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Faeroe Islands, the best conservationistional pantry in the world

Maria Canabal

16/10/2013

In the midst of the triangle formed by Norway, Iceland and Scotland, lie the Faeroe Isles like 18 pieces of scattered confetti of countless variations of green. The islands are of volcanic origin and surrounded by impressive coastal cliffs. These imposing walls are renown worldwide.

Each island is in itself a cliff, reaching 700mts on average. The slopes descend gently to the coast where the towns are located. Rocks, fjords, valleys formed by glaciers, depositing sediments and erosion conform the rough and impressive landscape.

The country with the oldest parliament has a surprisingly mild climate with winter temperatures rarely dropping below 3 degrees and summer rarely climbing over 16 degrees. The water temperature is another matter entirely and this could be one of the secrets to its unique ingredients.

Nordic Terroir

Traditionally, most Nordic cooks began their careers in German restaurants. This was mostly due to language issues, where they would spend extensive periods working. On returning to their countries of origin, they would reproduce the cuisine they had been doing for 15/20 years abroad which was generally French in influence.

The 21st century saw a change in this trend, with a new generation of “Y” cooks who were much more volatile, did not concentrate on just one destination and significantly reduced the length of their internships abroad. Back in Viking territories, they got interested in using local ingredients in the same way they had learnt to use the local ingredients of the countries where they had learnt to cook. They learnt the concept of terroir by exploring the produce markets of countries like France, Spain and Italy; and decided to explore their own Nordic terroir. They decided not to imitate. Their motto was to create a style of their own based on their roots.

In 2004, a handful of these chefs, two from the Faroe Islands, met in Copenhagen to create a “Manifesto for New Nordic Cuisine”. The main idea was to explore the northern territories, or rediscover them, and the ingredients from these fields, forests, seas, rivers and lakes in order to develop an indigenous gastronomy, for the texture in as much as for the flavours.

The unexpected world of Faroe

In their search for their ancestor’s ingredients, the chefs who signed the “Manifesto for the new Nordic cuisine” began exploring the possibilities of these remote areas of the continent offered; Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. The chef, Rene Redzepi said, -“My stay in the Faroe Islands really triggered my imagination but above all it gave me the confidence to open my restaurant NoMa.” His restaurant’s success story is acknowledged worldwide.

What really captured Redzepi’s imagination was the equation respect-humbleness of the island’s inhabitants who have to deal with a rather capricious natural environment. Not to mention the extremely seasonal nature of the produce, which has without doubt defined its character. If you dare to bring the subject up, the locals will say –“There’s nothing special here.”

The practice of ancient conservational techniques, the complexity of fermented flavours, lichens, herbs, the mildest flavoured crustaceans ever and cleanest tasting grass fed lamb, responds to a mantra that reads “the best, the freshest, the purest,” embedded in the collective memory of the inhabitants from immemorial times. And yet they continue to repeat: -“There’s nothing special here.” In their preoccupation with making the most out of a rather hostile natural environment, they weren’t even aware that Faroe’s pantry offered powerful complex flavours, deeply marked by the territory yet very recognisable.

Air

It is hard to know whether the air of the FaroeIsland is in the essence of al its produce.

From the beginning of time, man has tried to preserve food through different methods like: salt curing, pickling, drying, brines and fermentations. The last of this list is the ultimate technique that the Faroe Islanders are renowned for. Eating Ræst, means eating a rite. Used on fish and meat, Ræst achieves its glory with lamb. Once the entrails have been emptied, the carcass is hung in wooden larder (hjallur), which has air vents between the wooden planks allowing air to flow through freely. This starts a process of fermentation-drying-maturing which will gradually transform the meat. The wind, heat, altitude, cold, level of humidity and salinity as well as the microorganisms that are endemic to the island, make Ræst taste unique. The flavour can be milder or stronger, more or less acidic, redder, streakier, firmer or softer but it will above all, have a flavour that cannot be found in any other part of the world. It is the mark of the local cuisine.

In the village of Múli, on the isle of Borðoy, the Buda Hjallur (stone built larders) store hanging hams (sometimes boneless) with a slightly salty and absolutely fantastic flavour.

En Norðdepil, also in Borðoy, in some of the antique black wooden larders with thatched roofs, they have just started an experiment with grapes. The humidity and environmental bacteria, far from rotting the grapes actually convert the grapes into sugary pearls with a lightly acidic taste. These are perfect with sheep milk yogurt.

The use of air-drying is present at all moments and in every corner of the islands. There isn’t a single house that doesn’t have a rack outside from which to hang fish to dry. Even KOKS, an excellent gastronomic restaurant in Tórshavn, the capital; proudly boasts cod hanging through the windows of the dining room.

