Fermented shark (or kæstur hákarl in Icelandic) is a semi-dried product made from Greenland shark (Microcephalus somniousus). The origins of shark fishing and processing in Iceland go back for at least 700 years. For centuries, fermented shark meat was an important food, and shark liver oil was a valuable export item, used to light the lamps of Copenhagen. Shark fishing reached its peak between 1870 and 1880, but then declined rapidly after the liver oil was no longer needed as fuel. In the past, sharks were caught specifically by angling, but today a large part is caught as by-catch. Fresh shark meat is considered poisonous, and only after fermentation and drying it can it be eaten. At the beginning of the process, the shark is cut in large pieces or slabs, and then placed in an outdoor container for fermenting. A load is put on top and liquid is drained off through holes in the bottom of the container. The fermentation takes 3-6 weeks depending on the temperature and other conditions. During this period, in the flesh is broken down to ammonia. In the old days, the cut-up shark was fermented in the ground, often in pits at the seaside. After fermenting, the shark is washed and hung up for drying in open shelters to protect the meat from sun and rain. Drying takes 2-6 months depending on weather conditions. During drying, the flavour further develops and a reddish crust forms on the outside. On the inside the meat is soft and light in colour. At this point the shark is ready for consumption, but it is normal practice to store the meat in the drying shelter. During the fermentation and the subsequent drying, organic salts are reduced and water removed, making the meat unfit for the growth of pathogens or spoilage bacteria. No salt or any other additive is used. Still, fully fermented and dried shark can be stored at ambient temperatures for years without any deterioration. Icelandic fermented shark has a very sharp and particular flavour, not necessarily appreciated by all. ‘Hákarl’ of excellent quality is almost white in colour and has a creamy texture. The lighter the colour of the meat, the more delicate the flavour. Fermented shark was traditionally consumed as a main dish in Iceland or used to accompany bread or dried fish, but today it is normally served as a snack, often accompanied by caraway-flavoured snaps, particularly during the period of Þorri (as Icelanders used to call the 4th month of winter) which nowadays is celebrated from late January to late February. Fermented shark is still a popular food all around Iceland with the older generation, but its consumption is declining rapidly among the young. The total production of fermented shark in Iceland is approximately 20 tons. Shark can be found in most supermarkets and gourmet stores in Iceland, normally sliced in a vacuum pack, or cubed in boxes, frozen or chilled.
Image: Giovanni Marabese