Rain hammers the black sand of Tjørnuvík beach as icy winds howl between the surrounding green-clad hills.
Far more pressing, though, is the spiky sea urchin in my hand and its slippery, lurid orange flesh that I scoop out with my fingers. It tastes sweet and fresh. Welcome to the Faroe Islands.
The Land Rover Discovery Sport towing a traditional Faroese boat across an island.
Clustered halfway between Norway and Iceland, the Faroes have long been known for their unsurpassed seafood and magnificent volcanic islands. And that’s about it. The seafood was exported and the islands were mainly visited by twitchers and those who sought solitude.
This changed with the opening of KOKS restaurant at Tórshavn’s Hotel Føroyar in 2011. A good restaurant that gains enthusiastic international recognition might be a story, but it’s a short one. However, this is a fine dining restaurant that has changed a country, created new industries and altered the way people see their home.
KOKS’s founding chef, Leif Sørensen, did not make things easy for himself. As a signatory of the now famous New Nordic Food Manifesto in 2004, he promised to champion local culinary traditions and ingredients. Which all sounds very sensible, but to do this you need suppliers and the ability to grow produce. Leif had none of these. At the time, fishermen and sheep farmers could not sell to local restaurants, and the wind and sheep – almost double the human population of 45,000 – made sure that nothing other than flattened grass grew on the islands.
Leif persevered, sending his father out to fish while he foraged, and the innovative dishes he created won international praise and awards. Today he’s handed over to chefs Poul Andrias Ziska and Áki Herálvsson who are taking his achievements further by collaborating with local experts to understand the potential of new ingredients, introducing the country’s first sommelier and finding new ways to share local food stories.
I’ve been given permission to go off-road in the Faroes and it’s immediately obvious that the suspension travel is the best in its class
To travel to the Faroe Islands, you have two options. Both will test you. The first is by ferry, where you and anything that travels with you will need to brave the churning North Atlantic. The other is by air.
It’s easy to spot the Faroese passengers as everyone boards the plane in Copenhagen. They greet each other with broad smiles and urgent chatter as they pack their Helly Hansen jackets into the overhead storage. Their laughter is unabated as the wind picks up near the islands, and the plane starts to buck, bounce and drop. Everyone else quietly grips their armrests. Once landed, the plane continues to shudder in the strong breeze.
The main airport on the island of Vágar is minute and to get to the Faroese capital of Tórshavn, on the neighboring island of Streymoy, I drive through an unlit, subsea tunnel that links the islands. The headlights of my Land Rover Discovery Sport pick out details of the rock-lined walls and before I’ve dwelt too much on the ocean just above my head, I’ve left the tunnel and am cruising along undulating single-lane roads. It’s a smooth journey and 45 minutes later I pull up at Hotel Føroyar, home of KOKS restaurant, which sits above Tórshavn with a sweeping view of the city, the ocean and the nearby islands.
Áki Herálvsson, chef at KOKS, the restaurant leading the new Faroese food revolution
The only time that Áki Herálvsson stops smiling is when he is talking about ingredients. Then he becomes reverential. The tall, 24-year-old KOKS chef has almost a decade’s culinary experience, including working at the world’s top-rated restaurant, Noma in Denmark. “In Copenhagen there are a lot of excellent restaurants, but they copy Noma’s style of plating and flavors,” he says. “We’re inspired by Noma, too, but we have our own flavors here. This is a New Nordic Faroese cuisine.
“Nothing can compare with the quality of our ingredients, or our access to them,” he says while opening the shell of the largest scallop I’ve ever seen, ready for one of the evening’s courses. “If I order a certain fish in the morning, I will have it before we start prepping for our evening meal.”
It’s not only fresh fish that’s immediate, bunches of dried fish are tied to the eaves outside the restaurant, there is a small drying shed on the hotel’s property as well as a tiny cluster of cultivated trees that offer foraging opportunities. Áki and his team also have almost daily contact with suppliers across the islands – fishermen, a biologist and seaweed specialist, farmers, breweries, bird hunters and cheese producers.
Slow-cooked lamb heart with Jerusalem artichokes and parsley powder
Each ingredient is rigorously examined and manipulated before possibly making it onto the restaurant’s seasonal tasting menu.
The team at KOKS claim they don’t focus on international fanfare. Far more important, says Áki, are the local clients who are at the forefront of a new culinary trend. “Five years ago we would not go out to eat Faroese food. Local food was for home, when you went out you wanted to eat international dishes.” There wasn’t a single Faroese restaurant, particularly not one selling ræst.
