Svið - Gastro Obscura
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Prepared Foods

Svið

In Icelandic cuisine, few things are more traditional than half a sheep's head.

Back in less bountiful times, Icelandic peasants couldn’t let anything go to waste. So when a sheep was slaughtered, its head would sooner or later end up on the dining table, split down the middle with one eye peering up from the plate.

This dish, known as svið, still exists today. Icelandic cooks take a sheep’s head, cut it in half, remove the brain, singe the outside to remove the fur, then boil the head for an hour or more. It’s then served with mashed turnips or mashed potatoes.

The head offers a unique amalgam of textures and flavors. The cheek is the meatiest piece, with the typical taste and texture of mutton. The tongue provides a nice chunk of muscle, and the eyeball delivers a succulent pop when squeezed between the teeth.

If that sounds unappetizing, then svið probably isn’t for you. If it’s the cranial presentation that’s putting you off, try sviðasulta instead.At least this svið-based head cheese won’t stare back at you.

Svið is most commonly eaten during Þorrablót, an Icelandic mid-winter festival. During the festival, a selection of traditional Icelandic food, called a Þorramatur, is laid out buffet-style for hungry revelers. Along with svið, this could include blood pudding, wind-dried fish, seal flippers, fermented shark, and ram testicles. It’s kind of like a Golden Corral buffet, but for vikings.

Need to Know

Svið isn’t so common in Iceland anymore, and it’s hard to find good svið unless you happen to be served it in a private home during wintertime. You can sometimes find it in grocery stores and supermarkets, either precooked or frozen. Very few restaurants serve it year-round.

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Contributed by
Tony Dunnell Tony Dunnell
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