Greenland shark is the most toxic shark in the world.
Due to its rich ammonia concentration, eating its fresh meat could even lead to death.
Only after a long curing process it becomes safe to eat.
We travelled to Bjarnarhöfn, Iceland where one family has been curing Greenland sharks for hundreds of years.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Ju Shardlow: Look up the list of the most misunderstood foods in the world, and fermented shark is probably on it. But here in the west of Iceland, it is a regional delicacy. It’s Greenland shark that’s been laboriously fermented, dried, and cured. And it’s been done by one family in this area for hundreds of years. We’re here to find out what it tastes like.
GuÃ°jÃ³n Hildibrandsson: The Greenland shark is the most toxic shark in the world. Fresh meat, you will get very sick. Then a little bit more, you could probably go blind. And then death after that.
Ju: So what exactly does it take to make it safe to eat? We met with GuÃ°jÃ³n Hildibrandsson. He’s running his family business of shark curing here in BjarnarhÃ¶fn.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: I’ve been eating the shark since before I got teeth. I’ve been doing the curing process probably since I was 10. This is just all my life. Just shark, shark, shark. We don’t catch them ourselves, not anymore. Now we buy them from these big trawling boats, who catch the shark accidentally. But my family used to catch them and hunt them.
Ju: GuÃ°jÃ³n cures about 60 sharks a year. From fishing to cube, the whole process takes six months. The meat is first fermented in cold storage rooms, like this one.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Next, I’m gonna open it up, and you’re going to put your head in it. You’re gonna inhale. [Ju laughs] And then you’re gonna explain the smell you feel.
Ju: OK, yeah, yeah, I’m ready.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Shall we check it out?
Ju: I’m ready, OK.
Ju: Stick my head in?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah, here we go.
Ju: It’s, um, I dye my hair, and it’s literally like bleach. It’s hair bleach. Right. Yeah, like hair dye. Oh, wow. So, oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. [laughs]
GuÃ°jÃ³n: It is very strong.
Ju: It’s really strong.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Because it’s a closed unit.
Ju: Do you know what it is? It’s hair bleach and Stilton.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: We are working with similar bacterias, like when you’re doing cheese.
Ju: So that’s why?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Let’s check this out.
Ju: Oh, you can see the oozing.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: And then you can also – this is like – it does not smell as intense as when we walked in.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: So this can stay here for some while longer. So, here we have the thinner pieces. And we make these handles in the skin for grabbing them, lifting them up, hanging them up. So these are the thinner pieces. And under here we have the fillet. So, this is how that’s, that’s much, much thicker pieces. And he has white meat. He does not have a fat layer. He has white meat. And it’s very important to have the skin on, because the meat, it’s so loose itself that if it’s no skin, then the meat just basically stretch. The thinner pieces, after the process, the meat becomes sort of red or brown. And we call that glerhÃ¡karl.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah. And the meat is, it’s more chewy and salty. And then we have the fillet. That stays white. The fillet we call skyrhÃ¡karl. It’s named after the milk product, skyr.
Ju: Oh, yeah, yeah. We love skyr. What is the liquid that’s coming off, then?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Ammonia. Water, there is a lot of water in the meat. The Greenland shark, he has much more water in him than other fishes, or other sharks. So it’s ammonia.
Ju: What is that doing in the scientific process of it? ‘Cause it’s poisonous when it’s fresh?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah. The Greenland shark is the most toxic shark in the world. And the Greenland shark is a deep-ocean, cold-ocean shark. So Icelanders, they first started fishing them for the liver. And they used the oil from the liver. So for the first 200 years, when they were fishing them, they had to throw the meat away. They couldn’t use it. So there was big waste of meat. And in Iceland and isolated areas, this was a big waste. So 400 years ago, probably accidentally, they discovered the process to use the meat.
Ju: What would happen if I took a bite of that now? What would happen to me? Will I go blind, or…?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Now it’s that far in the fermentation that you would be fine. But before, fresh meat, something small, you would get very sick. Then a little bit more, you could probably go blind. And then death after that.
