Strange-Smelling Delicacy

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Putrefied skata, or “skate,” a fish related to sharks, has a strange smell. That I have to admit, but nevertheless I love the taste of it and have eaten it since I was a small boy in the West Fjords. Many young Icelanders have failed to test this delicacy since the strong odor discourages them from trying it.

But skata is just like any strong smelling cheese or even some fruit, like Durian which is considered a delicacy in Thailand. Skata has a wonderful, sweet taste and those Icelanders who still eat it will stuff themselves on Thorláksmessa (Mass of St. Thorlák, patron saint of Iceland, celebrated on December 23) because most feast on it only once a year.

In the West Fjords people like to have their skata very strong. It is so putrefied that when you take the first bite it will numb your nose and throat – so strong is the smell. The habitual way of cooking it is to boil it for about ten minutes. Then the fish is taken from the bones, some lamb fat mör is added, and then this sort of stew is served with boiled potatoes and brown rye bread. When the skötustappa or “skate stew” has cooled down it becomes hard and can be sliced like paté and is usually eaten with butter and dark rye bread. It is a heavenly meal.

In recent years skata parties on Thorláksmessa have become fashionable and people wash the skata down with some beer and the occasional brennivín schnapps. This is also the busiest shopping day of the year and when people march out of these small festivals, their clothes reek of what they have been downing. The smell is persistent and the only way to get it out of the clothes is to wash them.

The strange smell of skata is everywhere in the air and some can’t stand it. Some try to lessen the odor in their houses by cooking their skata outside on the barbecue. Those well schooled in the tradition simply cook their Christmas smoked lamb hangikjöt after the skate and the odor disappears entirely as the wonderful aroma of the smoked lamb fills the apartment.

My father-in-law is as avid lover of putrefied skata. He is a former fisherman and processed his own skata for many years. In the South the skate is processed in a somewhat milder manner than in the West Fjords and salted. This is fantastic food, a wonderful gourmet meal for those who acquire the taste.

When my in-laws were still fishing on their own boat we had skata every month for Saturday lunch, but usually Saturday lunch consisted of salted cod or bacalhau, boiled potatoes and turnips, melted smoked lamb fat or butter and sweet or strong mustard. A meal fit for kings.

There has only been one problem with the whole business of preparing skata. My younger brother-in-law hates the putrid smell. When the odor wafted to every corner of the house he argued strongly against this type of gastronomy and said it ruined his chance with the young girls he was pursuing at the time. “What is this smell? Is it the smell of skata?” they would ask and give him a look like he was some sort of strange fish.

I don’t think he has ever eaten it although his father’s skata is probably the best I’ve ever tasted. When my father-in-law refused to stop cooking it in the house he took some measures and sealed the doors to his room with thick adhesive tape. This worked like magic but as soon as he ventured out of the room his clothes got a whiff of the glorious smell to his great annoyance. We’ve had some good laughs at his expense.

Picture of skata courtesy of bb.is.

The majority of Icelanders live in apartment buildings. The aforementioned smell has, in recent years, become a heated argument in such buildings although I haven't heard of any house committees that have banned cooking it entirely.

The heated debate about skata is ongoing in Icelandic society. Before I wrote this piece I made a quick search on the Internet and discovered hundreds of entries. It is one of the most debated gastronomic issues in Icelandic society, even more than putrefied shark which is in many ways similar to skata.

The processing is similar. Shark, though, can be poisonous if it is cooked fresh out of the sea. It needs the processing of being kept for weeks under stones and turf and then being hung out for drying in the cold climate. Skata is similarly processed but this kind of food is by no means rotten or damaged. It is only fermented like cheese, and is very healthy. The oil from putrefied shark is considered very good for the system. Some even believe it can prevent cancer.

I also learned many things about skata which I did not know: one guy whose entry I read claims skata takes his migraine away. My grandmother, who had stomach problems, always said skata was one of the best things she could eat. It made her cramps go away just like good putrefied shark did.

I once had the opportunity to go to the West Fjords by ship at this time of the year. There had been no flights to the West Fjords for more than a week due to constant storms and blizzards. All roads were filled with snow, so the authorities decided to assign one of the Coast Guard vessels to take some of the unfortunate people who were locked in Reykjavík home for Christmas.

The weather was extremely bad: high seas and storm. We left Reykjavík at 5.30 in the morning of 23 December. The voyage over Faxaflói bay was rough and I could see that many of the fifty passengers were getting seasick. People’s faces were white and green and there was puke everywhere. Then at 11:30 the “wonderful” aroma of skata sneaked upon the other poor passengers who were only on the brink of sea sickness. That did most of them in. Not me though.

I was beginning to feel quite groggy when I snuck into the mess to have a plate of skötustappa like I had done all of my life on Thorláksmessa. It was good for me and I felt much better in my stomach afterwards. The voyage was a wonderful adventure, although quite rough.

We came to my hometown of Ísafjördur early in the morning of Christmas Eve. The storm was behind us. The waters were now calm and the sky bright. The mountains were white and everything was covered in snow. By the time I came home and kissed my mother I heard the first plane landing at the airport inside the fjord. I was tired but very happy to be home. And I had found out that I was not seasick at all.

BB – bjarni@icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.