Ræst is uniquely Faroese. Sheep carcasses or whole fish are allowed to slowly ferment in wooden drying sheds (called hjallur) as the sugars in the protein react with natural bacteria in the cool air. “The flavor and texture of the mutton or lamb changes. After a month or two, the meat is cured but it has a hint of fermentation; a few months later you have ræst, which is strong tasting and traditionally we’d boil it with potatoes until the potatoes were done. Leave it for more than six months and you have dried meat that we traditionally eat on bread with a little salt and butter.”
And ræst is what is preoccupying Áki as he finishes with the scallops and starts cutting open, and then rinsing, a batch of sea urchins. He’s anticipating the delivery of their first batch of the season with undisguised glee. As it is KOKS, they are playing with new ways to present favorite flavors, at the moment it is offering guests a light cracker that’s topped with soft cheese infused with mutton ræst, and finished with light-as-air shavings of frozen fish ræst.
“These are flavors that the Faroese know, but we’re presenting it to them in a new way, so it’s exciting and it encourages people to be more adventurous.”
"These are flavors that the Faroese know, but we’re presenting it in a new way – it encourages people to be more adventurous."
The Fish Expert
Once a deep-sea fisherman, Hans Marius now runs a company that supplies seafood to Faroese restaurants
There are several dramatic vantage points when traveling between Tórshavn and the next island, Eysturoy. When you’re not gaping at the meringue-like green islands with sheer drops into the ocean or the turf-roofed houses that hug the slopes, you’ll notice the familiar circles in the sea that mark the island’s sustainable salmon farms. Look further out to the ocean and you’ll see a variety of fishing vessels. Fishing drives the economy, it accounts for 80% of the country’s exports. If you judge quality by demand, then you’ll enjoy the rumor that Vladimir Putin has his live Faroese lobsters flown in.
The effervescent Hans Marius was once a deep-sea fisherman, but now he owns a seafood company that focuses on supplying local restaurants as well as a few international clients. “A few years ago, my company, Sjógæti, could not have existed. There wasn’t a local market. Every man in the Faroes is a fisherman, and if the weather’s good, you would catch your own fish – but only a few varieties and share it with friends. Now, with restaurants like KOKS and others that have opened, my business is growing and the locals are becoming more aware of the quality and variety of our seafood.”
The warm Gulf Stream around the islands supports a diversity of fish and a stable temperature that encourages fish development. Hans illustrates this by comparing Icelandic and Faroese cod. Only 600km separate the countries, but the Icelandic cod has drier, darker meat while the Faroese fish has white, moist flesh. Hans laughs, “it’s funny because it is the same fish.” Faroese salmon is also superior, he says, because “in Norway and Scotland the salmon industries need to use antibiotics. We don’t, and our salmon industry is much more profitable. We can thank nature for that.”
A Faroese langoustine
Hans had been supplying KOKS with fish for over a year before he even thought about eating at the restaurant. It was only when visiting Spanish clients asked to dine at KOKS – they had heard about it back home – that he sat down to a 16-course tasting menu. “It was incredible. It affected all of my senses, it was almost overwhelming. I didn’t even know you could eat so many things from the islands.”
He says that his business is not the only one to benefit from the demand for local produce. “Today, you can go to the market in Tórshavn and you’ll find Faroese meat, birds and fish for sale. This never used to happen. We never thought that local food could be a local business.
“And it can become even bigger. It takes a while to change people’s habits. At the moment the Faroese eat a lot of cod, haddock and halibut, but we also have excellent lemon sole, plaice, skate and all kinds of things that people here haven’t tried.”
The Sheep Farmer
Faroese farmer Jóannes Patursson
To get to Kirkjubøur, you travel south from Tórshavn, and the roads get steeper with tight, winding curves. The Discovery Sport feels planted, keeping level contact with the road even on the tightest bend. It’s worth taking extra care on these roads as the local sheep gallop down the hills faster than any sensible sheep should, and often leap joyfully into your path. Local laws make it your responsibility if you hit a sheep – you need to immediately put it out of its misery and then contact the police to find out how much compensation the farmer requires. I slow down, keeping a close eye on the sheep that are grazing on the verge of the road.
Jóannes Patursson is the 17th generation of his family to farm this land. I pull up to a wooden farmhouse that sits on Streymoy’s southern coast.
