Sitting in a courtyard cafe in Oaxaca, I’d ordered bravely.
“I’ll start with the chapulines, please.”
Chapulines, or grasshoppers, are enjoying something of a revival in this southern Mexican city and I’d heard they were extremely tasty. Deep fried and tossed in salt, this crunchy dish was the snack popularly found at ball games and in bars, or as I’d found, as a staple on a restaurant menu.
The waitress brought a huge platter to the table with a grin, piled high with cheese, pork and of course, a generous serving of fried grasshoppers piled into a flour tortilla bowl. I tried to hide my dismay. It’s all very well proclaiming you’ll eat the local food but it is polite to leave some for the locals too. Now I had no choice. Whether I liked them or not, these deep-fried grasshoppers had to be consumed. It would be too embarrassing if I left any. Tentatively, I took the first insect between thumb and forefinger and popped it whole into my mouth. Crunching loudly, I was relieved to find it was delicious. I took another and another, before taking a swig of beer to wash it down. Glancing up, I caught the waitress watching me from across the cafe. I grinned and gave her the thumbs up. She laughed and went back to polishing glasses.
A couple of years later, driving round Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula, my husband and I came across a small sign in the shape of a shark. Intrigued, for we were a few miles inland, we turned off the main road onto a gravel track and found ourselves at Bjarnarhöfn’s shark museum. We were ushered into what looked like a ground floor attic crammed full of dusty antique household objects. Guðjón, whose family had lived on this farm for over four centuries, was our jovial host. After leaving us to consider the logic in placing an old Singer sewing machine next to a stuffed seagull, Guðjón led us to a collection of photos on the wall, but this was no ordinary family album. For a start, one featured a huge Greenland shark being dangled from a height of around eight metres from a forklift truck.
Guðjón explained that although once his family had landed the catch themselves, these days the sharks were brought down from Olafsvik, the largest town on the peninsula. Once delivered, they were carved into big chunks and packed into wooden crates. To create the hákarl that everyone round there liked to eat,, the shark had to be left to rot. Packed for several months to cure, the boxes would eventually be unpacked and the meat hung out to dry. The rotting process had to happen slowly, so it only took place in the colder months. Despite Icelandic summer temperatures barely reaching the high teens, this would be too hot and the shark would go off, he told us. By that, I assumed he meant with maggots or suchlike, because, surely, rotted food by definition had already gone off. I was glad we’d come in April. The meat would already have been drying for a while and would have begun to develop its hard crust. And maybe, just maybe, that would ease the smell a little. I’d heard there could be a strong whiff of ammonia.
Now, Guðjón was gesturing for us to head up the hill out the back of the museum where we could see some distant sheds.
“While you go and see for yourselves, I’ll prepare a little treat,” he said.
The drying house was roofed, but had open sides. The smell started to prick at our noses about halfway up the path. By the time we reached the building, it was pungent and impossible to ignore. The chunks of shark meat hung from the rafters, dripping what looked like oil onto the wooden floor. Guðjón had told us this was because the shark flesh contained high levels of urea and something called trymethylamine oxide, highly toxic unless left to slowly drip out.
“Are you going to try it?” I asked my fussy eater husband.
“I’m not eating rotten food.” As replies go, it was quite emphatic.
Back at the museum, Guðjón had set a table with what at first glance looked like cubes of Parmesan that had been left to go hard at the back of the fridge. Thoughtfully, he’d also cut some pieces of rye bread which if nothing else would mask the taste of the hákarl.
I chewed hard, expecting the worst. The Internet was full of reports wildly exaggerating how hideous the taste was, but it wasn’t too bad. There was a faint whiff of ammonia, true, but the taste was unpleasant rather than guy-wrenchingly awful. Reassured, my husband even gave it a try, sniffing it first before swallowing a cube.
He didn’t even need the bread.