Skarfakál, like "fjörukál" is a plant that grows on the rocky coast of West Iceland, between rocks and on cliffs. It is mostly found where there is rich soil, close to seabird nests such as puffin’s holes. It can be found in inland parts of the country, where it has been most likely carried by seabirds, but it was and is most common where the soil is thick and fertile, for example also around farms or even on turf roofs.
It belongs to the Brassicaceae family, it has thick heart shaped and shiny leaves which are edible though slightly bitter. Skafakál was supposed to be best when harvested in June, but it is also possible to harvest it later in summer, depending on the geographical area.
In his book "Íslenskir Sjávarhættir", Lúðvík Kristjánsson retraces the historical descriptions of this plant. Skarfakál was a very precious resource in the Middle Ages but is only well documented from the middle of the 17th century. It was so important in the diet of Icelanders that many places (islets, hills, shores,…) use the name "skarfakál" or its synonyms and there are a few proverbs that have been kept in the language which refer to skarfakál.
The first written mentions of skarfakál as a part of the local diet are from mid 17th century, a special tool was designed to cut it in to small pieces, and it was fermented – either by placing it in hot water for some days, or even in whey, it is to be used during the winter months.
Skarfakál has been used from the Settlement age in the 9th century, as it was in Norway, which is where the original settlers came from, and is named in some sagas (i.e. the Grettis saga, about the island of Drangey).
It was so common in the past that no mention has been found about the selling of skarfakál, it seems that it was only exchanged against other goods.
It was renowned for its taste, but also as a medicinal plant which quickly cured scurvy.
It was then commonly fermented to be used in salads, soups but also with skyr and in porridges, with barley or flour (depending what was available) and milk or whey. It was considered very valuable and was certainly one of the main reasons that scurvy was not as common as it could have been, its vitamin C content is much higher than that of fjörukál.
Skarfakál is barely used today except on some farms where the tradition is still alive, but young cooks are rediscovering it and using it as a garnish in seafood dishes. This very traditional wild plant is losing ground to more invasive plants. It needs to be preserved as it is a really valuable plant and people should be encouraged to consume it. It should be included in our modern diet and foraging should become more common.