Saturday, June 26, 2010

You mean... someone doesn't like fermented shark meat?

Hákarl - an icelandic 'delicacy'(Why do you think I made one of the main heroes in the Heirs of Alexandria series an Icelandic warrior... The book, by the way, is finished, finally today.) AKA - fermented raw basking shark, which is just plain toxic fresh, and smells like it is supposed to be used for industrial floor-cleaning is perhaps one of the extreme examples of cultural food acclimatisation (and eating it is supposed to be sign of manliness! (hur, gung ho. I c'n drink ammonia.) and like many things (Surströmming and Kusaya spring to mind - yes I have come across both. I'm a foodie who worked with fish) it's one of those love it or hate it things. And people get very very heated about them...

While not, thank heavens, in quite the same league as Hákarl, muttonbird tends to have the same reputation. For islanders who have grown up with it, well, it's a delicacy. Many incomers - and some islanders - won't even have it cooked in their kitchens swearing the smell lasts for six months or so.

Let's be frank(incence) it's... fairly powerful. smoky-fishy. Um well, very fishy. Okay since you press me VERY VERY pungent. And, er, enduring. I'm not willing to give it 6 months, but outside cooking is prolly not a badly thought-out idea, because you will smell it in bed. Tomorrow, unless you have a good air-extractor.

Curiously, the meat itself is not too fishy. Just the fat, and there is a lot of it. Very full of all those omega three fatty acids. The best answer is to barbeque it. And as the book was finished I decided the time had come to test how Islander my family were. Of course the downside of this is that Australia is very like South Africa in many cultural ways, but some ass introduced the idea of cooking on gas barbeques instead of a 'braai'. For a South African he-man to admit that he cooks on gas... well he's more likely to have one of those little handbag-purse things the French seem to consider manly, and to tell all his friends he loves going for a pedicure and facial as they talk over the Rugby. Or as likely as an Icelandic skald to tell you hates Hákarl. Even the likes of me who stopped worrying about what his fellow men thought of his masculinity thirty years back, wouldn't touch one except to fry eggs and bacon on... because, frankly, they fail at the basic reason for cooking over a fire - which naturally is the cremated bits and flavours from the wood-smoke or even charcoal ( I cheat and mix the two, but purists swear by various woods. I might too, if I was that pissy, or had the option, maybe). You might as well cook inside on a stove as on gas.Yes, there is a fire risk. And there is taste disaster. They're convenient IMO, but nothing like as nice as the real thing. But I think I have found the closet reason for this use of gas. A lot of products in Oz lead SA by a country mile, but every now and again you find something they screwed up here... and lead contender outside of Telstra (with a special mention for exceptional achievement to the Eastlands Mall Telstra shop in Hobart as the single worst shopping experience I have ever had) has to be these things called 'heat beads' which are to a good briquette what the hardness of a marshmellow is to steel bar. Okay, grumble, maybe just what we got on the island and they're just wonderful everywhere else. I lit these. And then I lit them again. Then I 'phoned the Fireys and told them not to panic, Victoria wasn't on fire, just 30 heat beads in a safe stainless steel container on concrete with 5 yards of wet grass around them... were doing the smoke-dance of a Chinese brown coal fired power-plant... each. It took a good 40 minutes to put out the same amount of heat as a car cigarette-lighter - by which stage the average pyromanic South African would be singing his eyebrows off with a douse of meths or petrol (adds that je ne se quoi to your cremated meat.)

But I have the answer. There is help at hand


The muttonbird.

Bloody 'eck. If there ever was a good reason for cooking over a gas grill it's got be the effect of muttonbird fat on heat beads. The flames got about 3 feet high. There is NO WAY I am cooking these things inside a house on a gas stove for 'elf an safety reasons -- and you all know how I deeply approve these nanny things. Anyone who is dumb enough to cook these near naked lights indoors deserves the house to catch. And the happy South African habit of beer marianade-fire douse would have lots of sour faces and empty beer bottles. You could run a truck on muttonbird fat I reckon (I'm tempted. The delight of driving the exhaust scent down a city street... or stopping next to your friendly traffic policeman would almost be worth it.)

