The food culture of the Faroe Islands
Written by Catherine Martel, Dînette Magazine
Very few places on Earth have the power to trigger your senses like the Faroe Islands. Its land is brutally rocky, shaped by the strength of oceanic breezes and rainstorms sweeping away any form of life standing. Only on such an isolated volcanic archipelago could a culinary DNA encoded by the will to survive thrive with such character and pride. A blooming scene of young chefs is starting to push further the boundaries of local cuisine, where Faroese ingredients and methods take on Michelin-star propositions. Their plates are filled with stories to tell and awe-inspiring shapes and colours that prove the Faroes have much more to offer than only beautiful landscapes.
The first thing that strikes when driving from the airport to Tórshavn, the capital, is how few green and harvestable lands there are. You get the sense that you’ve landed on a giant rock where only thousands of sheep ramble around. A few fun facts now to help grasp the uniqueness of this terroir: no trees grow on the Faroe Islands and the sheep population exceeds its inhabitants (!) in number. Combine that to harsh weather keeping the temperature evenly cold all year long (rarely does it reach above 10 or go below -5 Celsius) and you’ve got the most improbable environment for nurturing any kind of refined culinary expression. Yet, the Faroese are such strong defenders of their millennial traditions that a clear line can be traced between history and food culture. And quite a fascinating one, indeed.
Survival of the Fittest
So, what is so unique about the culinary heritage of the Faroe Islands? Amongst all Scandinavian territories, it is the Faroes that are, by far, the most isolated and vulnerable to climate upheaval. Since the first settlements in the ninth century, inhabitants mostly fed on what the ocean and bird flocks had to offer. Winters were (and still are) long and harsh, and preserving enough stock to get through the cold season was a question of life or death. But in the peculiarity of the North Atlantic weather, they saw an opportunity to preserve food like no one else did. Thanks to a perfect combination of constant low temperatures and wind, and high concentration of salt in the air, the Faroese developed a salt-free method for preserving meat and fish: ræst. This tradition (which translates to fermentation) involves hanging meat and fish out in the open, then in drying houses, where time and the natural elements work their magic.
Amongst all Scandinavian territories, it is the Faroes that are, by far, the most isolated and vulnerable to climate upheaval
Farmers are considered guardians of the ræst tradition, mastering the art of fermenting sheep or lamb meat for a full nine months, or drying fish, especially cod, for two to three months. This singular process will take place in a hjallur, a dry house whose walls allow the sea breeze to pass sufficiently. A leg of lamb is à point when a thick bluish layer seizes the flesh, which, after some trimming, reveals meat as soft as the best Bayonne ham. The putrefaction acts like the noble decay that enriches a Grand Cru. But what remains particularly fascinating with the ræst method is that the meat is naturally salted by the oceanic winds that constantly blow along the shores.
A New Take on Nordic Cuisine
Still, today, while passing by small fisherman villages as picturesque as postal cards, it is not uncommon to notice fish hanging from eaves, slowly ageing and absorbing the wind’s salty flavours. A century ago, these would later be stocked for winter. Nowadays, local chefs are picking up on this mundane method rooted in survival instincts to give it a more refined twist. Young chefs like Kári Kristiansen from restaurant Ræst and Poul Andrias Ziska from 2-star Michelin restaurant KOKS, are following in the steps of famous Faroese chef Leif Sørensen. Leif, together with other Nordic chefs like NOMA’s René Redzepi’s, signed the New Nordic Food Manifesto in 2004, which crystallized the wish to celebrate and protect a Scandinavian approach to food that is pure, simple, ethical, seasonal, and focused on locally sourced and fresh ingredients. Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to eat local when going out in Faroese restaurants, but as relationships with producers and farmers have flourished, the islands’ exceptional signature is now accessible to all.
Raest, or Not to Raest
What exactly does raest taste like? Its powerful and singular flavours revealed at the first contact of the papillae will throw many gourmets off guards, as most of the Faroese flavours are as much off the beaten track as its landscapes are rugged. The taste of the meat aged in open air has almost no reference point. Umami, the fifth flavour, could be a start when trying to describe what biting into a nine-months-old piece of lamb tastes like. The nose will instantly catch an amalgam of beasty perfume evoking memories of a stable, wool and blue cheese. In the mouth, a raw, bestial flavour hits the palate accompanied by a hint of fresh grass.
Foodies with enough grit can appreciate this peculiar meal at Ræst restaurant in Tórshavn, dedicated to traditional preparations and delivering an authentic Faroese experience. “We try to make it like a family dinner,” claims chef Kári Kristiansen, who takes pride in crafting a menu based on exclusive ingredients only accessible to the savvy islanders: “Most of the fermented food stays here. You have to get out there to get it”.
What’s for dinner?
Beyond fermented meat, the Faroese diet consists mainly of seasonal fish and seafood, organic lamb and a few stubborn root vegetables. Potatoes, kohlrabi, turnips and rhubarb – if not swept away by the wind before reaching maturity – will grow at such a slow pace that they fill up with incredible aromas over time. One can even argue turnips are as juicy and sweet as a ripe pear (that I can totally second). The limited and radically seasonal pantry definitely forces the Faroese chefs to cook available ingredients ingenuously. Truffle-flavoured wild algae and native herbs, such as angelica, are used for seasoning. Seabirds are also sought-after, especially the Fulmar which is savoured as a much-anticipated seasonal dish. The young and fat bird lives along hedgy cliffs. Winds throw some off their nests down into the ocean. Being too plump and clumsy, the young bird can no longer fly back up and will eventually end up in a fisherman’s net before it has time to drown.
Beyond fermented meat, the Faroese diet consists mainly of seasonal fish and seafood, organic lamb and a few stubborn root vegetables
Food and People
If some of the best meals we’ve tasted in the Faroe Islands are inspired by home-cooked cuisine, it is because those traditions were passed along and protected within families. The Faroese have a very special relationship with resources and the environment. A significant portion of the population is self-sufficient food-wise. Some are part-time farmers, hunters and fishermen, and professionals working from 9-5 on weekdays. Others even enjoy welcoming guests and foreigners who wish to experience a typical family dinner like the Faroese into their kitchen Heimablídni is a new tradition of home hospitality, a meal cooked by locals and enjoyed in their home, allowing one to infiltrate an intimate setting and capture the essence of the Faroese mentality.
Those attracted by raw beauty and authentic experiences will be served in the Faroe Islands. Its stunning natural décor is like nothing you’ve seen. Its people are welcoming, optimistic, and resilient. We can definitely learn a lot from them; how following the natural rhythm of things is a source of happiness, and how celebrating all of what nature has to offer can lead to creativity and deliciousness.