Ju: OK, great. [both laugh] Great, I will not be taking a bite of that. So, this part of the process, is this the most important part to get the taste of it, or the curing?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: This basically does everything. It makes the meat not toxic. It’s preserved. After this, you can eat it. It’s not toxic. But the drying process is just to get a better texture in the meat because it’s just so wet and moist. And it’s very important that these boxes, they have these gaps on them so the liquid can leak from it. And also for oxygen to get in, because the meat, it needs to breathe. There are chemical changes that are happening, that are making the meat untoxic. First, people didn’t know this was a chemical process. It was an accident. Now this is a chemical process and we are, there are a lot of interesting things that we are even still discovering. It’s also different after where the shark has been, and what depth, and what temperature he was caught. The different depth and what chemicals are high or low in. So, in these boxes, the meat loses about around 30%. So it loses a lot of weight here. And then in the drying process, it loses, like, 50, 70%. So total use of meat is around 8%.
Ju: What happens to the ammonia when it drains? I mean, is it, it’s OK to be – I mean, you’ve got, like, I’ve got boots on, and you’ve got little sandals and socks. [both laugh]
GuÃ°jÃ³n: The ammonia is, the liquid here is, that’s fine. We could drink it. I won’t, though, but. [both laugh] Ju: I’m pretty sure that’s a cure for something.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: You want some maybe? No.
Ju: No. One shark will give from 30 to 40 pieces of fillet. The meat ferments for six to nine weeks in the wooden boxes, then it’s hung outside for six months to fully dry out.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: To know if it’s ready, we check the texture. And these are all, like, good. They are, the texture is fine. We don’t want it too hard, and not too mushy. And then we have this one here. This one is not stiff enough. So he needs more time, but these here are ready. Here you see the skin. You should.
Ju: Oh, wow. It’s like, you know when these people have really terrible, like, 1970s walls, where they, yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: I know what you mean.
Ju: Yeah, it’s like sandpaper. [both laugh] But yeah, this is really rough.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: This was used for, in Iceland, this was used for sandpaper. And these points, if you look closely, you see the points in the skin. They grow in one direction. Do you see that?
Ju: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: And so these points, they grow down with his body. So when he swims, he gets this sort of thin layer of air around him. There’s always air around him. So it’s easier for him to swim and to get faster. And it also works like, gives him a little bit more insulation in a cold ocean.
Ju: It’s the meatiest fish I’ve ever seen, yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Here we have a piece of the fillet. And in the drying, the piece, it gets this dried crust around it. But you see here, when I slice it open, that he still has this beautiful white colour at the inside. And here the meat is ready to eat. So there is never nothing added to this meat in the process. There’s no cooking. There’s no smoking. Like, nothing at all. Just, it’s just natural process, from the beginning till the end. And then, if I… you see how smoothly it cuts. And then you take this here.
Ju: Thank you. It looks like ham.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah. And then I’ll have one also.
Ju: SkÃ¡l, OK. Mm. I was gonna say, it actually doesn’t, it’s, the aftertaste is kicking in now, yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: And now you feel it, it’s coming up in your nose. Then it’s doing what we want it to do. We want it to give us, like, a kick. It’s supposed to be strong. Ju: I can taste the ammonia kind of smell now. At first it was just like chewing a piece of ham. And then, like, you know, the texture of it in your mouth. And then the aftertaste. And then it’s actually, like, stinging my tongue, stinging the back of my tongue. Do you ever get over that? It’s like eating bread to you now?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Everything you feel is probably 10 times more than what I feel. For me, I kind of, I sort of miss it. But I know good shark from a bad one. Two sharks who arrive here together, they go through the process together. After the process, they taste similar, but not the same. It is the, not even amount of ammonia maybe in them, or salt, or other chemicals that are different. So that’s why they don’t taste the same.
Ju: Yeah. You can taste the smell of it. But it’s that really kind of, like, rich Stilton cheese, like, hits the back of your tongue. And it’s just at the sides of your tongue. I don’t think that’s ever gonna go away, maybe, but.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: You want some more?
Ju: I’ll have a little bit more, yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: You’ll have a little bit more.
Ju: I mean, I think that my tongue’s just used to this now. I’m a shark convert. It’s amazing, though, how much of it is in the smell.
