The glory of golden hour enfolds me as I arrive at a little hut on wheels sitting on the edge of Lake Leynar, a half-hour’s drive from the Faroese capital, Tórshavn. Such clement weather is never a given up here in these islands where thick fog and rain have currently settled on one side of a mountain, sunshine illuminating the other. I climb the steps into what’s essentially a fermentation shed that doubles as a greeting place for guests, where I’m met with a glass of locally brewed beer and a warming bowl of clear lamb broth. This is the first stop on an adventure into the strange and stunning food of the Faroe Islands. Fellow diners warmly salute each other then pile into a Land Rover that skirts around a shingle beach to take us to our destination.
Koks sits in a lush valley surrounded by waterfalls and the sound of oystercatchers. A distractingly named venue to English ears (the word actually means flirt or fusspot in Faroese), this is a new location for the restaurant that was awarded its first Michelin star in February 2017, and it’s truly spectacular. We’re seated at ‘the community table’, a concept that could bring a person out in the hives, but tonight’s gathering of strangers proves to be a hoot. A plate of shellfish, pulled from Kalbak Fjord just two hours before service, is brought to the table. What follows is a multi-course odyssey across land and sea that provides the backbone of the Faroese larder. Queen scallops, capelin roe, halibut, razorbill, foraged herbs and seaweed, crowberries, blueberries, angelica and rhubarb are just some of the ingredients included here.
The next morning, I meet Poul Andrias Ziska, the 28-year-old chef at the helm at Koks. He takes me foraging and explains that he can find different types of cress, beach mustard, fjord cabbage and more but today’s pickings are slim — it’s a little too early in a very short season.
We drive to Kalbak Fjord, where baskets and boxes are hanging from ropes tied along a pontoon deck — inside are sweet mahogany clams and scallops. “We change dishes according to the seasons but sometimes we might just change one ingredient on one dish. It’s a dynamic thing. We don’t have so many langoustines today, so we have to adapt,” says Poul. “We try to source what we have around this area and make it tasty. Where we come from we know what’s going on around us with the land and in the sea. The seafood is high quality, the sea doesn’t change much, the temperature is good and the water clean.”
Set far out in the Atlantic north of Shetland and south of Iceland, the Faroes is an archipelago of 18 small, rocky islands with no native trees. “There are some world maps where you can’t even find us,” says Súsanna Sørenson of Visit Faroe Islands. The first settlers arrived here more than 1,000 years ago. Hikers and adventurers have long been coming to explore one of Europe’s last wild frontiers, but now food-focused tourists have the place on their radar.
In this elemental landscape, where soil is poor and the weather often foul, food was once simply about survival. Now it’s about a celebration of limited but hyperlocal cuisine. Poul confides that this is nascent: “The whole restaurant scene in the Faroe Islands is super-young, led by people aged 17 to 30. There’s not many older than that, but we will be.”
Føroyar is the Faroese name for the archipelago, meaning ‘sheep islands’, and there are around 80,000 sheep here with lamb and mutton the main cooking staple. Wind-dried lamb is a particular highlight — it’s soft in texture with an umami hit.
Ræst or fermentation is the anchor of Faroese food: fermenting meat and fish in briny sea air was used to preserve it before refrigeration but such is the islanders’ taste for ripe protein that almost every family has access to a drying shed, known as a hjallur, with slatted walls for ventilation.
Jòannes Patursson is the farmer at Kirkjubøargarður, one of the oldest, still-inhabited wooden houses in the world — it and the surrounding land have been in his family for 17 generations, since 1557. It’s located beside the ruins of the medieval St Magnus Cathedral on the island of Streymoy. Inside his hjallur, Patursson shows me my first fermenting lamb carcass, hung by its feet and mottled with mould. “We slaughter the lambs, hang them, take their intestines out and make cuts in the carcass to speed up the process,” he explains. Ræst is left for four to six weeks but the Faroese also adore skerpikjøt, which is left for four to five months to become pungent.
The drying process is also used for haddock and the islands’ somewhat controversial whale meat. The annual pilot whale drive, grindadráp — where around 900 are culled — has long been the focus of Greenpeace protests. But since whale meat was traditionally a life-or-death source of protein for the Faroese, most locals vociferously defend their tradition. Barren islands meant inhabitants had to make the most of all edible resources, including seabirds. Somewhat fishy-tasting birds such as razorbill, fulmar, and puffin are commonly eaten in the way that other people would eat chicken or duck.