Jóannes is dressed in traditional Faroese gear, in a fitted woolen jacket with ornate metal clasps and buckled shoes. I’m greeted with a ram’s horn filled with Aquavit. This is an honor. Other people who have been welcomed here include the Queen of Denmark and the Prince of Monaco. All of them come to dine in Jóannes’ mahogany-walled dining room that dates back to 1,000AD and is inside one of the world’s oldest timber structures.
The following day, Jóannes is dressed for farm work in a heavy wool jumper and sturdy shoes. He points at the steep hills around the farmstead where some of his 380 sheep are grazing. Unlike sheep farming in other countries, the Faroese sheep are wild. At most, Jóannes will gather his sheep five times a year, for general health checks, microchipping, shearing, and finally, slaughter. “The people who help me are not employees, they are volunteers. They are paid, at slaughtering time, with one ram, one ewe and one lamb, and the right to hunt hare on the farm.”
These hills are not the only place that his sheep graze. Every September, Jóannes transports some sheep to a nearby island by boat, with the intention to leave them there. He gathers any lambs born since his last visit and brings them home. Jóannes laughs as he remembers the time the weather was too poor for a boat trip and “my father convinced the newly created helicopter service to transport the sheep to the island”. Some sheep went into the passenger area, the rest were swinging in a basket below the helicopter. “We always find a way to have a little fun,” he says.
The grass on that island must be very sweet. KOKS recently bought a selection of those lambs for one of their new dishes. It could also be another key ingredient. Every winter, the sheep descend to the water’s edge to feed on seaweed. Jóannes reckons this makes up about 10% of their diet and adds to their remarkably delicious flavor.
Before I leave, Jóannes takes me to his drying shed, where a number of sheep carcasses are hanging, part way through the ræst process. The ram carcasses smell much sharper and stronger than the ewes, but all are covered in a fine layer of white bacteria that marks the fermentation’s progress. Each one has already been spoken for by a customer eagerly anticipating their annual treat.
Heading north from Tórshavn, the road weaves along the water’s edge. Small towns punctuate the journey and as the elevation rises, I drive through a dense mist. The cliffs grow sheer and an enormous waterfall thunders down, flowing into the sea beneath the road. I take a sharp left and descend into the island’s most northerly village, Tjørnuvík. Colorful houses are framed by hills next to a stretch of black sandy beach.
At a rocky outcrop into the sea, Agnes Mols Mortensen is examining three types of seaweed. Dressed in a traditional wool jumper under her waders, she is waiting for her brother, and business partner, to surface after exploring the kelp forests. He’s a professional diver and she’s a biologist. Together they’re looking at new ways to cultivate and process seaweed for the local market.
Áki describes her as “knowing everything about seaweed” and supplying restaurants is only part of her business. “I work as a consultant for a research facility in the Faroes, and I’m in charge of all the seaweed projects there,” she says.
All of her plans revolve around making the most of their raw materials in a sustainable way. “Our seaweed’s excellent quality is because of our unique position – despite being so far north, our climate is fairly warm and our water is very clean, so we have many species.” Seaweed absorbs pollutants from the water, so the cleaner your water, the better your seaweed.
“I don’t want to negatively affect our ecosystem, so I’m working on ways to cultivate more of the species we already have. Seaweed tastes best when it’s young, so if we cultivate it we will not only protect the existing kelp forest, but we will also know exactly when to harvest.”
Biologist and seaweed expert Agnes Mols Mortensen and her brother and business partner, Morten, on Tjørnuvík beach
Agnes has worked with the KOKS team for a few years. “I’ve shown them you can change the color of seaweed through heat and they have shown me that epiphytes – a seaweed that grows on another seaweed – can be turned into a really strong-tasting, crisp ingredient. Recently we discussed the possibility of making a seaweed beer. I’ve suggested the best species to use. Let’s see what happens…
“A restaurant like KOKS has already had a big impact on Faroese people. It has made us realize what we have. Now we know that our fish is the best quality, we need to take care of it. The same goes for our seaweed.”
Back at Hotel Føroyar, Áki is planning a light canapé menu to accompany the wine-tasting evening that Karin Visth – the islands’ first sommelier – is hosting. He asks if everyone I met was helpful. In truth, they were extraordinarily so. All were eager to share stories of new opportunities.
“There is no place in the world like the Faroes,” says Áki as he gestures at the panoramic view. “Here at KOKS we have the opportunity to support our new food culture. It makes sense to use local ingredients and traditional flavors in new ways, especially when they’re so very good.”
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