As an English teacher I’m often asked: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
This is in the context of getting students to practice superlatives or the present perfect, or both. It’s one of a whole raft of similar questions designed to get them to speak, which they do, to the best of their abilities. It’s a question that triggers dreadful memories, like a question in a therapy session.
Sometimes, they throw the question back at me: Was suh strangers zing you fever eaten?
To clarify my answer, I go to the whiteboard, uncap a marker and write one word, enjoying, as I do so, the alien design that compliments its sound.
I write: Svið.
Svið is the strangest thing I have ever eaten. Well, it’s the strangest thing I have ever tried to eat. With the benefit of hindsight, my reasons for seeking out Svið were strange too. It involved going to Iceland.
I had always wanted to go to Iceland. As a child, I had followed the adventures of Nonni & Manni during my summer holidays. As a teenager, I had harkened to the siren songs of Björk. Then came the writer Halldór Laxness and his tales of Independent People. I had plenty of reasons to go but none of those reasons were gastronomic. I’d never even considered the fact that Iceland possessed its own vernacular cuisine. When I did begin to consider it, it was by virtue of Svið. I was pleased that it was as idiosyncratic as all the other cultural totems had been.
I didn’t hear about Svið. I saw it. The 2006 detective flick Mýrin features a scene in which Ingvar Sigurðsson’s stern Reykjavík cop treats himself to an evening free from cooking by picking up a take-away. It’s one thing that he takes away his take-away from the central bus station, but quite another for it to appear in the next scene having its eye gouged out with a pen-knife as the peckish detective browses the pages of a book.
Svið, you see, is no ordinary dish. The closest word to it I can find in my English-Icelandic dictionary is Sviða, which means ‘scorched,’ and I can only surmise that this qualifies as a method of cooking. When I finally sat down to dine, in the same bus station featured in Mýrin, ‘scorched’ did seem to be the best description of the dish that stared back at me.
I’d first asked about Svið from the owner of my Icelandic B&B. Like many Icelanders he was dressed for the summer, a 15oc heat wave according to the people at airport security, in a waterproof parka and hiking boots. He didn’t know what I was talking about at first, before the króna dropped and he laughed, telling me that only old people ate Svið these days. I passed my time in Iceland without ever seeing it, without even having seen it on a menu. The staple diet in the eateries of the island’s capital was seafood, and seafood included whale and puffin (both a lot tastier than Svið).
For Svið I had to visit the bus depot. When I asked for it, the girl behind the counter pushed a cling film-wrapped plate towards me with her fingertips. Body language can tell you a lot, and her rolled eyes and shrug told me that I was some moron, pain-in-the-neck tourist daring himself to try the funny food. Which as good guesses go, couldn’t have been better. The Svið came with soup, a thin broth of depressing garden vegetables that tasted of pond water. The Svið itself shared its plate with a scoop of mashed potatoes and a scoop of mashed turnips. They both had the color of dried grass and did nothing to brighten up the black, puckered bog-mummy that was the main dish.
I didn’t know where the rest of the sheep had gone, but here was its head. Svið is the head of a sheep cooked by being tossed into an oven. There were no sauces, no gravies, trimmings or glazes. There wasn’t even an ornamental sprig of parsley to disguise the fact that the cook didn’t give a damn. It was black, like an ingot of road-tar, its eyes like navels, and its teeth visible between its thin lips.
The soup was vile. The potatoes were vile. The turnips were vile. Could the Svið be any worse? I tucked in, the black skin sloughing off on a thin layer of watery fat to expose the gray flesh of the animal’s cheek. It had no flavor, just a vague greasiness. As I ate, I became conscious of the fact that I was only eating this because it had looked weird in a film. I began to feel as though I were being watched as I pared the frail flesh away from the jawbone. The molars, which had once chewed the rough grass of treeless Iceland, began to grin at me. It dawned on me that I was indeed being watched, by my common sense, and the question as to what I was trying to prove began to demand a good answer.
It didn’t get one. In the bus station, with its Formica and ennui, I took out my traveler’s notebook. A novelty item bought at the airport, it was decorated with sheep in zany colors and came with a biro bearing the same whacky design. Turning to a blank page, I wrote a message together with a doodle of a sheep that looked like a cloud sitting on a stool. I placed this beside the Svið and took a picture of the offensive delicacy, proof that I had at least tackled it.
The message read: It tastes as good as it looks.
Abandoning the half-gnawed Svið in the half-empty bus station, I slipped out of a side door and back into the interminable sunshine of an Icelandic summer.
About the Author
Paul McGranaghan was born in Derry and began growing up in Strabane, Northern Ireland. He attended grammar school in Omagh and then went to Manchester where he studied Zoology. He worked as a microbiologist near Aberystwyth, Wales, and as a Neuroscientist, again in Manchester. He has travelled throughout Ireland and Europe, living for a year in Italy and two years in Spain. He currently lives in Dublin, where he enjoys receiving gifts. His story “The Pamela Anderson” was published in the Sunday Tribune and selected for inclusion in The New Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, published by New Island. He accepted an invitation to promote this book on national radio. His subsequent work showed a distinct focus on the natural world and he wrote a number of well-received pieces for the BBC culminating in his stories “The Noble Rot,” “Ashes,” and “Las Salinas” being awarded prize-winning status in the BBC Wildlife Magazine Nature-Writer competitions of 2010, 2011, and 2013 respectively. His short story “Bean Sídhe” appeared in A Pint and a Haircut, an anthology of Irish stories published to raise funds for Concern Worldwide. This year his work has appeared in Paragraphiti, Literary Orphans, The Corner Club Press, Pure Slush, and Reading Hour.