Faroe tales

Sat, Jul 28, 2012, 01:00

GO FAROE ISLANDS:Inhabitants of these isolated North Atlantic islands are looking to join in the Nordic cooking revolution, in a bid to lure tourists searching for the freshest food imaginable, writes CATHERINE CLEARY

IT’S A PLACE THAT restores the word austerity to its pre-bailout meaning. I’m standing outside a tiny 19th-century white church set down on the short green grass in front of basalt hills and cliffs tumbling to the sea. Through the church windows you can see small, narrow, scrubbed pine pews, an interior as profoundly plain as the exterior is dramatic. This is the church at Saksun in the Faroe Islands. It feels like one of the quietest places on the planet. And it’s not difficult to picture long-gone islanders gathered in candlelight to pray and sing as storms and winds lashed the low thick walls around them.

We know about the Faroe Islands from Brian Kerr’s time as manager of their soccer team. The 18 islands rise out of the North Atlantic in the stretch of water between northern Scotland and Iceland. Spread over them are 72,000 sheep and roughly 49,000 people. On the map they look like the fossilised remains of a dinosaur leg, shards of bone arranged in a rough T-shape. Their remoteness has bred a distinctive islander toughness, humour (jokes about the weather begin almost as soon as we arrive) and ambivalence towards their ruling kingdom, Denmark.

Much of the Faroes looks like remoter parts of Mayo, tree-less blasted heaths of peat soil with a bare covering of felt-like grass. To make their football pitch they had to import rolls of turf. The Gulf Stream keeps it and its waters comparatively mild in winter but in summer temperatures average 12 degrees. You can see how an Irishman could feel at home here.

I’ve arrived on the islands (many of which are linked by under-sea tunnels) with a gaggle of journalists and a group of young Danish chefs who are here on the wave of René Redzepi. The Noma chef has just won the title of San Pellegrino world’s best for a third year running for his Copenhagen restaurant. His effect on the food culture in this part of the world has been enormous, with a ripple of self-confidence spreading to a generation of chefs.

The ones I am with are a group of college friends who are part of the Nordic Academy of Culinary Leisure (NaCL). They host a dinner club in Copenhagen every six to seven weeks. The rest of the time they work in other restaurants in Denmark, places that have benefited from the halo effect of their country’s status at the heart of world gastronomy.

The chefs are here to learn about Faroese food and cook what is farmed and fished out of these startlingly blue waters. It’s something of a delicate diplomatic mission: the young disciples from the mainland are here to learn, but also to show the islanders how they might attract gastro-tourist cash to this tiny economy. And it’s easy to see parallels with Irish food culture and our similarly ambivalent attitudes to raw ingredients.

In the tiny aquarium in Tórshavn, the islands’ capital, the wonderful book about Irish seaweed by Prannie Rhatigan has pride of place as Agnes Mols Mortensen gives a talk on seaweed. No one could understand 10 years ago why the native islander, who is completing her PhD in New Hampshire, wanted to study the brown, red and green algae that sway in the chilly waves. Now she believes farming seaweed in the Faroese waters could give the islands a new food, biofuel and fertiliser source, allowing them to grow something other than potatoes and rhubarb, which are the only cultivated foods. But first she is having to battle attitudes towards seaweed. It’s impossible to buy it on the island. It has “a bad reputation” in island lore as a food of last resort, something that was eaten only when starvation threatened.

Later that evening we would eat raw salmon marinated in dulse (the purple seaweed common around Ireland). The enzymes in the seaweed worked with the fish to soften and sweeten it, creating a sensational and simple dish.

At another lunch we plunged enormous live langoustines (here they call them Norway lobsters) tail-first into boiling water, counted to 10, then cooled, peeled and ate the still-flinching, almost-raw flesh. The langoustine dealer hosted the group in his home and we sat at his long dinner table cracking the shells with milky spurts and gorging ourselves on the sweet white meat. The Lobsterman, as we called him (“I don’t want my name in the paper,” he said when I asked), rarely sells his product on the islands. He ships it live to restaurants in France and Spain, just like the bulk of Irish seafood that barely touches land before being shipped. In a very different setting we watched queen scallops being par-boiled, roughly shelled and blast frozen into slabs for shipping to Vietnam where they would be cleaned, bagged and refrozen for sale back in Europe.

