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Hungerlust: Everything You Need to Know About Icelandic Sheep’s Head

Picture of Alice Johnston
Food Editor
Updated: 4 May 2018
Icelandic cuisine is unusual. The long winters and food shortages that plagued the country many centuries ago led to a culture of preservation. The result was feasts of rotten shark meat, puffins and ram’s testicles, all of which are still eaten today.

One of the country’s most famous dishes is sheep’s head, or svið. Culture Trip spoke to Sindri Snær, head chef at Mýrin Mathús, which is one of the few places that still serves traditional Icelandic dishes year round. He spoke about the country’s food culture and why the restaurant is keen for more diners to try the delicacy.

History and tradition

Hungerlust Episode 2-Reykjavik-Iceland
Dan Laughton / | © Culture Trip

Svið originated during a time when the Icelandic people couldn’t afford to let any part of the animal go to waste. Sheep are very common in Iceland (there are roughly two sheep for every one Icelander), and the native breed are as purebred and hardy as you would expect for an animal living on a cold, volcanic island.

‘The lamb is popular in Iceland because we have a lot of fresh water and mountains for the animals to drink and roam through.’ Sindri Snær said: ‘Every winter the farmers go into the mountains and look for their sheep so they can take them inside and let them rest for the winter. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries.’

Speaking of the history behind svið, Sindri Snær said: ‘Sheep’s head has a lot of meaning in Iceland, and we’ve been eating it for generations. It was in good supply, it didn’t cost very much and it meant we could eat the whole lamb without wasting anything. It’s only now that consumption of it is slowing down as we don’t have to eat the sheep’s head to survive any more, but some of us really like it. When the Vikings settled in Iceland hundreds of years ago, there were already sheep here so the settlers did the obvious thing and ate them.’

Hungerlust Episode 2-Reykjavik-Iceland
Dan Laughton / | © Culture Trip

The symbiotic relationship between Icelanders and sheep continues today, with the animals providing meat and wool – as well as income – for many.

Svið is an essential part of the mid-winter festival Þorrablót, held during the ancient Icelandic month of Þorri in January and February. While the country has a long heritage of winter festivals, Þorrablót was founded after the post-WWII urbanisation boom, when lots of people moved from the Icelandic countryside to Reykjavík. Designed to as a tribute to Iceland’s ancient roots, Þorrablót is celebrated either at home with family and friends or at a restaurant by eating a buffet of Icelandic foods that aren’t enjoyed as often as they once were.

Along with the sheep’s head, participants enjoy foods such as lifrarpylsa, a sausage made with liver, sheep’s suet, rye flour and oats, súr hvalur, which is whale blubber pickled in sour milk and harðfiskur, wind-dried fish (commonly haddock or cod). Everything is served with rúgbrauð, a dark, chewy rye bread and brennivín, a clear spiced spirit.

How they’re made

Hungerlust Episode 2-Reykjavik-Iceland
Dan Laughton / | © Culture Trip

Svið is a truly economical dish, as it’s made from a part of the animal that would usually be thrown away.

Firstly, the hair on the sheep’s head is burned off, and it’s then cleaned under cold running water. The eyes and ears get special attention here, as they’re more likely to contain dirt or grit.

The head is then sawn in half lengthways and the brain removed, which is less messy if it’s frozen first. ‘We used to eat the brain, but in the last 20 years we stopped as it was becoming unpopular,’ Sindri Snær said. ‘Now we use it to make sheep jam.’

To cook the head, it’s placed into a large pot then covered with salted water and boiled. It takes around an hour and a half to become tender, during which scum must be removed from the surface of the water. It should be removed from the heat before the meat starts to separate from the bones, otherwise the integrity of the head as an entity will be lost. It can served immediately, or refrigerated and served either cold or reheated.

Where to find them

Hungerlust Episode 2-Reykjavik-Iceland
Dan Laughton / | © Culture Trip

You can buy sheep’s heads ready to cook or eat at home in supermarkets throughout Iceland, but finding restaurants that serve them is slightly trickier.

Sheep’s head is enjoyed year round, and Mýrin Mathús is one of the most popular places that serve it. Found in the unlikely location of a bus terminal in Reykjavík, it’s been serving hungry travellers since 1976 and sheep’s head is one of its most consistent sellers. They sell around 10,000 of the things every year.

How to eat them

Hungerlust Episode 2-Reykjavik-Iceland
Dan Laughton / | © Culture Trip

Traditionally, a sheep’s head meal will also include mashed potato and mashed or chopped swede. It’s surprisingly simple to eat.

‘There’s nothing on the head you can’t eat, except of course the bones,’ said Sindri Snær. ‘The eye will pop when you eat it, and it has a salty juice in it which some people like. The best part is the tongue.’ Dig in and prepare to leave an impressive looking skull on your plate.

Sindri Snær also shared the secret that the dish is great with a glass of Coca Cola. ‘They go really well together,’ he said.

Although some Icelanders love the sheep’s head, it’s not as popular as it once was. Sindri Snær said: ‘I hope the tradition will stay alive and will become popular again. It’s part of our culture and tradition, we’re really proud of it.’

Superstitions

Hungerlust Episode 2-Reykjavik-Iceland
Dan Laughton / | © Culture Trip

There are some old wives’ tales surrounding svið that tourists might do well to heed. Firstly, you should never eat the ear. Not because they’re inedible (although they might be a trifle chewy), but because they often bear the mark of the sheep’s owner, and many think that Icelanders will accuse the eater of theft.

It is also said that if the tiny bone under the tongue of the sheep remains intact while you eat, a child that can’t yet speak will remain silent forever.

Love Hungerlust? Find out everything you need to know about Cornish pasties here.