Preserving the Faroes

It’s a mild autumn evening and the ocean mist is rolling in from the coast, dampening the air as they damp down visibility. Outside the wide window, the usually bright green pasture looks grey and monochromatic. It’s punctuated now and then by the bulk of a grazing sheep coming suddenly into focus as it wanders closer, out of the fog.

The weather is quixotic on the Faroes as winds and currents swirl around this tight cluster of 18 North Atlantic islands, situated between Scotland and Iceland. (It takes just over two hours to fly from London or Copenhagen to Vàgar, the islands’ main airport). When the sun shines, the landscape is breathtaking, but even in this soft, muted version, the magic of the place remains. Up here, on green and pleasant lands that remain appreciably under populated, you never lose the feeling of being really far away from the bustle of everyday life. The islands’ sculptural forms marry land and sea, framed by a vast sky whose clouds and colours are always dramatic.

That sense of other-worldliness is not imaginary. These giant chunks of volcanic basalt were colonized by the Vikings and for centuries isolated from the rest of Europe. (Officially, they belong to Denmark but have a quite separate history). The islands’ location, as well as the almost temperate climate afforded by the Gulf Stream, has led them to have a unique food culture.

“Until recently, our islanders survived by eating primarily sheep, fish and sea birds,” says Poul Andrias Ziska, the chef of Koks, the Faroes’ most acclaimed modern restaurant. “Almost no fruits or vegetables were cultivated here—apart from potatoes, kohlrabi and turnips—so the meat and blubber of the whales we caught provided a life-saving source of vitamins.”

The sheep play a central role in the archipelago’s unusual food culture, too. Visually, the islands are striking for their lack of trees, not due to the wind or cold, but to the sovereignty of the sheep that are free to graze almost everywhere. They keep the islands’ pastures trimmed to just a soft green fuzz and were a vital lifeline when fish were unavailable.

In the Faroes, each small village has a church, a cemetery and a rescue team. Each family owns a parcel of pasture for cows, sheep and hay as well as a part of the cliffs and mountains, which are shared within the community. When whales are caught, the meat is equally divided between all the islands’ inhabitants, whatever their ages.

“Unlike other parts of Scandinavia, the Faroes rarely freeze in winter and they didn’t have access to crystallised salt, so our islanders’ only way of preserving their precious meats was to hang them to dry in the moist, salty air—away from insects—in a process of natural fermentation called raest,” he explains. To the non-Faroese, the fermented meats’ distinctive, pungent flavour may be an acquired taste but it’s an important, integral part of the islands’ culinary identity. Lamb, mutton, fish, sea birds and whale meat are still preserved using this time-honoured method in small purpose-built huts called hjall, without the use of salt, ice or smoke. The meat hangs for several months before being eaten, cured only by the salty breezes.

Koks is situated inside the elegant Hotel Føroyar, just outside the capital, Tórshavn (population 19,000). The modern designer hotel stretches out along the hillside above the town, providing panoramic views of the port and the ocean beyond it. Like the islands’ traditional stone houses, the roof is covered with growing grass for natural insulation, so it blends into the fields that surround it. As part of Koks’ gastronomic offering, one of the hjall huts has been converted into a movable, private dining room for its clients, to showcase traditional Faroese cuisine. In summer it’s parked in a pasture above a magnificent cliff, with views of nothing but water, islands and birds.

The main dining room is, of course, in the hotel and, with its clean lines and stylish hanging lamps, could only be Scandinavian. It was opened in 2010 by the hotel’s owner Johannes Jensen, and the then chef Leif Sørensen. Sørensen was one of the founding members of New Nordic Kitchen, signing its famous Manifesto in 2005, and was the first to push for using foraged native and local ingredients on the Faroes.

“At that time, most restaurants in the Faroes were serving steaks with sauce Béarnaise, so Leif inspired young chefs to explore the amazing wild and home-grown foods that the islands excel in,” says Ziska as we tour the pristine kitchen in Koks. “He got us all foraging and working with wild plants, from nettles and grasses to seaweeds.”

Ziska, who is now 25, was born in the Faroes and worked under Sørensen first as an apprentice and then as sous-chef. When Sørensen left in January 2014, Ziska took over as head chef and has continued to expand the restaurant’s repertoire of dishes and ingredients. He’s fortunate.

The fresh seafood found in the ocean waters around the islands is some of the world’s finest; the water is less salty than the Mediterranean’s and much cleaner; there is three times more biodiversity in Faroese waters than in the North Sea. The water is a stable temp of 8C, so it’s ideal for crabs, langoustine and other shellfish, many of which are exported to Noma and other top Nordic restaurants. (Some local mussels are aged over 50 years and weigh 500 grams each). Native sea urchins are abundant and taste as sweet as mangoes. Salmon is farmed sustainably in the spacious fjords and complements the wild fish.

Faroese lamb, too, is some of the world’s finest. The salty pastures the lambs graze in give the meat a distinctive flavour. The locals may prefer their lamb fermented in the traditional way, but at Koks diners are also offered a rarity: fresh lamb cooked simply, accented, for example, with fermented carrots, whitecurrants and chervil.

“One of the biggest challenges for us was to source local vegetables as there was no tradition of growing them here,” says Ziska. “But thanks to the example set by Danish farmers like Søren Wiuff, whose asparagus and carrots have become legendary thanks to René Redzepi at Noma, our island farmers have been encouraged to grow more varieties and the results are very positive.” Local farms are now supplying Koks with wheat, berries, beets, salads and other fresh produce which Ziska and his team use alongside wild, foraged plants.

The creative and beautiful dishes the restaurant provides have won world-wide acclaim, as well as appreciation closer to home: Koks was awarded the Nordic Prize for the best restaurant in the Nordic countries in May, 2015. The fine-dining restaurant is open for dinner only, and offers a tasting menu of around 20 courses. The large room with its picture windows also houses the hotel’s breakfast and lunch service under a different management, and there are plans afoot to move Koks to a separate location where it could have a bigger kitchen and smaller dining room.

“The Faroes have become an exciting destination for foodies, especially those who like to hike, fish or go kayaking surrounded by puffins and seals,” Ziska says. “The islands are rich in contemporary and folk culture, from music to theatre and art, and offer great opportunities for photography, bird watching and water sports.” Koks may be the islands’ primary fine-dining venue, but several other good restaurants exist that feature local seafood and ingredients.

“There’s always been a great culture of hospitality and eating in the Faroes,” says Ziska. “That’s why each house has a large dining table: to survive the long winters you need a place that’s cosy and large enough for whole families to gather and eat together. We’re a very social people, and sharing food is the best way to show it.”

Find out more about the culinary career of Poul