We all know that Icelanders have been eating sheep and fish essentially since the island was first colonised. But this wasn’t all they ate, and when times were hard, the locals consumed whatever came to hand.
This often included food that many today don’t find remotely appetising, but this historic tradition has stuck. We’re referring to fermented shark.
Fermented Greenland shark, or “hákarl”, is no longer a regular addition to a meal for most Icelanders. However, it is still made in several parts of the country, as many tourists want a taste. One of the best-known producers of hákarl is Bjarnarhöfn farm, the curators of the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum.
To reach this museum which is located in a remote part of the country, you’ll need a rental car. Hire yours at Reykjavik Cars.
Important Details About the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum
Eager to visit this peculiar museum? Here’s all you need to know:
- Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum Cost: Entry to the museum costs ISK. 1.800 per adult.
- How to get to Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum: The museum is located on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, north-west of Reykjavík. It’s just over two hours from Reykjavík, following Route 1 north, then Route 54, then Route 56.
The museum is fairly remote so using your GPS is a good idea. You can find the GPS co-ordinates here.
- Opening hours. The museum is open every day from 9am to 6pm, but this may change between different seasons of the year.
Iceland’s Premier Shark Museum
Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, located in west Iceland, is run by a family who have been working with sharks for centuries, and paying a visit is definitely one of the top things to do in Iceland. Where once the family would actively fish for sharks to produce hákarl, they now take only bycatch.
The Shark museum has become one of Iceland's top museums, so when you visit, you’ll learn about the process in-depth from the country’s leading experts.
The museum’s guided tour will teach you all about the history of shark fishing in Iceland. You’ll even visit the drying house where some meat will be undergoing the preparation process. And best (or maybe worst) of all, you’ll get to sample some hákarl, made in-house, for yourself.
The shark meat is traditionally paired with a locally-produced spirit, known as Brennivín, so you can sample that too. Other shark and fish-derived products are also available to taste. This shark museum is a historical, cultural and culinary experience all rolled into one.
If you happen to like the taste, there’ll be plenty of hákarl to take back home.
The Greenland Shark
So, let’s talk about the animal behind the edible delicacy. The Greenland shark, native to the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, is one of the largest shark species. Generally, they grow to be 6.4 m (21 feet) long and weigh over 1000kg (2,200 pounds).
The Greenland shark has the longest lifespan of any known vertebrate animal. It’s estimated that an individual lives up to 500 years.
The species also spends most of its time at extreme depth, sometimes deeper than 2000 meters below the ocean’s surface. For this reason, its body has developed special adaptations to deal with the intense pressure.
Greenland shark's meat is toxic if untreated. The blood of Greenland sharks contains high concentrations of urea and trimethylamine oxide. These chemicals actually make the meat poisonous to eat when fresh. And so, Icelanders developed a long process to make the shark meat edible.
The Process of Making Hákarl
In order to make hákarl fit for human consumption, it must be stripped of its trimethylamine oxide, fermented and dried. The treatment lasts for several months, so it’s not an easy meal to make. You will see this first hand at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum.
The first step in making the fresh shark meat edible is to bury it for six to eight weeks. Then it is dug up, cut into strips and hung up indoors for several months. During this time, a brown crust will develop on the meat’s exterior. The crust is cut away and the meat is then ready to be served.
When you have some hákarl in front of you or even close by, you’ll instantly notice a strong ammonia smell. Some love the taste, others hate it, and a few begin to like it after several tries. So, where can you sample the delicacy for yourself? Well, where better than the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum?
Hakarl and Icelandic cuisine
If by this point you are feeling anxious about the food you will come across in the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, fear not. There are many typical dishes in Icelandic cuisine that do not require so much courage. But the Harkal is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic.
Now only one question remains: will you be bold enough to try it? Let us know!