A Guest Fishue by a Modern-day Icelandic Viking, Markus Ingi Gudnason

In November of every year, Black Trumpet holds a Beer and Game Dinner comprised of wild and exotic foods paired with experimental/small batch brews from local breweries. In the past the menu has consisted of anything from the traditional game meats such as venison and wild boar to the extremes of iguana, llama, camel, hare, python, bear and insects. Last year Smuttynose Brewery produced a rich Porter brewed with black trumpet mushrooms, mostly foraged by the kitchen staff of Black Trumpet. Chef Evan Mallett has always found a way to come up with new ways to source ingredients and serve them creatively.

Black Trumpet Bistro Beer and Game Dinner

Black Trumpet Bistro Beer and Game Dinner

So what does this have to do with “Fishues,” and why am I writing an entry? My name is Markus Ingi Gudnason and I have been working in the kitchen at Black Trumpet for 2 years, and Sarah VanHorn asked me to share my experience traveling in Iceland and tell about this year’s Beer and Game dinner where we served a traditional custom of my Icelandic heritage, hákarl and Brennivin. At the annual Viking-inspired mid-winter festival, þorrablót, eating hákarl and drinking brennivin proves strength and courage, as well as providing a food supply to survive long trips through the Northern Atlantic. Brennivin is Icelandic schnapps made from potatoes and flavored with caraway. Hákarl is Icelandic for shark, specifically the Greenland or Basking shark that inhabits the waters between Iceland and Greenland.  This shark is poisonous when eaten fresh, unless it has gone through a fermentation process only the Vikings would consider sane.  Traditionally, after catching and butchering the shark, the meat was buried for 2 to 4 months under gravel and stones to press and cure. It was then hung to dry for up to five months, until a thick brown crust formed. In the more modern technique, the shark is simply pressed with heavy weights in a controlled climate for an extended period of time, until the crust forms.  The crust is removed and it is cut into bite size pieces to eat. It smells strongly of ammonia but getting past the offensive smell is most of the battle.  Otherwise, it’s a rather tasty piece of shark!

My father was born and raised in Iceland and my parents always brought us up with Icelandic customs. We attended þorrablót every year and ate traditional Icelandic doughnuts called kleinur and fish jerky as kids. It wasn’t until recently that I finally tried the hákarl, but always remembered the smell when they would open the jar. I have always been intrigued with my Icelandic heritage, but in the past two years I have felt the passion to embrace my culture, which has led me to dual citizenship and a willingness to learn the language, live and work there.

Earlier this year, I finally decided to take my first trip to Iceland and booked a flight for late October. Being a surfer, I was anticipating early winter swells that affect the southwest coast, and Iceland Airwaves, a five-day music festival held every year in downtown Reykjavik. I brought up the idea to the chef/owner of Black Trumpet, Evan and his wife Denise, to bring back some hákarl for the beer and game dinner. They were hesitant at first, but once Evan decided on preparing insects, he realized he wanted to push this year’s game dinner limits, and said yes.  I contacted all my aunts, uncles and cousins who have been living in Reykjavik since my dad had left and after all other arrangements, I packed my surfboard, hiking pack and camera and set off. After a six hour overnight flight and two buses, I arrived in Reykjavik at 6am with a mere 2 hours of sleep to be greeted by my great Aunt Halla. We set out to the harbor to get my first glimpse of Mt. Esja, overlooking downtown Reykjavik and its bay, which houses hundreds of Icelandic fishing boats. This is also where the only Icelandic flea market, Kolaportið, is located. Here they sell all things local from hand-knitted sweaters and clothing to the infamous hákarl and fresh fish right off the boat. Halla then took me back to the house where I would be staying for the next 10 days. We drank coffee and ate traditional Icelandic breakfast items including sheep’s head rillette, smoked steelhead trout pate, boiled eggs and rye bread with butter and cheese, a diet that I would learn to love throughout the duration of my stay.

Through a drunken coffee daze I walked the main street of downtown, Laugavegur, in search of any sign to lead me toward surf knowledge. Through the company known as Arctic Adventures, I was introduced to Ingo, one of the few local surfers, and then to an Aussie (Jed) and a Scot (Fraser) who were also searching for surf. Both Jed and Fraser were in Iceland for grad school. Fraser is a scuba diver and is studying the glacial lakes scattered throughout Iceland. Jed is working on a project which involves the sustainability of cod fishing in Iceland. When the economy of Iceland collapsed in 2008, the cod fishing industry was one of the few industries that were not affected by this crisis. Iceland built itself upon its fishing industry. Cod has been its number one export for years, and in the past there have been a number of disputes regarding their territorial waters. Iceland has slowly been expanding its fishing waters to support the demand for fish. Through a series of disputes known as the “Cod Wars” ranging from 1950-1970, the United Kingdom was trying to prevent this from happening. Through an agreement, the United Kingdom accepted Iceland’s plea for more territory.  In return, British fishermen are allowed to fish these waters for a short period of time each year.

