Strung between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are slivers of jagged volcanic rock edged by cliffs and topped with turf cropped by sheep which easily outnumber the people. The 50,000 residents of this semi-autonomous outpost of Denmark are mostly descendants of Norsemen and (presumably abducted) Irishwomen. Their country is dominated by Atlantic winds, squalling rain, ocean vistas and louring clouds. Faroese clothes and language reflect that elemental connection – as does the food.
To survive their isolation, the Faroese have had to eat everything that swims, flies or walks on and around the islands. Gannets, puffins, fulmar chicks and guillemots were – and sometimes still are – on the menu; pilot whales, which pass in occasional pods, are savoured as a controversial delicacy.
Traditional Faroese dishes are not for the faint-hearted, among whom I count myself: even strong English cheese can frighten me. But over the past few years a handful of local chefs have been using the salty winds and the cool climate to produce a distinctive cuisine which has started to win plaudits and lure gourmets from afar.
The village of Kirkjubøur, just a few miles from the capital, Tórshavn, dates from at least 850AD, but it’s still only a dozen houses, a farm, a 12th-century church and a bus stop. On the sound, residents often spot seals, pilot whales and orcas; when the weather is kind, the sunset glitters across it.
In an ordinary house a little way above the village is a restaurant named Koks, owned by Johannes Jensen, a hotelier who has become the evangelist-in-chief for Faroese food. Alongside Koks’s former chef, Leif Sørensen, he was on the frontline of the slow-food movement known as “the New Nordic cuisine”. Led by René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, which was voted the world’s best restaurant from 2010 to 2014, it proposed a new way of cooking, melding the traditional with the new, and using local, seasonal and often wild ingredients. Redzepi, notes Jensen, sources langoustines and horse mussels from the Faroes.
Given the sheep-herding culture, it’s no surprise that Faroese cuisine has been dominated by lamb and mutton, and particularly by skerpikjøt (pronounced shesh-per-djut), the air-cured or “fermented” meat that is unique to the islands. Legs of mutton are hung for several weeks in ventilated drying sheds, gaining their particular taste in the same way that vintage wines gain flavour from noble rot; a fine skin of blue mould is a sign that the meat is ready. It’s hard to describe: it occupies the same sort of taste ground as South African game biltong or Spanish jamón ibérico – only more so. It’s a roiling, earthy, bestial taste with the power to inhabit not just your mouth and nose, but your whole skull. “Fermented food is an ancient technique,” says Jensen. “In Korea it’s done with kimchi, and in Europe sauerkraut also uses air-borne bacteria as part of the preservation process. But when people hear we do it with fish and meat in Faroes they get somehow nervous.”
This is food for people who are unafraid of flavour, and the Faroese do not tire of it. It has been served to me at breakfast, lunch and dinner on the same day. It is surpassed in popularity only by boiled sheep’s head.
It’s hard to get a table at Koks at short notice. As Jensen explains, diners flock from afar to sample the gourmet tasting-menu comprising 17 courses with paired wines, sherry, port and even a bespoke beer created by a master brewer in Belgium. Originally based at a hotel in the capital, Koks moved to Kirkjubøur this summer. “We actually had a carpenter here still working on the kitchen when our first guest knocked at the door. He had walked over the mountain from Tórshavn and was quite early, but as he’d come from New York we let him in,” said Jensen.
The menu focuses on locally sourced ingredients: hand-picked herbs, roots, lamb and mutton (of course), as well as Faroese cod, porbeagle and langoustines found only on a sub-sea bank close to the islands. Poul Andrias Ziska, who took over as chef from Sørensen, shepherds a team of sous-chefs keen to learn his art. On my visit, one of them spends ten minutes sorting pebbles by size and colour and arranging them around a small ceramic dish. Ziska places a giant mahogany clam, surrounded with slivers of kelp-flavoured gel sprinkled with dill sauce, in a shell, which is set on top of the pebbles. The dish tastes like a medley of wind and brine, the flavours emerge from the dark depths of the surrounding Atlantic. Ziska smears home-made biscuits with garnatáalg, the fat that surrounds the lamb’s intestines. The flavour is complex and aromatic, with a creamy aftertaste. Then there is a loosely constructed pâté of raw local cod on a bed of cream cheese and brilliant green watercress; the cress adds a lightness to the strong fish, and the cream cheese emulsifies and calms the vigour of the salt.
Everything is a sculptural delight, as fit for display as for eating – like the lozenges of Faroese rhubarb compote hidden between two perfectly matched nasturtium leaves. They are palate-cleansing morsels of peppery sweetness, shiny and bubble-gum pink, perched on a polished black stone.
At Jensen’s other restaurant in Tórshavn, his young chef, Kári Kristiensen, is aiming to test and stretch the visitor’s culinary imagination still further. The restaurant is called Ræst, the term for any meat or fish cured by hanging outside under shelter for several weeks. I am warned that, as an outsider, I may not have the constitution for everything on offer. The dishes are shaped by a treeless landscape that is unsuited to growing much beyond a few root crops like potatoes, turnips (which taste astonishingly sweet) and very vigorous rhubarb.
At Ræst I am offered a succession of Faroese favourites. There is sheep’s neck served with pearl barley and rutabaga. The dark, rich meat is served with a steak knife implanted vertically in one of the vertebra, like a culinary Scandi-noir crime scene. Blood sausage is served with sauerkraut and a mustard cream base, the crispy crust giving way to a sweet, slightly moist and nutty interior. Then I confront something I have always slightly feared: whale blubber. It’s presented in fine ceviche-style slices, translucent and pearly pink. I am instructed to wrap a piece around a slice of dried whale meat and eat it with unleavened bread known as drylur. The oily and, to my palate, slightly clammy blubber is not an immediate winner.
But the dried and fermented cod – or turrur fiskur – is an unexpected delight. A dish that appears to have the consistency of loft insulation is actually as light as a wisp of candy floss and melts on the tongue with a delicate crunch. It’s a favourite with sailors and modern-day hikers, packing more energy by weight than any other food.
This food, which tastes of the earth and the sea and carries the rich textures and pure energy of an Atlantic storm, is remarkable in itself. But eating it inside a 16th-century wooden house covered with living turf and lit by candles is a strange, intense pleasure.