There is of course one dire danger cooking them outdoors. It is the so called 'hot dog' AKA Roland who decided that muttonbird fat was just the most decious thing in the entire universe and was so frantic to get at the splatter that I was terrified the droplets on his back might combust.

The dogs LOVE muttonbird. They cleaned the concrete. They got a broth made from the bones and scraps on their blocks and voted it wolfed down, and the braai - flames and all - had to be guarded. They sat and drooled at us cooking.

The cats feel that anything that combines their best food - fish, with their second best - fowl, has to be a win. But please do not cook it!

James had an uncertain start, and then got into it, and ate one and a half, and Paddy ate ?4 well, lots.

For the record, it's MUCH nicer over charcoal - even these rubbish heat beads - than it was over gas. More of a flambeaux hassle to cook, but worth it.


  1. Now that definitely belongs in the "do not read while consuming a beverage" category.

    I think you may have been spoiled for charcoal in SA. In France there are certain brands which are good and others which seem to be almost as (in)effective as your "heat beads".

    Muttonbirds sound a bit like ducks only more pungent. I've seen similar monster flames when some idiot decided to stick a "magret de canard" (duck breast) on the barbie in France.

  2. The first time I combined a closed charcoal grill with chicken quarters was adventurous.

    It only took a month or so for the hairs on my arms to grow back.

  3. Francis' comments on duck were exactly what I was thinking. Mutton Bird confit? Followed in several weeks by mutton bird Cassoulet.

    Your description of Hákarl reminds me of a fermented fish found in Korea...which a Jewish LT in the company pronounced very similar to "deli white fish".

    Now I used to haunt Jewish Delis in Philly and never saw a fermented whitefish, or any other such thing, but Marc assured me it was so. Must be one of those things that you ask the counterman "what's in the back" to get.

    Which brings me to Gefilte fish. Which is usually made from a less desirable fish such as carp or pike. It is canned (jarred) and keeps. I thought of it while reading about your chewy fish while sitting on the sands of the North Carolina beach. It might do for storage and taste.

  4. Mutton bird is far worse than any mere duck.

    Incidentally I was amused to discover a recipe for grail a la ronge. It required you to literally wrap the bird around a stick of butter bigger than it was to get sufficient oilyness for the recipe to work.

    [Colour me amused by the imagined effects of Muttonbird bio-diesel, though.]

  5. My professor of Norse Literature told us that the Archivist in charge of access to the original Norse manuscripts serve hákarl at the academic get togethers. And only those who would eat the hákarl found that their "requests for access" were approved.

    I attended language study in Sweden a few years ago and one of my instructors was a fan of surströmming, and half-jokingly said that she'd never buy any textbook that made disparaging remarks about surströmming. I think the only reason it was a "joke" is that she wasn't in charge of buying the textbooks! And she was delighted to host a surströmming party for all the interested students. And I have to admit that it tastes better than it smells; in fact, it wasn't bad. I'll take surströmming over lutefisk any day. I find the texture of lutefisk so appalling that I can't even bear to eat it.

  6. How were you trying to light it? Even cheap/slightly damp charcoal tends to light well if you're using a chimney instead of just heaping it up in a pile and applying a match to some crumpled news paper.

  7. danneely (shakes head) I'm 50. For at least 42 of those years I've lit barbeque fires. South Africans barbeque (braai) every 2 weeks on average I'd guess, and as we camped a lot, more often. I've lit fires in the pouring rain, fires where 6 blocks of fuel were all we had... For the last 9 years I've made a fire every night for six months of the year. I'm an incompetant idiot, but with that amount of practice anyone learns to do it well. I used firelighters - which I assume the rest of the world has seeing as South Africa and Tas do, and kindling, and a pair of bellows.

  8. Luneray - oddly enough lutefisk one of the (few) forms of food-fish I've never tried. Everyone seems to say the texture is so vile. Along with fugu, I can't say I am in a hurry to do so.

  9. Reverence Pavane - muttonbird fat biodiesel would combine traditional cultural practice and green sustainable technology. Of course it would be a huge hit in one of those trendy area full of pavement cafes crowded with soya-milk latte sipping socialites.