“This is not a romantic place,” one of the young chefs muttered quietly as we watched the shells and mess scooped from the seabed shunting noisily up conveyer belts to be turned into something rubbery and tasteless after a three-month odyssey to the other side of the world and back.

The same fish processor shelling the scallops is now putting mackerel on its list of products. Who is entitled to fish mackerel stocks is a source of contention with Irish fishermen and the EU. Until recently they only used mackerel for bait in the Faroes. Then someone discovered a market for it in Nigeria. Tests in Holland showed it had a fat content of 28 per cent, so they realised it was a seam of marine gold ready to be tapped.

The local diet is far removed from the fashionable Nordic food movement of foraged and fresh (verging on raw). It is local. They eat puffins, whale meat from pilot whales, potatoes, rhubarb, fermented lamb, rotted and salted fish. A social historian might find a fascinating study in the Faroese national palate and their love of the flavour of rotted sheep’s stomach fat. The fat is often dried and mixed with melted margarine for a Faroese “gravy”. The dried, fermented and half-rotten food was a sign of good times for farmers and fishermen, when there was too much to eat and the surplus had to be preserved. It was the taste of plenty for an island people on the edge of the world.

At one meal we ate seal (tough and liverish) and dried pilot whale (rubbery and dry). Elsewhere we got delicious horse mussels (they can weight up to 700g apiece), and sea urchins eaten with a spoon out of their prickly shells.

At the NaCL meal in Tórshavn’s Hotel Forayar, chef Lars Lundø Jakobsen introduced the meal as “our thoughts and our hearts on a plate”. Plated up show-cooking-style in front of the diners, the dishes were brilliant.

A spring dish of raw scallops, pan-fried roe, textures of cucumber and tiny pieces of Jerusalem artichoke had Faroe Island cream poured on, turning the cucumber into glistening emerald beads. There was the dulse-marinated salmon with deep-fried skin and a froth made of fish bones and whey. Marinated, raw razor clams’ long silken skeins of tender sea flesh came with wild garlic and sea urchins. Faroe Island lamb was shredded on to onions and had a clump of heather set alight on top, startling waitresses. A portion of soft goats cheese was scooped into a meringue shape and had a luscious salt caramel (made with salt from from reduced Atlantic seawater) poured into it. This food of the gods was sprinkled with caramelised white chocolate and shards of meringue. Layered in between it were wafer-thin slices of Jerusalem artichoke. Irish restaurants are starting to serve dishes like this (the Irish larder of ingredients is virtually identical). For some on the Faroe Islands it’s verging on the revolutionary.

By the last night of the trip, the islanders had been introduced to ideas about fresh ingredients and their tourism potential. Local chefs and hoteliers, already cooking very impressive food, are determined to make it work. The hope is that the Faroe Islands could become a place to go and eat some of the freshest food imaginable. It is already home to what is probably northern Europe’s best sushi bar. And it is a place to fill your lungs with sparkling fresh air, see an entirely unspoilt land and seascape, and experience life in a place with only three sets of traffic lights.

On the last night, as a roomful of chefs, journalists and islanders linked arms for the Faroese chain dance, there was a sense that things would shift in the future toward a more modern restaurant culture. It may (like the chain dance) be slow and long and respectful of local tradition: two steps to the left and one to the right.

Where to . . .

The capital Tórshavn has a number of good hotels. Hotel Foroyar is set on the hill overlooking the capital. Its restaurant, Koks, has a stunning view and good food. Nearer the harbour, Hotel Hafnia is a comfortable hotel with a good restaurant. Opposite Hafnia is Etika, a sushi bar, selling some of the freshest sushi you can get outside of Japan. Hotel Forayar, tel: 00-298-317500; Hotel Hafnia, tel: 00-298-313233; Etika Sushi, tel: 00-298-319319.

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