over picnic table outside a natural hot springs in Iceland. Was hurting, to put it straight. My only salve: I was in the expert hands of some Icelanders -- traveling companions rightfully referred to as “buddies" by Icelandair, which will assign you one free if you book a stopover in Reykjavik this winter -- who knew to offer me a rank chunk of what turns out is the world’s gnarliest hangover cure.
Fermented shark, Iceland’s most notorious morsel, comes as cubes closed in plastic lidded containers. You can smell a single crumb from yards away, an aroma like seafood, embalming fluid, and a hint of overripe cheese.
Only an Icelander would think to go for a mouthful of shark -- spongy, tacky, salty, stanky -- to clear the cotton off your brain after an all-nighter. But there it was. And one rank-ass mouthful is all it took to wake all the way up. The group I was with chased that fish meat with hair of the dog -- shots of aquavit -- then showered up and slid into the rocky-bottomed pool of steamy water out back.
When I had the temerity to critique the shark, I learned from one of my guides, Aðalsteinn Gunnarsson, a 28-year-old cargo manager with Icelandair, of an even more grim delicacy. Around Christmas, families in Iceland like to crack open a helping of fermented skate -- as in, the flat fish that looks like a meat-puddle. The odor and taste apparently far surpass mere fermented shark, in what sounds like a tin of rancid masochism. “The smell ruins your shirt, your sweater,” Aðalsteinn explained. This is why, when Icelanders get together in the cold dark near-Arctic winter and share this particular holiday snack, they step outside. The smell is simply so much, he told me, Icelanders eat their skate on the porch wearing as little clothing as they can possibly bear.