    Is grail a common species around there? (I must tell king Arthur;-))

  10. I've come across your 'deli white fish' Quilly. A Jewish friend knowing I was curious about fish dishes gave me some. Smelly. Tasted remicent of soft cheese :-). I can't say I was a fan, but could eat it. Hmm. I'd only had geflite fish fresh and cooled. Must look into that.

  11. Curmudgeon - this closed grill thing - what we'd call a kettle? With a lid, like an oven, sort of?

  12. Francis - as 'braai' is possibly the only major passtime that trancends all racial and cultural barriers in SA and has a quasi-religious significance, I am sure you're right and our charcoal was of a high standard. However I had deluded myself that Australia was a barbeque nation and would therefore be the same. Alas. They were led from the path by the gas barbie. It's not the same.

  13. BWAAHAHAHHAAAAA!!! You had EXACTLY the same muttonbird experience that I did!

    The first (and only!) time I encountered 'em, I thought charcoal was the way to go. (Because yes, I agree: gas barbecues are only for bulk-feeding by way of generic sausages and chops. Any other form of grill-cookery needs wood/charcoal.) And just like you, I got the Wall of Fire.

    As for Heat Beads - you didn't buy the 'generic' variety, did you? I once made the error (driven by circumstance) of purchasing plain-label heat-beads. Could not light them. Not with vast quantities of kerosene and ill-will.

    Eventually, just for curiosity sake, I broke out an actual-factual blow-torch and ran it over one of those so-called 'heat beads' for a clock-measured three minutes.


    Stay away from plain-packaging 'heat beads'. I think they're meant as insulators...

  14. Flinthart - I bought what the little shop has. I am relieved to find that 1)I'm not the only person to find the f#$%ing things are utter rubbish and don't burn without muttonbird fat as as an igniter. Please expalin to danneely that I'm not that incompetant! 2)There are alternatives.

  15. Reverence Pavane - i HAD figured. But it was simply too rich and rare an opportunity to pass. The French K-niggards probably are them a la Orange. It's the sort of thing they'd do.

  16. Danneely: generic heat-beads plus INDUSTRIAL BLOWTORCH equals no cookfire. You could use those suckers on the outside of the space shuttle, I tells ya.

  17. Dave: Not sure if it's what you'd call a kettle, but this is an illo of a grill similar to the one I was using to burn off my excess fur at the time.

  18. Dave -- I will admit, I have had fugu. Frankly, I don't understand the attraction, it's a fairly bland white fish. Now, having said that, I will add that for those who like it, supposedly they request a bit of the poison, just enough so that it makes your tongue shiver. And as I understand it, the poison is cumulative, so if you keep it up...

    Incidentally, many Japanese also refuse to eat fugu. One friend tells of deciding as a young man to try it, and going with a friend to a fugu restaurant. When they arrived, an ambulance was carting someone out. He says he turned around, and has never been interested since.

  19. Dave, at least you didn't end up with Flambeed Roland. I'll admit I remember with fondness camping with my family and eating meat off a real camp fire.

    One of the main reasons I think many Aussies went to gas barbies is the number of horrific bush fires we have had in this country.

    Given the choice of some idiot 'cleaning out the barbie by emptying it into the nearest bush' or turning off the gas, I prefer they turn off the gas.

    We have enough fires from someone throwing a cigarette butt out the window without adding in barbie fires.


  20. As Mike says, if you skip fugu you haven't really missed anything. It makes nice sashimi, but it isn't notably better than any of the other fish usually used. Yes, there's always the question of whether the chef gutted it properly to add a little frisson to what would otherwise be a rather boring meal.

    If you turn out to be unable to get proper charcoal I guess you could try making that yourselves too. If done right I think you could piggy back the charcoal process on some wood smoking of food (or vice versa). Of course my knowledge of charcoal making is mostly derived from one of the Swallows & Amazons books which I haven't read for 30 years so it's probably wrong.

  21. Actually, I know a few people that make their own charcoal. A 55 gal drum seems to be the key ingredient.