Fermented Icelandic Sheep

The contemporary midwinter festival of Thorrablot in Iceland celebrates the country's tough Viking history, including dishes featuring various fermented sheep's parts. Lacto-fermentation was one method of preserving scarce food sources during a long winte

Fermented Icelandic Sheep


Iceland is famous for many things—geothermal hot springs, the recent volcanic eruption, and some pretty weird cuisine, including several recipes for fermented Icelandic sheep—or select parts of the sheep. Even more famous—or infamous—is hákarl, or rotted and dried shark. These are traditional dishes that were originally developed to preserve every bit of the scarce food sources over the long winter months, including meat and organs from sheep, and fish. Techniques included fermenting or pickling and drying.


The Icelandic Thorrablot Trough


In the 1950s, Icelanders revived the Viking celebration of Thorrablot during midwinter and fermented rams’ testicles and pickled sheep organs made a comeback, along with hákarl, singed sheep head, and pickled whale blubber. These preserved meats and fish are usually served in a rough wooden trough, often with anesthetizing shots of Brennivin, a strongly flavored aquavit.


Hrutspungar (fermented ram’s testicles):


Icelandic lamb is renowned for its wonderful flavor, as is smoked Icelandic lamb or mutton. In the old days, nothing went to waste, however. Hence hrutspungar. Rams’ testicles are fermented in whey (a by-product of making fresh cheese), then pressed into cakes or set in gelatin, and served as a kind of paté. A BBC correspondent assigned to cover the Thorrablot table one year described this delicacy as “sour and spongy.”


Lundabaggar (sour lamb):


In this dish, different internal organs of the sheep, like the intestines, are put in a string bag or tied with string, and then fermented in mysa, or whey. At Thorrablot, the lundabaggar is then sliced and served. Most often lundabaggar is very fatty, since many of the organs used contain a lot of fat. Pickled fat may not be to everyone’s taste.




A traditional Icelandic food that has continued to be popular through modern times is skyr, a sour soft cheese often compared to yogurt. The mysa, or whey, is the by-product, left when the curds are removed. Again, the traditional Icelanders didn’t waste anything, and utilized the mysa as a fermentation agent. Besides fermented sheep, mysa has been used to preserve whale blubber, sheep’s’ heads, and seal fins.


A correspondent for The Reykjavik Grapevine weighed in on the results of all this lacto-fermentation during his Thorrablat assignment: “All that pickled stuff has the same foul taste, really, so it’s rather the texture of the pickled items that counts. And testicle texture really isn’t all that swell.”


There Are Worse Things to Eat than Fermented Sheep


Fermented sheep parts may not be haute cuisine by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems that most people would rather nibble on a sour gonad than put a piece of hákarl in their mouth. Burying the shark underground for several months in gravel while it putrefies and then hanging it out to dry for several more months renders the shark—edible. Not for all. Tough-guy chef Gordon Ramsay was unable to stomach even one bite and ended up vomiting into an orange bucket. Though watching the YouTube video of this event is just as unappealing as the prospect of being stuck on Iceland in the dark winters a thousand years ago with nothing left in the cupboard but—a nice chunk of hákarl. Bring on the hrutspungar!




Haukur Magnússon. “Should You Be Eating This?” The Reykjavik Grapevine, http://www.grapevine.is/Food/ReadArticle/Should-You-Be-Eating-This

“Icelandic Cuisine: Myths Exposed.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3895653

“The F-word: Gordon Ramsay vs. James May, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vTOfhQ_SZEg

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James R. Coffey
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Posted on Jan 10, 2011