Talking of air, we can’t forget the abundant sea birds that inhabit the archipelago like: Common Murre, Razorbill, Fulmar, Gannet, Cormorant, Puffins… Hunting birds is a collective thing, basically due to the dangerous nature of the cliffs. The birds are then shared amongst the group of hunters.

Strict rules were enacted in 1854 in order to preserve the area’s wild life for future generations. On the isle of Mykines, where the cliffs are amongst the richest in variety and number of birds, one finds puffins, which are served boiled with a filling of fluffy bread and the meat is served with potatoes. A must try.

Earth

Faroese soil is rich and fertile. Vegetables grow slowly and are juicy and tasty. With very little sunlight, roots and tubers absorb their nutrients exclusively from the soil. The turnips for example, are incredibly sweet. But without doubt it is the sheep that best represent the earth element. They can be found everywhere and are more numerous than the inhabitants. They live in total freedom and graze on grass that is moist from the sea mists. It is not unusual to see sheep on the roads licking the salt from the pavements in winter, which is used to stop the pavements from icing over. The meat is firm and clean tasting due the fact they graze freely on rich pastures. An absolute pleasure! An important fact to point out is that these animals live outdoors all year long in very rough terrain and their feed is entirely natural.

Wild herbs are numerous on the isles and were already used by Vikings back in the VI century. Herbs were an important food source especially during famines. Of the over 300 types of plants found, special mention should be made to the angelica which is used to protect from many illnesses and is also blended into whipped cream. Sorrel was grown in every garden and was given to children after school to protect them against scurvy. Today many of these culinary herbs have been reintroduced into the local contemporary cuisine.

Water

The Faroe isles have several rivers and sweet water lakes where trout can be fished, but it is the sea without doubt that offers the most incredible ingredients.  The waters surrounding the Faroe Islands have two main streams, tepid on the surface (which corresponds to the extension of the Gulf Stream) and cold in the depths from the Norwegian sea. The streams mix in such a way that these waters are rich in nutrients and attract shoals of fish. But the most amazing thing is that the temperature doesn’t change all year and this is a key factor that gives the crayfish their firm textured flesh and smooth flavour. Revered internationally, you just won’t find better crayfish; none match their size and taste.

The variegated scallops are small, but have a powerful flavour. Mussels are a rich orange colour and abnormally large. And what can one say about the sea urchins? Iodine, salt, seawater, wind, mists. Faroe’s landscape in a bite! Try them. You will feel like you have just swallowed a storm.

Wild salmon is not native to the Islands but is be found in abundance. Salmon always return to their place of birth to die but they choose the Faroe Islands to live in. It seem that the nutrient dense waters of the archipelago are propitious. This is also the case for monkfish, halibut, plaice, yellow eye rockfish, catfish and turbot, whose flesh is firm and flavourful.

Have you seen a critic confuse cod flesh with crabmeat? I have, in Tórshavn. This gives you an idea of the delicacy of the cod fished in Faroese waters. This mythical bank of fish gives Italian and Spanish gastronomes the flutters every time it is mentioned. Yet this bank, which is actually quite small, just 20 square kilometers; is home to a local variety of cod that has additional fins and is larger than the conventional cod. It breeds in one of the cleanest ecosystems of the world. Faroese Cod is considered one of the best in the world.

The Gastronomy in the Faroe Isles

Gastronomy on the FaroeseIslands is in perfect harmony with its environment. The style is minimalist, serene and respectful. The taste of its raw ingredients is so powerful that any addition is unnecessary. Compositions are sublime, exact and have a very clean flavour. It has to be tricky to create dishes that can do justice to all the local ingredients and elevate these to ranks of brilliance.

Attention is centred on the ingredients that are foraged, fished and hunted rather than cultivated. I should add that the Faroe Islands are a wild territory and there still many ingredients that have not found their way into dishes.

By combining the rich local ingredients with traditional techniques such as drying or salt curing, that were mainly used to survive through winter months; local chefs have managed to achieve a contemporary Faroese cuisine. They have understood that they needed to work with what their heritage bestowed them and that their local herbs or berries were as tasty as foie gras.

Gastronomy on the FaroeseIslands rejects the superficial. Chefs use the wild ingredients form the islands making the landscape a part of each dish.

Just by cooking the produce found in their surroundings simply, is enough to make them the next big thing in gastronomy!

PHOTO CREDITS CLAES BECH-POULSEN

All pictures Claes Bech-Poulsen
  • Maria Canabal