Far North Foodie Adventure in the Faroe Islands

Food adventures in the Faroe Islands

by Chris Osburn 01 March 2016

Chris Osburn takes us on a journey through the very scenic and serene Faroe Islands, a tiny island nation that's home to a fascinating food scene.

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Chris is a freelance writer and photographer, longtime blogger and avid foodie.

Chris is a freelance writer and photographer, longtime blogger and avid foodie.

I've never been anywhere quite like the scenic and serene Faroe Islands. Getting a taste for the place during an early August visit, I can say this tiny island nation was one of most fascinating places for food I've even been to. Not entirely sure where I'm talking about? Don't worry. You're certainly not alone. When telling people that I was heading to the Faroes, something along the lines of ‘Now where's that again?’ proved to be a typical response.

Here's a quick introduction to the Faroes, compliments of Wikipedia:

‘An archipelago and autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, situated between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, approximately halfway between Norway and Iceland, at about 320 kilometres north-north-west of mainland Scotland. The total area is approximately 1,400 sq km with a population of almost 50,000 people.’

An informative blurb to be sure, but what the above description doesn't mention is that this super green and craggily surreal set of islands is only about a two-hour flight from London. For foodies seeking somewhere deliciously different that feels beyond remote but is surprisingly accessible, this tiny scattering of rocks in the middle of nowhere offers an ideal getaway. The name Faroes is derived from the Old Norse word meaning sheep, and without question it's an apt moniker for these islands. I certainly saw lots more sheep than humans on my travels.

There are more sheep than people on the Faroe Islands
Poul Andrias Ziska
Poul Andrias Ziska is the head chef at Koks, bringing fine dining to the isles

Counting sheep

In what I reckoned to be a bite-sized homage to the resourcefulness of this Viking-descended nation, a dainty yet robustly flavoursome raest crisp made from the drippings of a hung leg of lamb told my palate I was in for a treat

Chris Osburn

Sheep is a likely candidate for the most Faroese of foods as well, which the people there tend to eat after it's been air dried for a few months and has started to ferment. Called raest, it's tastier than it sounds, especially given the clean sea air in which the meat is hung.

A particularly intriguing raest-based dish I had while in the Faroes was served as an appetiser during dinner soon after I had arrived and checked in at my hotel. In what I reckoned to be a bite-sized homage to the resourcefulness of this Viking-descended nation, a dainty yet robustly flavoursome raest crisp made from the drippings of a hung leg of lamb told my palate I was in for a treat and should expect the unexpected.

The crisp was one of several delectably inventive dishes from the tasting menu at fine dining establishment, Koks. Located at Hotel Foroyar with sweeping views over Torshavn, the country's only actual city, the restaurant features haute cuisine dishes ‘designed to delight guests with the essence of Faroese culinary heritage’ using ingredients almost exclusively sourced locally. For English speakers, the restaurant’s name might sound a bit unappetising, but don’t let that put you off (or expect anything salacious). It simply means ‘cooks’ and is quite the understatement given the wondrous creations coming from its kitchen.

At the Koks helm is head chef Poul Andrias Ziska. Only in his mid-twenties, Ziska was born and raised in the Faroes. Having earned a degree in gastronomy at the Food College Aalborg in Denmark, he started his professional career at Koks in 2011. Later, he worked in Copenhagen at Geranium (two Michelin stars and ranked 45th among the World’s 50 Best Restaurants) before returning to Koks in February 2014. Highlights from his thirteen-course tasting menu included sea urchin with sea purslane, dill, cucumber and apple and langoustine served in a lidded bowl with smoking pine needles.

Horse mussels can be found all around the Faroe Islands...
Salmon farms
...as can salmon farms, which account for thirty percent of the country's exports

Fruits of the sea

If my dinner at Koks had been a refined introduction to Faroese cooking, lunch the next day was a back to basics lesson in finding joy in the simplest of things. Surrounded by ocean, seafood plays heavily into the Faroese diet. And for my first full day in the Faroes, I found myself tagging along with local television personality and cooking expert Gutti Winther on a fishing trip to Saksun, an edge of the world fjord on the northwest coast of Streymoy Island. The salmon weren’t biting, but the setting was breathtaking and Gutti’s alternative lunch more than made up for any lack of catch. With no luck coming from the wet end of our lines, Gutti (who appeared to know his home islands like the back of his hand) waded out into the fjord with a bucket. A few minutes later he came back with the biggest mussels I’d ever seen.

A gas stove, bottle of wine, some onions and garlic revealed from his car boot along with water from a nearby stream and some foraged angelica archangelica (the taste of the Faroes according to Gutti) and we were back in business preparing a most satisfying lunch. As humongous as those mussels (horse mussels to be exact) had been, they were also incredibly delicious.

Despite our unsuccessful attempt at fishing, I should point out that salmon is the Faroes' number one commodity, amounting to thirty percent of the country's exports. It's not uncommon to see the unobtrusive rings of salmon farms just off the coast (if you're looking for them) and to see the salmon jumping in them (if you look just a bit harder).

One more aspect that any roundup about Faroese food should probably include is the tradition of eating pilot whale. Indeed, the few friends I spoke to already aware of the Faroe Islands mostly knew about the country for this highly contentious issue. Personally, I am deeply ambivalent about the subject; I lean more in one direction than the other but can definitely see both sides. But whatever your take on the issue, I don’t think you should let that keep you away from the Faroes.

I found folks to be open to frank discussion about the practice. It's a rare occurrence anyway, and unless you're seeking it out (and get extremely lucky with your timing) you're certainly not likely to see a culling take place, nor will you see whale products in any restaurants or shops.

Faroe Islands
The islands are incredibly remote, and rely on imports from Denmark
Whale meat
Eating whale meat is a hotly contested issue and a lot less common than people might think

Different strokes?

Beyond the haute cuisine, Nordic ingenuity and controversial traditions, the way the Faroese eat doesn't seem all that different to anywhere else in northern Europe. As romantic as it is to imagine a society subsisting off a bounty of mussels and foraged herbs, petrol station hot dogs seemed to be the Islands' most ubiquitous snack. And the country's one Burger King at its only shopping centre in ‘downtown’ Torshavn was booming whenever I passed by. There are no pigs in the Faroes, and the small herd of cattle there are raised only for their milk. As part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the islands receive plenty of imports from the country.

Home to about 17,000 people (roughly a third of the total population), Torshavn was a quaint small town with cute little cafés lined up along the harbour. Browsing the aisles of the supermarket, I could have been shopping anywhere really (albeit paying slightly marked up prices as just about everything had been shipped in from halfway across the Atlantic). But only a drive, sail or stroll away from this modern and samey scene was a landscape largely untouched and unlike any other.