Markus Surfing in New Hampshire

Markus Surfing Rye on the Rocks, in New Hampshire

surf2

Jed, Fraser and I made plans to rent a car and set out the following day to one of the few fishing villages on the south coast of Iceland with a viable harbor, by the name of Grindavík, better known for Iceland’s most popular geothermal swimming pool, Blue Lagoon.  The south coast of Iceland is lined with black sand beaches and glaciers that prevent good territory for settlement and fishing. The other fishing villages on the south coast that have viable harbors are Þorlákshöfn being nearby on the Reykjanes peninsula, and Höfn some 300 kilometers east.  There are just over 300,000 citizens of Iceland, three quarters of them reside in and around Reykjavik, the rest are scattered throughout the east and west fjords, the arctic north, and the south coastline in these small desolate fishing villages.

We met and talked with a couple of Grindavík fisherman in a small coffee shop located right on the dock looking out at all the boats. At first, their appearance was rugged and threatening, especially after informing them of our search for surf in the land of fire and ice, but they looked at us with joy and shared stories of their days on the water with pictures to prove all over the walls of their local spot. Grindavík has a population of less than 3000 and most of them are working in the fishing industry, and they are certainly proud of their history and will be, for generations to come.

We took to the road after finding surf and breaking my fins on the reef and explored the rest of the Reykjanes peninsula. We had a few more hours of daylight and decided to take a drive towards the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is the nickname for a tourist adventure involving tour guides that take you through three of Iceland’s most important geological features, Gulfoss waterfall, Geysir, and Þingvellir National Park.  This park marks not only the origin of Iceland’s parliament but also the continental drift between the Eurasian and North American continental plates.  Fraser, being a diver, informed us of a crystal clear glacial spring located in Þingvellir National Park by the name of Silfra, a glacial rift that is part of this divergent tectonic boundary. Fraser said, “You can see as far as your goggles will let you.” Looking down, I could see the bottom with ease, and it was near 3-4 meters deep. After an ice cold glacial swim, we drove back towards Reykjavik in the dark to be greeted by a brief viewing of the Northern Lights. I was only on the first leg of my trip, and so far, I felt spoiled by Iceland’s natural beauty.

The rest of my trip was spent exploring Reykjavik and attending the Iceland Airwaves music festival. But for one last trip out into the country before hopping on my plane flight home, I linked up with Jed and we rented a car to search for surf. We decided to explore further east and picked Þorlákshöfn. The small harbor here holds a number of fishing boats as well as a ferry to access the Vestmannaeyjar islands off the south coast. With the right tide and swell, it has great potential for its point break just outside the harbor. We found ourselves not so lucky and planned a new attack. It was raining, it was cold, visibility was low, and the wind was howling from the Arctic north, announcing the arrival of winter. This wasn’t about landing good surf anymore. It was the struggle that inspired us, foraging for potential surf where there are no parking lots, accessible beaches or another soul in sight.

Days were getting shorter. It was 3pm and it was starting to get dark. We ended with a couple Icelandic stouts and called it a day. I retrieved my hákarl and beloved fish jerky from the market and prepared for departure the following day.

Back in New Hampshire it was time for preparation of the Beer and Game dinner. The hákarl and Brennivín were introduced on the menu as a “Viking Challenge” not for the “faint of heart” and served by a true Viking (myself). It was a huge success and nearly everyone was brave enough to take the challenge, and a difficult challenge it is.

Chef Evan Mallet

Chef Evan Mallet

Plating Desert

Plating Desert

Markus and Denise Mallet serving the Halkarl and Brennivin

Markus and Denise Mallet serving the Hakarl and Brennivin

Up for the challenge

Up for the Viking challenge

Cheers!

Cheers!

I’d like to give a big thank you to Sarah VanHorn, Evan and Denise Mallett. Also, thank you to everyone else involved with this year’s Beer and Game dinner and to everyone who keeps up on their fishues. And to you I say Skál (cheers)! Ó á tilhlökkun, taka mig aftur…(oh the anticipation, take me back)

Takk fyrir,

Markus Ingi Gudnason

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