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When René Redzepi began trying to lay the groundwork for what would become the New Nordic Cuisine, his journey began in the Faroes. He was the chef at Noma the leading gastronomic ambassador of these islands, where products and traditions are maintained that were forged by centuries of adverse climate conditions and isolation. Sitting in the middle of the North Atlantic, this archipelago consists of 18 islands (connected by bridges and tunnels) with landscapes that could be called dramatic, to say the least.
“Discovered” by Irish priests and then occupied by Norway, they are now a self-governing region of Denmark. The name is actually quite revealing, gastronomically speaking: in the local language, Faroe means sheep. The proportion of sheep to people is around 70,000 vs. 48,000. And when you wander around the little villages of the Faroes, you very quickly notice a unique architectural feature: virtually every house has a small windowless shed (hjallur) next to it, with a roof covered in grass.
Almost every family has their own sheep, which they take to the butcher in October and then hang inside the shed. The weather conditions and the sea breeze blowing between the wooden planks create a process halfway between drying and fermentation (dry-ageing, a combination of fermentation and ageing). The result is specialities like skerpikjøt, mutton shank or leg (which they call lamb regardless of the animal’s age) with an elastic texture. A true Faroese can actually tell from the taste whether the sheep grew up on one island or another, on that side or this side.
Obviously, in an archipelago where you’re never more than 4.5 km from the sea, fishing has always been a cornerstone of the economy (as they say here: “A Faroese is born with an oar in his hand”). Sea urchin, cod, shellfish, lobster, salmon, langoustine (back to Redzepi: langoustines from the Faroes are still on the tasting menu at Noma): the list of seafood delicacies is virtually unlimited. And it includes pilot whales, which are hunted legally here, although clearly this has been and still is the subject of international controversy.
The Faroese Food controversies
Despite attacks from animal-rights groups, residents of the Faroes stubbornly demand their right to continue their tradition. “It’s an unresolvable clash of cultural views”, according to our guide; “They don’t understand that we are not doing it for fun but because it is part of our life and our history”. Fishing and whale hunting are controlled and regulated by the government and the police. On one thing, the Faroese agree: the attention from animal-rights groups in recent years has led to the whales being killed in a more human way.
We tasted the dried meat and the blubber (subcutaneous fat): these are decidedly strong flavours, like lamb, but going far beyond the limitations of the palates of people who did not grow up in the middle of the Atlantic. Another tradition is catching the hundreds of species of birds living here, which, while perhaps not arousing the indignation of the animal-rights groups, nonetheless raises some eyebrows. Including the very sweet (we think) puffin. “We live in the nature and of the nature. We respect it. And we always remember how it can be dangerous”, our guide explains simply and effectively.
Where to eat in Faroe Islands
The island’s real fine dining destination is Koks, which in 2014 won the Nordic prize as best restaurant in the Northern countries. Here super-young chef Poul Andrias Ziska features an inspired all-New Nordic menu that features Ræst, fermented meat – fish or lamb – something that summarises this island better than anything else. Another recommended spot is Tórshavn, the capital (20,000 residents and just three traffic lights). After a stroll through the little streets of Reyni, the old citadel where the Parliament still sits, stop at Etika, a sushi bar with local products (like shark nigiri). But the most authentic experience is Heimablídni: lunching or dining – by reservation – in the homes of Faroese who offer home-style hospitality.
A souvenir to go in the suitcase? The beer from the island’s two craft breweries, Föroya Bjór founded in 1888, and the more recent Okkara. Try the one fermented with Faroese pebbles: hard to figure out how they might affect the taste, but it certainly is a fine story to tell when you get home.