Ju: It’s just, yeah. So, would you recommend eat it before smelling it? Just go down the hatch?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It tastes much better than it smells.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: I’ll have another one also. Ju: All right, I’m just gonna try to chew this a bit. I do actually, it’s the texture now. At first it was the smell, then the taste. Now it’s the texture, it’s like, got into almost like a gelatinous kind of texture in my mouth. I think it’s because I’ve just, like, masticated it so much in my mouth that it’s just, there we go, I got over it.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: The second one was also a little bit bigger.
Ju: Yeah, the second one was the kicker, yeah. The shark does have a reputation internationally. How do you feel about that?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: It’s good. This is not for everybody. You know. People go in two parts, even Icelanders. Either you like it, or you don’t. But I recommend to everybody, at least give it a try. Today, this is eaten like a snack for special occasions. But before, this was eaten, like, with a meal, like, for something extra. And this is so healthy that you can’t eat too much. Often the shark was eaten, like, with the food that was, like, on the limit of being good or bad, or probably bad, because he helps the digestion. So, there’s a chemical company in Iceland who analyses food. And according to them, the shark is the healthiest food that is made in Iceland.
Ju: And I just, you know when you have a really strong shot of alcohol, and you get that kind of, like, burning.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah, it’s similar.
Ju: Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at the moment. Is that quite a common thing? GuÃ°jÃ³n: I guess so. Ju: Yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: I guess so.
Ju: It’s just like, kind of feel it in my heart and my soul now.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: It is strong. And we want it strong.
Ju: Want it even stronger? GuÃ°jÃ³n made me try some fermented shark cubes dipped in Icelandic schnapps. How much is too much to put in here?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Today this is called BrennivÃn, which would be translated in English like a burning wine. And this used to be called, in Iceland, svarti dauÃ°i, or which would be black death. So, you let it stay there for maybe 20 seconds. Something like that. Just like we are marinating the shark. Now it changes a little bit to maybe a little like a licorice flavour.
Ju: Yeah. That’s really licorice, yeah. That’s exactly how it tastes. That’s really nice. Is this your, I mean, this isn’t your personal supply bottle.
Ju: But yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: What’s also good is to have a piece of the shark and piece of the rye bread, the Icelandic rye bread. And then, of course, the shark on his own. It’s the best.
Ju: You just love the shark so much.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: This is my grandfather’s shark-fishing boat. He used to catch sharks and other fishes in this boat. The boat’s name is SÃldin, which is “herring” in English. And is first registered 1860. My grandfather bought this boat 1929, when he was 19 years old. And then he had been working on this boat at least since he was 14.
Ju: It’s a proper family business.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah, yeah. Shark has been involved with my family for 600 years, I guess.
Ju: Wow. And how did they used to catch it then?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: So, they used hooks. This here, this is from my grandfather’s shark-fishing set. This is very old. And the chain had to be at least 3 meters. And they used usually a seal meat or a seal fat for a bait for the hook. And this was maybe 100 meters down. And they could feel when the shark was testing the bait. So they start to tease him until the shark swallows the bait.
Ju: I mean, this is a big boat. How big is a shark?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: This boat is around 8 meters. And the Greenland shark is, usually he’s from 3 meters till maybe 5 meters long. This jaw here, here you go. This is from maybe 5-metre-long shark.
Ju: Wow. That’s massive!
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Yeah, and this one is then from, I would guess, 4 meters.
Ju: And these, I mean, would these hurt humans, or…?
GuÃ°jÃ³n: So, the Greenland shark, he lives so deep that he’s not in our swimming waters. And this is his lower jaw. And, you see here, they’re always growing a new set of teeth here. And the teeth, they grow up. And he changes his teeth around every three weeks. They just flip over, and the old ones, they just fall off. So he’s got somewhere around, I don’t know, 4,000 set of teeth over his lifetime, or more. And this is his skin. That is very interesting. You can stroke the skin one way, but it’s harder to stroke it the other.
Ju: Oh, yeah, there’s some more resistance one way. It is like sandpaper, yeah.
GuÃ°jÃ³n: Exactly. So, this is just, like, all my life. Just shark, shark, shark. Ju: Sorry, guys, like, really prepare yourselves.
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