WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Taste Bud Shockers

By on December 22, 2015

Icelandic specialties such as rotten shark and lamb sushi are a bit new for the North American palate.

A traditional Icelandic Christmas buffet at the Hildibrand Hotel in Neskaupstaður, Iceland. (Photo: Andrew Munz)

A traditional Icelandic Christmas buffet at the Hildibrand Hotel in Neskaupstaður, Iceland. (Photo: Andrew Munz)

Jackson, WY – Taking one look at their traditional foodie fare, it’s no secret that Icelanders have some of the strongest stomachs in the world. They certainly know how to knock back some rotten shark that’s for sure. Having been here for two months now, I’m nowhere closer to craving sheep tongue than I was before I came, but that doesn’t mean I’ll avoid it forever. Much like the Icelandic language itself, Icelandic cuisine requires plenty of practice, and there’s no better time to shock your taste buds than around Christmas.

The original Icelandic settlers were proud heathens who celebrated Yule. Even today Icelanders say, “Happy Yule” or “Gleðileg Jól” rather than Merry Christmas. Instead of Santa Claus, we have the Yule Lads — 13 mischief-making brats who wreak havoc for each of the 13 days before Christmas Eve. They are the sons of the vicious children-eating troll, Gryla, and are often accompanied by the Yule Cat, a ferocious black beast that also enjoys devouring children. Fun!

To celebrate the Yuletide season, the hotel I work at has been hosting a series of Christmas buffets each weekend for people of the area. You won’t find any king crab legs or mac and cheese on your plate, but rather marinated goose, raw lamb sushi, smoked salmon, boiled beef tongue and guillemot breasts encased in brown gelatin.

Tubs of butter accompany warm rugbrauð or Icelandic rye bread that’s been buried in the ground and baked with geothermic heat for 12 hours. Add a heaping spoonful of steamed potatoes soaked in sugary caramel sauce and wash it all down with plenty of malt beer and you’ve got yourself, well, a stomachache, probably.

But it’s Christmas, so who cares?

Watching Icelanders hunker down on some beef tongue or rotten fish can be a little off-putting, but it’s a joyous occasion and Icelanders are proud of their food traditions. You’ll notice that consuming whale meat isn’t as popular as it once was, though I’m told some more traditional families still dine on harbor porpoise (a non-endangered species) during this time of year.

One of my favorite items from the buffet was our homemade reindeer pâté. Luckily, I ended up getting the head chef, Guðni Jón Árnason, drunk enough to share his secret recipe.

Hreindyrapate (Reindeer Pâté)

Makes “enough for a family”

½ pound ground reindeer (or elk, deer, moose, bison for Wyoming folk)

¼ pound ground chicken (or turkey)

¼ pound pig’s lard

2 eggs

2 tsp curing salt

2 tsp cracked black pepper

2 tsp fresh rosemary

1 tsp brandy

1 tsp port wine


½ cup minced cooked ham

¼ cup roasted shelled pistachios

¼ cup dried wild mushrooms


Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

Hand mix ingredients, starting with the ground meats. Guðni recommends “introducing” each item as you mix rather than combining everything at once. This allows flavors to develop. Push mixture through a sieve or strainer to break down large chunks. Add garnishes to the mixture. Press firmly in a loaf pan and bake in oven for one hour. Allow to cool. Cut into ½ inch slices. Serve chilled on warm bread with lingonberries or red currant jam.

Happy Holidays from Iceland! PJH

About Andrew Munz

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