Harðfiskur (pronounced: har-th-fiskur) is without doubt Iceland´s favorite snack. Not only is it full of omega-3 and bursting with vitamins, it is also sincerely delicious. Eaten with salted butter, it often substitutes potato-chips or popcorn while watching a movie on a cold evening or is frequently packed as a healthy lunch. Harðfiskur plays a large role in the menu of the Þorrablót, the old Pagan feast that is celebrated early each spring. It is sometimes used in soups or stews but most commonly it is eaten simply as a snack; tear of a piece of fish, dip it in salted butter and allow the dried fish to soften in your mouth before chewing. For real fish-lovers, this really is about as good as it gets.
Harðfiskur originates, like a lot of Icelandic food, from primitive preserving methods and the first Vikings to reach Iceland already used this technique of storing food. In fact, dried fish can be bought all over the world in many forms and versions; Asian supermarkets often sell bags of dried fish and so do most grocery stores in Norway. Nevertheless, I dare to say (and all Icelanders will agree with me) that none of these come even close to the pure and clean taste of the Icelandic harðfiskur, which is caught in clean ocean waters and is dried in the North-Atlantic sea breeze.
Drying and preserving your own harðfiskur is very simple. If you have a good source of fresh fish, some do-it-yourself skills and a bit of patience, you could be enjoying your own batch of harðfiskur in a few weeks of time..
This is what you´ll need:
- 5-15 pieces of whole fish such as cod, haddock, seawolf or ling (although most non-fatty fish will do)
- A wooden meat mallet.
- A good ventilated spot, like a cliff on the shore or an isolated area in your garden (your balcony might do the trick if your neighbors can stand the smell).
- A few two-by-fours or pieces of wood to build a drying rack. A wash line could work, but the fish might slip off.
- Chicken wire to build a small fence around your rack; not to keep the fish from escaping but rather to keep predators such as seagulls and cats from entering.
- Nails, twine, a hammer and saw.
- Patience and good weather.
Start by cleaning the fish in cold water. Remove the intestines and cut of the heads. Fillet the fish but keep both sides connected by the tail. This way you end up with two joined fillets.
Set up your drying rack. Harðfiskur is usually dried on racks made of two tripods with a bar across. Two poles with a wash line can work just as well though. Most proper drying racks are built with roofs to keep the rain out. If you have cats or other critters in your neighborhood you might want to build a fence around your drying rack.
Once your drying rack is ready, fling each double fillet across the bar with ample space between them. Make sure the fillets do not touch each other. Leave the fish to dry and check on them every other day to make sure the process is going well. Like I said, you want ample ventilation and lots of wind. Spring and autumn are perfect seasons, whereas winter and summer will obviously spoil your fish. You want your fish to dry, not to rot or freeze.
After a few weeks, depending on your climate, your fish should be all yellow and hard and look very unappetizing. This is good.
Gather all your dried fish and lay them out on a workbench or kitchen table. Next, get a wooden meat mallet and pound the fish for a few minutes or until it is white. If all went according to plan, the fish should now be soft and ready. Now, tear of a piece, smear it with some salted butter and have a taste..
Verði þér að góðu! (May it do you good!)