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Smalahove – heads on the menu

The traditional Norwegian dish of smalahove – steamed sheep's head – might be one of our oddest culinary specialities. Every year in autumn the Løne family in Voss start producing smalahove. And they need to work hard to get the 70,000 sheep's heads ready in time for Christmas.

The king of smalahove

“We started 45 years ago as a small business that only sold to friends and family”, says Ivar Løne, while his guests queue up to be served in the storehouse from the 18th century.

Smalahovetunet in Voss is a family business that sells smalahove and pinnekjøtt all year round.

Traditional food with a long history

Smalahove is a sheep’s head that has been salt-cured, smoked and steamed. It is served whole, together with potatoes and mashed swedes, beer and aquavit. When cooked to perfection, any part of the head can be eaten, Ivar explains.

“Only the bones and a matchbox-sized amount of leftovers should remain on the plate”, says Løne with a laugh and adds: “Smalahove has been a local tradition since the first people settled here in Voss.”

Smalahovetunet is the only smalahove manufacturer in Norway. It all started when Ivar prepared some extra heads for his uncle back in the day, and news of his skills reached the community. The following year Ivar bought and processed 50 sheep heads. The rest is history.

Today it is Ivar’s son Geir who supervises the production of 70,000 portions of smalahove every autumn, from September to December.

Preparing smalahove used to be a tradition on all local farms.

“Smalahove is a traditional food that has its origins in Voss and Hardanger. In the area around the Sognefjord, the locals skin the heads before drying them, but that is not the custom here”, Geir says.

Eating sheep’s heads has been a tradition in many places in Norway. It originated as a need to use the whole animal and not letting anything go to waste – a sustainable and important reason to keep enjoying this delicacy today.

From simple home cooking to festive meals

In the past, smalahove was considered simple home cooking, which was not suitable for festive meals. In those days it was served with cultured milk, and not with beer and aquavit as it is today.

The last Sunday before Christmas used to be called “skoltesøndag” – “skolt”is a local word for skull. According to Geir, all sheep’s heads had to be eaten by the end of this Sunday. But Ivar changed this tradition.

Now smalahoveis considered a delicacy reserved for special occasions. And this change in tradition is due to my father’s contribution”, Geir claims.

An evocative meal

Over the years the Løne family has served both regular guests and travellers from all over the world. Although being served a severed sheep’s head can seem daunting, most people like it once they try it, according to Ivar.

Though it can be disconcerting when the food stares back at you, Geir admits.

“Many people are sceptical at first, but most end up enjoying it. And for those who find the head too off-putting, we offer to serve the dish as pulled meat. This usually helps.”

Geir is met with a lot of excited faces when he enters the 300-year-old storehouse with a trough full of smalahove. When all the heads are served, he gives instructions on how to eat them.

“Remove the pupil and the gristle from the ear. The jaw is the tenderest part”, he says.

Thomas Lorentzen is here with his colleagues to try smalahove for the first time. “I love the taste of pinnekjøtt, but the staring head makes me uncomfortable.”

But it only takes one bite to convince him.

Mmmm, this is delicious! It tastes just like pinnekjøtt”, he says.

Mutton on the menu

You don’t have to go to Voss to eat smalahove. Many restaurants in Norway serve this delicacy.

And mutton can be used to cook more than just smalahove. In Norway, we eat more lamb than mutton, but it is basically the same meat. Mutton has a more gamey taste and is a bit more fibrous. It is perfect for traditional Norwegian dishes such as fårikal, pinnekjøtt, fenalår,and stews, but both sirloin and tenderloin from mutton is delicious as well. Mutton even makes a tasty leg roast.

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