A Visit with Gisli Palsson, Hakarl Maker and Author
The farm sign, barely visible through the gloom, said "Hof" as we pulled off the road, down the farm drive that wound through two fields of horses. Like horses all through the Iceland summer, they looked up from their grazing, curiously, and then put their shaggy little heads back to the grass that looked green enough for me to eat. Expecting a farm house, I was surprised when we stopped the van in front of a white washed dome home, set in the middle of the biggest explosion of flower blossoms I had ever seen on an Icelandic farm.
"We'll say hello" says Monica, my friend for the last half day. She was riding with our tour for a few days-soon she would go back to her job at the post office, but for now she helped with the horses, and the riders, and other chores. She had left the group midday to start dinner at the evenings accommodations the guest house at Hof. I had been convinced that it would be responsible of me to give my aching back a half days rest, and so had joined her for the drive off the highlands, through two spectacular valleys and down the Vatnsdalur road, where we now were at Hof.
The dome was as bright and cheery inside, with its light wood and ample windows, as its outside suggested. The lady of the house, Vigdis, greeted us and immediately started to set out the staple of any Icelandic kitchen-coffee, and the cakes, crackers, cheese and cookies that go with it. She and Monica chatted like old friends. Later I found out that Monica had never met them before, but was school-friends with their daughter. "Gisli! kaffee" was called out and Vigdis' husband, a spry , smiling fellow with big glasses, came to the kitchen, smiled at the introductions and we dug in to the pre-prandial feast. A lively discussion on all sorts of topics occurred and as I was pleased with the way the Icelandic language was beginning to make sense to me. ' Horse,' ' Books,' 'publish,' all came out of the linguistic jungle. Gisli brought in what pages from what was obviously a book-in- progress. It suddenly clicked. Was he that Gisli? Gisli Palson, writer and publisher of the Horses of the North books? I knew them as one of the few series of books on Icelandic horses to be translated in English. I had treated myself to a volume every trip I made to Iceland. How could you not love a country where you enjoy an authors books one trip and find yourself having coffee in his kitchen the next one!
His eyes lit up when I told him I had a bookstore in New York, and we chatted, each in our own language about the book and publishing business.
I was seeing page proofs for his seventh book-called Riders of the North, which not only profiled many of Iceland's riders, but had a history, with lots of pictures of the horse through the ages. He wanted to know about my bokabud, and I described small town book selling as best I could. I shared my idea of setting up a mail order business for books about Iceland and its horses. Perhaps, I asked,I could start with your books? Smiles, handshakes, toasts were in order as we promptly went into business together!
Later that evening, after the other riders came in from an exhilarating rider down off the highlands-one where each person saw the horse and rider directly in front disappear into the clouds on the trail down, Gisli came over to the guest house and opened up his little office. Here all the riders had a chance to look through all his books, in their many translations. Many people were as delighted as I was to find this well known author as our host.
It was a lovely evening, with Helena's usual fabulous cooking-lamb stroganoff in this case- and a trip to a nearby swimming pool to soak our weary bones in its hot water. It was so gray the next day one could hardly see the rain, but it was a short riding day, and we all reasoned that we could get dry back home. Midday we went off to the northern field where the wet morning hadn't bothered our horses at all.
Gisli and Vigdis drove in as we tacked up, and invited us into the barn, which seemed like a good idea.
A special treat, Gisli explained through his son Jon. Gisli wanted to show us his special hobby. It was a part of Iceland that no serious tourist should miss-and a particular passion of his. Expecting more books, maybe a hand operated press, I went into the barn and was physically shocked by a pungent wave of indescribable magnitude. This way, he gestured towards the back of the large open room. Two aisles ran through the barn, with old equipment filling the area near the entrance, and rows of meat hooks towards the back with large hunks of brown flesh hung on them. Gisli started to explain the process he followed to make his hearts desire-hakarl, or fermented shark.
I'd heard of the famous finned fermentation for a long time, but had never been close to it, and now understood the depth of reaction I heard it evoke. Gisli explained that all the many steps to making hakarl were done right there in the barn: a large shark is cut up, buried in sand for many months, hung to let the powerful flavors develop, pressed, and then finally cut into small pieces. It is then enthusiastically sucked down with ample doses of a sort of schnapps called brennivin -or Black Death. An important part in the Viking midwinter holiday of Thoriblod, fermented shark is a tradition as old as the horses I loved so well, so I followed the tour with my nose turned off from the inside, and enjoyed seeing Gislis enthusiasm for his craft.
The highlight of his explanation, as I dreaded, was a sample of nice fresh,rather old, hakarl. We all gathered in the little tasting room where there a table was covered with plates of small squares of pinkish brown, flesh, and the famous green bottles of Brennivin. If you have any taste for a caraway-flavored liquor, Black Death isn't bad. It's dangerous only in its potency At 80 proof, it's ideal for a little warm up, but trouble if you bolt a lot down, like the Icelanders do. Gisli proudly handed round the plates, and toothpicks to spear our bite, and then followed with little glasses of Brennivin. The riders, fearless on horseback, shifted nervously as we weighed the risks of embarrassing our host, or embarrassing our selves.
I struggled briefly, then concluded, that with a nice slug of Brennivin it couldn't be so bad. Didn't I want to know everything I could about Iceland? And besides, my chum, Sarah, ferocious criminal attorney, just threw back her Brennivin, and chomped down her hakarl. Time to follow suit. I'd forgotten about my nose being turned off, however, and without thinking opened it to let the Brennivin prepare my system for the shark. The "Jaws" theme raced through my head, and just when I thought it was safe to go back to breathing my stomach, and head told me otherwise. The shark rode a Brennivin wave half way down and then decided to come on back up. Suddenly, I decided it was time to go out and check the girth on my saddle. The fresh outside air beckoned me so loudly that I ran the last few steps to the barn door. Ah, sweet air! Part of the shark smell followed me out, but soon gave up its dominion to the rain-cleansed air. A few minutes of quiet, and I won the multi cultural battle within. I went back to the tasting room to find my colleagues laughing at my sudden departure. My girth was fine, I explained, as I had another hit of Brennivin, sidestepping the sharky treat.
It's an acquired taste, hakarl, and it was sweet to know that Icelanders were as divided on it as we off-islanders. Monica chewed it up like peanuts, but some our Icelandic friends were happy to leave it for the aficionado.
Besides letting us see an old tradition, Gislis little tour had allowed the rain to stop. And we'd all gotten pretty warm-a little too much so, in some cases as we struggled to swing out legs over the saddle. It's certainly Iceland, I thought, as I waved goodbye to my new business colleague through a Brennivin haze and prepared to cross the rushing waters of the Vatnsdalsa.