It was lovingly presented to me on a silver tray at the Smyrlabjörg Guesthouse in Höfn, southeast Iceland. The innkeeper gleamed like a proud new mother as she lifted the cover to display her culinary creation, fresh from the kitchen. What I saw nearly cracked my cast-iron stomach. “I hope you enjoy svio. It is one of our most popular traditional Icelandic delicacies,” said a slightly smirking Odin, my dinner companion and taciturn guide with whom I’d been exploring Iceland the past week. Svio, I immediately discovered, is not a dish for the faint of heart.
It’s a blackened sheep’s head, singed to remove the wool and then boiled and split lengthwise. The halves stare at you with intact, vacant eyes and a toothy sneer. Cheeks, lips, eyes, brains — everything is reputedly edible. To make matters less appetizing, I was in an adjacent barn just 20 minutes earlier coddling a newborn lamb. And then, there I was, with what I suspected was the lamb’s relative, reduced to a crispy critter.
At some woozy point in this face-off, I thought of the Vikings who first populated this rocky subarctic island. The legendary survivalists would resort to any means: When something — anything — could be consumed to stave off starvation, it would be. It was about then that I arrived at an inescapable conclusion. The svio had me convinced: In Iceland, you are still among the Vikings.
I first began to suspect the fact on my first night in the capital of Reykjavík, when I wound up with Odin in the hip NASA nightclub. I was approached by two jovial Norsemen named — and I’m quite serious — Merlin and Thor, who correctly pegged me for an “outsider” and challenged me to a drinking game. As in, see if you can drink this.
“It is a tradition in Iceland to drink the Brennivin,” said one of them, thrusting toward me a shot of liquor made from fermented potato pulp flavored with caraway seeds. The vile concoction is aptly nicknamed “Black Death,” which Vikings once swilled to fortify themselves before pillaging villages. Tossing back a shot of the oily substance burned my esophagus and made me grimace like I’d swallowed a white-hot sword. Of course the amusement at my expense was not wasted. “Ha! That is why we call it the Black Death,” Odin said between belly laughs with the others. (Note to self: Sucker!)
The next day we toured east from Reykjavík along the Ring Road. Odin surreptitiously made sure I had a heaping helping of food items off the insidious “traditional” menu, the country’s food-and-drink specialties that have persisted since apparently famished Vikings first settled this austere island more than 1,000 years ago. At Vík, a small town set along an incredibly dramatic stretch of black-sand coastline, we wandered along the cliffs to take in views of the towering Reynisdrangur rock pinnacles jutting from the sea. Along the steepest edges I heard the cries of birds and, looking down, saw the distinctive faces of puffins that nest along the cliff bands.
An hour later we were seated at a remote country inn ordering lunch. Most Icelanders speak English, but travel away from Reykjavík and the unintelligible Icelandic language becomes the norm. That goes for things like menus, where a single word appears as an endless string of consonants punctuated by a handful of letters unknown in English. Rather than have the hieroglyphics explained, I asked Odin to simply order something good. His curt, Viking-like recommendation: “Bird.” So bird it was, a rather oily-tasting mystery meat that wasn’t half-bad, but gamey and, well, peculiar.
“Is this some type of chicken or quail?” I asked Odin.
“Oh no. That is puffin.”
I was slightly horrified that the beautiful birds I admired earlier — the country’s national birds — which I assumed were protected as symbolic members of Iceland’s wildlife, could be eaten. “They are a traditional delicacy — very important food to early Vikings,” he affirmed in a matter-of-fact way that I’d come to expect as the standard Icelandic response.
The way of the Vikings.
Later, we made our way to the interior of southeast Iceland where the sprawling Vatnajökull Glacier, Europe’s largest ice cap, lies waiting to be explored. With several other travelers I ski toured one of the most surreal, other-worldly landscapes I’d ever seen — one with icy craters and overhanging headwalls, tourmaline-colored crevasses and rocky volcanic pikes protruding through the ice like 100-foot daggers. The day-long tour left me exhausted, and back at the trail hut where Odin was waiting for me, I said something about my “I-could-eat-a-horse” appetite — an American idiom that apparently doesn’t translate well in Iceland.
Horse, sheep … whatever.
Which is how I found myself at the Smyrlabjörg Guesthouse staring down at a blackened sheep’s head. But before the decapitated ovine was served, and at Odin’s insistence, I ingested other Viking-inspired delectables. There was slatur, a sausage made from blood, guts, fat and a dash of meat sown up in a sheep’s stomach. The pickled, rubbery ram’s testicles known as hrutspungar weren’t as nasty as I envisioned, though I didn’t order seconds. And I won’t easily forget choking down a grayish cube of hakarl, or putrefied shark. It carries a horrendous eye-watering ammonia stench that is the ultimate acid test as to how far humans might go to avoid starvation.
Yet this was all a prelude to the svio — a barbaric gastronomic finale if there ever was one. Odin sensed my queasiness, if not my anthropomorphic sensibilities.
“What, you can’t eat the cute little lamb?” he chided before demonstrating the proper dining technique (two hands required, bite and tear as needed … and don’t forget the eyes). I told him, no, I’d had enough. I drew the line with svio. I was not a very good Viking.
“OK. But now we must have a toast together. You will drink the Black Death?”
Ted Alan Stedman, who is based in Colorado, just walked across England for an upcoming islands feature.