Roast lamb with potatoes and gravy was the traditional food served for a special occasion and is still considered to be the finest food that can be served for guests and special celebrations.
The food culture on the Faroes was not very extensive in days gone by. In an isolated society with a harsh climate and a nature not to be relied upon, it was necessary to live off what was readily available; sheep from the fields, birds from the mountains, fish and whales from the sea. There was also food which could be gleaned from the poor soil such as grass for the cows, corn, swede and eventually, potatoes.
With limited connections to the outside world self sufficiency was vital. Everything had to be utilized and it was said that everything from a sheep could be eaten, even the ‘rukkulakkin’, which is the third stomach of a ruminant. Only the stomach contents and the gall were considered not fit for consumption!
The most important question was how the food could be preserved and this is where the typical Faroese outhouse with its wooden walls comes into the picture. The meat was hung up to dry for a short or long period and due to the high salt content of the air the meat would not rot. ‘Raestkjot’ is meat that has been hung for a couple of months to mature before cooking and ‘Skerpikjot’ is the special Faroese delicacy that has been hung for over a year and is eaten raw.
Fish has also been dried in the same way and eaten as ‘raestanfisk’ or ‘turranfisk’. Fish has never been considered such a precious commodity as meat and consequently is normally dried out in the open. Even in modern housing developments it is common to see saithe or small cod hanging up to dry under the eaves.
Fish was the staple food, the foundation of the daily diet. But where are the fishmongers? Where is all the fresh fish from one of the cleanest oceans in the world? ask the tourists. The answer is simple, fish isn’t something you buy; you catch it yourself or get it from someone in the family or someone you know who has a boat. Nowadays it is possible to buy fish direct from the small fishing boats down on the quay in Torshavn or from the big supermarkets, but old habits die hard; that dinner was not something to be bought, but something to be brought home without it costing any money.
Another important provision was and still is whale meat, which can often be found hanging next to the dried fish under the eaves. The pilot whale was considered God’s gift. Nobody knew when or where a school of whales would appear but it meant food for a long time and if it was possible to drive the whales towards the beach then everyone would benefit, rich and poor, young and old. Everybody got their share as is the custom to this day.
Whale meat, blubber and potatoes in their skins were put in the saucepan with salt and boiled for an hour; this was a nutritional meal which needed no recipe from a cookbook. It could not be found on the menu of a restaurant either. On the rare occasions people ate out, it was to sample something special from the international cuisine like Danish roast pork.
For this reason it is still hard to find Faroese food on the menu but over the last few years many changes have occurred. The number of places where food is available has increased dramatically, cafes and pizza restaurants are springing up everywhere, tastes are becoming more international and experimental; hotels and restaurants are realising that eating out can be a cultural experience and an aesthetic pleasure.
When you can serve fresh Faroese fish in Paris or Rome then it should be possible to serve it in Torshavn. That is the opinion of visitors to the islands for the first time and increasingly the view of Faroese who travel abroad or return home after completing their educations. Amongst the latter are young chefs who have studied abroad, their influence can be seen on the various menus where Faroese words take on a French association.
Although dishes such as ‘whale in prune sauce’ and ‘stuffed puffin’ are still to be developed, other dishes like ‘coquilles SaintJacques in white wine sauce’ are now more readily available.