Traditional Norwegian Smalahove smoked sheep's head

Authentic Norwegian Smalahove smoked sheep’s head recipe

Heads up everybody, cause here’s the recipe you’ve all been waiting for! As you eyeball your plate, at the face of it, it’s some gruesome culinary prank. But appearance is only skin deep, and below is the softest, most succulent meat you can imagine; say hi to Norwegian Smalahove!

The traditional Norwegian Christmas dinners:

This recipe is featured in The Big Five traditional Norwegian Christmas dinners & recipes:

Ok, so what actually is Smalahove?

The west coast specialty Smalahove means “sheep’s head”, and is what many Norwegians enjoy for Christmas dinner.

The traditional method of making Smalahove from scratch is:

After beheading the sheep, the head is put on a stake, and the fleece is burnt off over a fire and scraped away with a sharp knife. The scull is then split, the brains removed, and the head is cold smoked over alderwood and dry cured with salt.

The following two photos are copyright Hugleikur Wolter, and are excempt from our CC BY-SA 4.0. They were taken at Sogn Jord- og Hagebruksskule in Aurland in 2022.

Very similar dishes exists in Iceland, where it’s called Svið, and in the Faroes, where it’s called Seyðarhøvd, which, to nobody’s surprise means “sheep’s head” in Faroese.

As you may know, both Iceland and the Faroes are old Norwegian Viking settlements. Though the potato is obviously a recent addition (around 1815 in Norway, as discussed here), it could very well be that the origin of this dish is from the Viking Age. I am not familiar with similar dishes occurring in the Danish, nor Swedish kitchen.

We buy them already cured and smoked, so all we do is prepare them: When ready to eat, it is simmered for 3 hours, and served with potatoes and mashed rutabaga. (described detailed recipe further down)

Along with Lutefisk (authentic Norwegian recipe here), Smalahove is probably the most notorious dinner in the traditional Norwegian kitchen, and just a glance at the plate makes it obvious why – it is, after all, a sheep’s head staring back at you.

I think this scene from the old TV program Alt For Norge (Everything For Norway) sums it up pretty nicely:

Henriette: Clinton – you don’t look too well..?

Clinton:

How to eat Smalahove

Aside from a horror-delight factor of eating a scull, if you can get past the fact that there’s A FACE ON YOUR PLATE, Smalahove is actually very, very delicious.

The matter of fact is that one of the choicest cuts of meat on any animal is the cheek. And after 3 hours simmering in a pot, this meat is turned into a super soft and tasty AF smoke flavored delicacy.

Though some people eat the skin as well, I prefer to lift this off and discard so I get access to the meat below. I start with the most easily accessible cheek meat, and along the jaw.

There will also be a bit of meat between the eye and ear, and on the upper jaw, towards, but not including, the tip of the snout. The tongue is also very delicious, but you need to remove the tough skin on it. I prefer just using my fingers peeling it off.

Saving the best bit for last: The eyeball!

The eye is basically a very soft and tender muscle surrounded by a lovely gelatinous padding, so you definitely eat that. Inside the black part, the iris and pupil, you will some times (but not always) find a “stone”, which I think must be the lens, so I just discard that part. But there’s a muscle attached to back side of the black part that’s really nice and soft too.

If you visit Norway, you can experience a real Smalahove dinner at Smalahovetunet. We went there in 2017, and the food, service and ambience is incredible!

Anyway – we have a recipe to share!

Ingredients

Aromatic vegetable stock

  • 4 liters water
  • 1 onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stocks celery
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • a few sprigs fresh tyme
  • 3 cloves garlic

The meat

  • 4 half smoked sheep’s head (Smalahove)
  • 3-4 liters aromatic vegetable stock

Method

Everything but the meat is 100 % identical with Pinnekjøtt (recipe), so head on over for ingredients and directions for the mashed rutabaga, chive butter sauce and lingonberries.

The smalahove is too damned salty for us in its natural state, so I like to soak it for 12 hours before simmering to draw out some of that salt. Many don’t, and like the salt lick salinity it gives them.

And just as with Pinnekjøtt, I like to simmer the Smalahove in an aromatic vegetable stock, so I make that first. Simply cut the ingredients into chunks and simmer: If you have a pressure cooker, it’s 30 minutes with natural release. Otherwise 1 hours in a regular pot.

Strain the vegetable stock, then simmmer the Smalahove in that stock for 1 hour in a pressure cooker with natural release, or 3 hours in a regular pot.

Serve with boiled potatoes, mashed rutabaga, chive butter sauce and stirred lingonberries, just like with Pinnekjøtt. And just like Pinnekjøtt, serve with a strong, caramelly ale and barrel aged Norwegian aquavit.

We serve with our home brewed Vossaøl with kveik (recipe) and Gilde Juleaquavit, but failing to brew your own beer, a English style low hop barleywine would most certainly do the trick!

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