Enchanting Faroe/2

Sheep and whales, the unusual and essential culinary resources on which the Northern archipelago counts

03-05-2015
Sheep thighs hanging in a supermarket in Torshavn,

Sheep thighs hanging in a supermarket in Torshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands. It’s a very precious cut for which locals can spend as much as 300 euros

(see part one)

A rich reportage would be necessary, and not just an article, to explain the products and diet of the Faroese Islanders. Historically their diet was influenced by environmental obstacles those from the Mediterranean area would think insuperable. Yet over here people have been eating, with mixed results, for 1300 years. Today the lack of proportion between the island’s rather limited production and consumption and the echo it has had around the world in recent years is surprising.

Part of the merit goes to René Redzepi, their first testimonial: for him the Faroe Islands are «like Hawaii, but with bad weather» but most of all they are a rich reservoir for Nordic cuisine. It was when crossing these cold waters (though not very cold: the temperature is 5-8°C all year round) that the Macedonian chef began to feed the myth of the New Nordic Cuisine: rowing next to Claus Meyer, he was surprised by the horse mussels, the langoustine that would make Sicilians envious and the lambs grazing in endless pastures.

Here we will concentrate on sheep and whales yet there’s lots that could be said, for instance, about salmon (their farms are ubiquitous on the Faroe Islands: every year they send 80K tons of meat around the world), about the birds (damn it, it wasn’t the right season to taste puffins). Or about the delicious craft beer (those at Okkara ferment an interesting kind in volcanic rocks).

[[ ima2 ]]SHEEP. They are the country’s emblem, so rooted they are part of the name itself (Faroe= sheep islands). In fact no one says sheep or mutton but almost always lamb even when the animal is older than 12 months. For each inhabitant there are 1.7 sheep, a number that recently decreased. Yet you can find them grazing everywhere: in the endless meadows or on the edge of the road. And if they disappear, it’s because they’re giving birth on top of the green hills.

Skerpikjøt is a culinary banner for the country. It’s the famous mutton shin or leg (not sheep: these need to be spared for reproduction) dried in the hjallur, small huts scattered a little everywhere in the villages. The cuts are rather yearned for: a mutton leg can reach up to 300 euros at an auction. To provide for the winter, the mutton are killed in October and subjected to a 8-10°C breeze, the ideal temperature: if lower, the dried meat will be tasteless; if higher, it will rot. The length of the exposure to the wind varies from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the conditions and the desired fermentation. How about the taste? Italians will wrinkle their noses depending on the level of drying. Yet after a while you get used to it and to the idea that placing two slices of dried mutton on rye bread will make for a good outdoor lunch in the Faroe Islands.

How about the other cuts of meat? Close to Christmas, locals make delicious soups with muttons’ necks and backs preserved in salt, with carrots, chards or cabbage. The brave will put even the head in the pot, black as the hair was just burnt. By the way, it may help to know that Per Hansen (per.hansen@mail.fo), our extraordinary guide, was very pleased about this saying: «The only difference between the Faroe Islands and heaven are snakes». There are no reptiles or other predators on the archipelago. Except for men.

WHALES. It’s another topic on which to dwell at length. To keep it short, locals have been eating the globicephala for about a thousand years. The fierce killing of the pilot whales, led and then murdered on the beach, is a rite they still repeat from once to five times a year. The bloody killing (see the controversial documentary produced by Animal Planet) is ruled by internal laws, just like with tuna in the Mediterranean Sea or sheep, cattle and pigs in every slaughterhouse around the world.

[[ ima3 ]]«We welcome the objections of all the menacing environmentalists who come here», says Hansen, «Yet cetaceans have been our first source of food for centuries, it’s a matter of survival. They have always meant life for us. And for sure we don’t threaten the species: so for the few hundreds we kill each year, there are always a million or so scampering around the Atlantic Ocean». Everyone is right and debating is necessary. What is important is to face it without sheltering behind ideologies. Perhaps without imposing partially omnivorous diets (a contradiction in terms) with the same arrogance of those who sew democracy in fields where this would never grow. Or considering the real problem has to do with the presence of toxic elements (mercury, above all) found in the cetaceans’ guts in dramatically increasing quantities.

How about the cooking? Fifty shades of whale can coexist. We recall a decent dried meat (people from Valtellina do not be offended, we could say it distantly recalls breasaola) and the blubber, the subcutaneous fat tissue, about which we are left wondering, just as with all the cooking procedures we did not taste: boiled or pan-fried as if it were a steak. A fascinating world that can only leave us with a bated breath and judgement.

2. to be continued

A potato field at the entrance of Giógv. As the a

A potato field at the entrance of Giógv. As the archipelago has almost no trees or plants, tubers and vegetables growing underground are very important in their diet. In Torshavn, the capital, the number of vegetarians and vegans is increasing

A piece of dried whale meat held by Poul Andrias Z

A piece of dried whale meat held by Poul Andrias Ziska, chef at Koks, a gourmet restaurant on which we will focus in the next episode


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