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.