Smalahove, also known as Smalehovud or Skjelte, is a traditional Norwegian dish that is mostly consumed around and before Christmas. It is made from sheep's head. The name is often viewed as a combination of the Norwegian words hovud (meaning head) and smale (one of the local words for sheep).
The savory and crispy dish is one of the world's most unusual foods and although it is extremely popular with tourists and visitors, the taste is generally an acquired one. Also, the appearance of the dish does not appeal to everyone, giving Smalehovud the status of an 'extreme food'.
History and Origin of Skjelte
While the origin of the dish is most definitely Norwegian, the exact story as to how the unusual preparation came into being and got popular is largely unknown. One theory states that the dish is a result of the poor not getting good parts of the meat (these were reserved for the wealthy) and they had to make-do with leftovers. Since the wealthy did not prefer to buy and eat the head, it went to the poor who cooked and consumed it in various ways. The dish quickly gained popularity because of its unique taste and nutrition value.
There are various other theories about how the dish originated and evolved but it is not exactly clear as to how or why it became a Christmas special.
Ingredients Used and Preparation Overview of Smalehovud
Smalahove is often viewed as an easy-to-make dish and it is cooked by itself. Sometimes, it is made into a stew in which case, vegetables like onion, carrot, potato, tomato, etc., and meats like chicken and lamb are added along with broth/water, bouillon and seasoning agents. It is important to note that stew versions of Smalehovud are very rare.
To cook the head, the skin and fleece are torched and the brain is removed. The head is then salted, at times it is smoked, and then dried. For about 3 to 3 1/2 hours, the head is boiled or steamed and it is then served with mashed potatoes and rutabaga (Swedish turnip). In some regions, the brain is left inside the skull, in which case the head is fried and the brain is scooped and eaten with a spoon.
The dish is a common household preparation in Norway, especially on and around Christmas. One half of the cooked head makes one serving and the eye and ear are mostly eaten first. These are the fattiest areas and are best consumed while still hot. Normally, the head is eaten from front to back.
Popular Smalahove Recipe Variation
One of the best known variations of the traditional Skjelte recipe is Svið, a traditional Icelandic dish made with sheep's head. The brain is removed and the head is boiled. The dish is served with mashed potatoes, turnips and rhubarb jelly. The eyes are considered a delicacy and often served to the guest of honor or the head of the family (clan).
An EU directive issued in 1998 prevents the preparation of Smalahove from adult sheep because of the fear of possible transmission of scrapie (a dangerous degenerative disease of goats and sheep).