Iceland is amazing, but beware the dead sheep's head

ONE of the weirdest things I ever ate – or gagged on, if truth be told – was a sheep’s head cut in half, singed to remove the fur and boiled with the brain taken out.

It’s called svio, and I was sitting in the Fljott og Gott (Fast and Good) cafeteria in a bus terminal in Reykjavik, Iceland when the sheep’s head arrived – eye still in its socket – on a plate.

I can’t remember what it was served with. Mashed potato? Boiled rice? Pasta? Ice cream? It could have been any or all of those things. But once your meal eyeballs you I’m afraid you only have eyes for it. The sides don’t get a look-in.

Anyway, there I was, looking at one of Iceland’s traditional dishes while it looked at me, and I couldn’t help thinking my life would be a lot easier if I just toned down the “I want to experience it all” knob a notch, and was satisfied with a salad sandwich in Reykjavik rather than Shaun the Sheep’s head.

Anyway, there I was, looking at one of Iceland’s traditional dishes while it looked at me, and I couldn’t help thinking my life would be a lot easier if I just toned down the “I want to experience it all” knob a notch, and was satisfied with a salad sandwich in Reykjavik rather than Shaun the Sheep’s head.

But no. Too many times I’ve looked at menus in Australia and overseas, and instead of ordering safe and familiar – “Spaghetti carbonara, thanks, and would you mind taking it easy on the cream?” – I’ve chosen adventure and ended up staring at my plate, knife and fork in hand but frozen, trapped in a torture test of my own making, with something disturbing or unappetising in front of me. 

But back to the Fljott og Gott.

Time passed after my meal arrived. The sheep’s head didn’t move. Everyone else at the other tables seemed to be enjoying their baked beans on muffins, hamburgers, fish and chips and milkshakes while I, apparently the only non-Icelander among them, was doing the authentic Icelandic thing with the half-head of a dead domestic animal. I suspected there was some smirking going on, and a little mirth among my fellow diners.

Dagfridur: “Oh look, Adalbjorn, there’s another tourist with a plate of svio. Why do they do it?”

Adalbjorn: “I don’t know. They try to do the authentic thing. You know, eat svio, go to the spas, walk on a glacier. But when was the last time you ate svio?”

Dagfridur: “Ugh. You’ve got to be kidding. The last time I ate svio was at Grandma’s when I was six. I got the head that wasn’t singed properly. Do you have any idea how foul partly-singed sheep’s hair tastes?”

Adalbjorn: “Yeah. I know. My grandparents used to eat it all the time because no one had any money, but they also went to the toilet outdoors in the dead of winter because there was no internal plumbing. I’d rather eat pizza and use the en suite.”

I’m not saying the above conversation actually occurred, but from the looks of my fellow diners I think there might have been one or two chats that came close.

But back to my plate.

What part of the sheep’s head are you supposed to eat, I thought. And more importantly, what part are you supposed to avoid?

Certainly the eye. No way was I eating a sheep’s eye, no matter how much the nice man behind the counter, and the young waitress, assured me it was the best part.

“Compared to what?” I asked, looking at the rest of the head and finding nothing that looked like it was nice to eat, but as nice as it was it didn’t hold a patch on the gelatinous blue-looking thing in the eye socket.

Certainly the singed hair didn’t look appealing, or the ear. The nose I recoiled from because it was, well, a nose, and it was too easy to imagine a nice little lamb gambolling in a paddock and breathing happily through its nostrils. No. Not the nose.

So, maybe the cheek? I lifted my knife and fork. COME ON, you can DO THIS! It’s just a sheep’s head. From a little baa lamb. Just like the little lambs I chatted with the day before as they accompanied me on a walk in a typically dramatically-spectacular Icelandic setting.

DON’T THINK OF THE LITTLE BAA LAMBS! 

Which is ridiculous because I don’t think of little baa lambs when I eat lamb korma or lamb casserole at home. But there’s something about the head on a plate that makes vegetarianism suddenly sound so appealing. If only it was lentils in front of me with a side of chickpeas.

I finally made a little stab at the side of the sheep’s head and lifted up a sliver on my fork. The sheep’s eyeball glared accusingly in the background. I took a nibble. It tasted like meat with a slight back taste I couldn’t put my finger on. Not smoked. Then I remembered the hair-removal process. Yes, that was it. That’s what singed hair tastes like, I thought.

I pushed my plate of svio off to one side. While I had been mildly hungry before entering Fljott og Gott, I wasn’t really hungry after my sheep’s head encounter. The sheep’s eyeball continued to glare, though, so I opened out my crumpled-up serviette and laid it respectfully over the uneaten meal.

The waitress smiled when she came back.

“Finished?” she asked.

“Um, yes, thanks,” I said.

“What did you think?” she asked.

“Um, well, um, I just, ah, it’s sort of . . .” I said.

She laughed.

“That’s OK. Some tourists manage to get through it, but most struggle,” she said.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“Oh, no way. I prefer fish,” she said.

I know a Swedish woman who has lived in Australia for nearly a decade, married and had a baby.

Whenever talk turns to food and some of the weirder Swedish staples, she just smiles and delivers the killer line.

“But Australians eat Vegemite,” she said, after years of gagging if she even smells it.

And she’s got us there.