Once a teetotal society with very little in the way of restaurants, the revolution in Faroese gastronomy has seen local families open their doors to guests with supper clubs known as heimablídni (meaning home hospitality). I’m welcomed to a chic, modern bungalow in Velbastaður by Anna and Óli Rubeksen, where a dining table looks out across the water to the islands of Hestur and Koltur.
Anna is a nurse working with people with dementia and Óli a social worker in child protection. They’re also farmers with 150 ‘mother’ sheep. They began to offer lunches and dinners to visitors as a ‘side job’. I sit with them to eat home-made mutton sausage, lamb liver pate and grilled ribbon of lamb — all from their own livestock — as well as a beef stew made from the neighbour’s cow.
“Farming is part of life for many Faroese,” explains Óli. “People give a hand, going back to their home villages in autumn. You’re in the city but have roots back in your home village. Everyone mucks in. Home slaughtering is a very big part of the lifestyle, too.” The couple both cook and the majority of their dishes are from old family recipes.
Dessert is hazelnut and orange meringue. “This is my mother’s recipe,” says Anna. “We make memory food, connected with people we know. Our crops are potatoes, rhubarb, cabbages — we have a lot of rainfall. People here grow their own, but not much more than their household needs. Lots of people on the Faroe Islands still have a fairly good connection with their food’s origin.” And it’s true. The vast majority of the population of just 49,500 people will know what’s in season and where to find angelica — the aromatic plant that’s the essence of the islands.
They turn rhubarb into jams and liqueurs, help their neighbours round up sheep or gather sugar kelp and truffle seaweed down on the seashore. With long winters and short days (just three to four hours of daylight at the shortest), islanders must make the best of what they have. And the burgeoning new Faroese food scene is testament to the locals’ inventive skills.
A taste of the Faroe Islands
Small plates of the finest Faroese produce at this Michelin-starred restaurant often include mahogany clam served in its natural state; razorbill breast rolled in a pancake and sliced, served with a sauce of beetroot, rosehip and elderberries; and ræst with pickled lingonberries. For desert, try ice cream of Arctic thyme. A 20-course tasting menu is around £165 per person without wine.
Specialising in traditional Faroese fermented food, chef Sonni Zacharesen works with ingredients that some may find challenging but are the very heart of the islands’ cooking. There’s dried haddock and whale meat with blubber meat; barley risotto made with fermented lamb stock, and pilot whale; and a dessert of fermented gooseberries and rosemary. A set menu with five courses is around £82 per person without wine.
Another traditional Faroese restaurant in a lovely old building, the biggest draw here is the lamb and seafood. There’s a choice between three and five courses, the latter features smoked haddock, lamb tartare, langoustine bisque, rack of lamb or cod and a dessert of rhubarb compote, ice cream or a selection of cheeses. A set menu of three courses is around £59 per person without wine.
Five Faroe Islands food finds
The Faroese are the kings of the meat fermentation process, using their omnipresent sheep to produce ræst and skerpikjøt with lamb that has been hung to dry in the briny North Atlantic air.
Salt cod, often sold to the Spanish and Portuguese market, which becomes soft and sweet when
re-soaked in water and rinsed.
Very few crops grow in the poor soil across the islands but turnips do well and, according to chef Poul Andrias Ziska, they are “crazy good, juicy sweet like an apple and all white. They’re in a class of their own.”
Surrounded by ocean, the Faroes are home to many seabirds, and traditional subsistence living meant that fulmar, puffin, razorbill and gannet are an inherent part of the national diet.
Rhubarb thrives in the harsh Faroese climate and therefore features in savoury and sweet dishes, jams and liqueurs. The welcome drink at the seafood restaurant Barbara is Rabarbara: Cava mixed with home-made rhubarb syrup.
Direct flights from the UK to Faroe Islands depart from Edinburgh with Atlantic Airways, from £180 return. SAS flies from the UK via Scandinavian hubs. Hotel Føroyar has double rooms in low season from £53. visitfaroeislands.com
Published in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)