It's not often that I start my day with a slice of wind-blown, semi-fermented lamb on toast with a sprinkling of salt. Call me a cultural stereotype, but I'm more of a cup-of-tea-and-bowl-of-porridge kind of a girl.
And yet last week—just minutes before jogging through the small, grass-verged streets of Fuglafjørður to swim in the churning grey sea, surrounded by snow-tipped mountains—I could be found in the kitchen of my host and friend Jastrid, tucking into such a breakfast. I was in the Faroe Islands, an archipelago of 18 islands soaring out of the sea between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland. Imagine the population of Scarborough spread across 16 rocky, grass-covered, snow-sprinkled, mountainous, wind-blasted islands far out in the Atlantic Sea. (The other two are bird sanctuaries).
The reason a dish like Skerpikjøt comes into existence is less about the delicious tang of air-dried meat, of course, and more about environmental necessity. The air in the Faroes is saltier than a mother's tears, thanks to the strong wind coming off the surrounding sea. In this kind of climate it is very hard to grow trees, vegetables, or in fact any kind of plant.
But it is the perfect place in which to preserve meat. All you need to do to make you own Skerpikjøt, Jastrid's strapping young son explains to me, is hang the sheep's leg in a well-ventilated outdoor shed or hjallur, with slatted, half-open sides and wait for the cold, the salt and the wind to do the rest. I saw several of these sheds by people's houses and the supermarket in Tórshavn had a special cabinet full of hanging shanks.
Of course, salt isn't the only environmental challenge facing a Faroese food-lover. Thanks to latitude, winter daylight shrinks to just four hours. Four hours. How anyone stops themselves wading into the sea with rocks in their pockets under those sorts of conditions is beyond me. Thank God Faroese homes are cosier than a cardigan.
But, of course, you can barely grow a potato when things are as dark as that, so innovative Faroese restaurants like Koks became famous for their use of foraged herbs and seaweed.
The main source of vitamin D comes, however, from fish.
"The Faroe Bank, located 75km southeast of the Faroe Islands, is home to the Faroe Bank cod," explains Súsanna Sørensen from Visit Faroe Islands. This is a beast of a fish with one of the fastest growth rates in the world. An average three-year-old cod from the Faroe Bank is 73 cm long and weighs 4.9 kg, while a cod of the same age on the nearby Faroe Plateau is 55 cm and 1.7 kg. The Icelandic equivalent just 45cm.
"Once a year, the fisheries research vessel, Magnus Heinason, examines the Faroe Bank Cod, recording the newest developments," says Sørensen. "The catch is then brought back to land and used to provide special meals at the newly-opened fish house, Barbara, in Tórshavn."
And then there's the salmon. It would be hard to overstate what a big deal salmon—sea fishing of all kinds—is in the Faroe Islands. Salmon makes up more than 30 percent of the country's export and they haul in over 50,000 tonnes of the pink, slippery buggers every year. By dint of not joining the EU, the Faroe Islands still export salmon to Russia, as well as China, Japan, and America. In short, if you've eaten sushi in Britain or America recently, you've very probably eaten Faroese salmon.
"We light the salmon to stop them from getting sad," my guide Óli Kristian á Torkilsheyggi tells me as we drive around the headland of a windmill park. I look out and see several floating, phosphorescent circles bobbing about in the fjords. These are the salmon farms, kept illuminated at night to encourage the fish to feed around the clock, ensuring a speedy growth.
I am, you see, like my taste for porridge and tea over coffee and dried fish, English at heart. Too meek, too soft-spined, too cowardly to make a fuss
I suppose it works—this underwater anti-depressant—because according to the site, Salmon from the Faroe Islands, the Atlantic salmon are completely antibiotic free. Although you can't help but wonder how this 24-hour, fluoro-lit gorge-fest affects the welfare of the fish.
Talking of welfare, there is one Faroese dish that causes more controversy than any other, both off and on the islands.
The Grindadráp is a day of pilot whale slaughter that happens every summer, turning the sea thick with blood. As Dalbø, my host one night tells me, Faroese men are unique in Europe because one day they may be out slaughtering a whale, the next they'll be in an office, having a Skype meeting with colleagues in Denmark.
The taste for whale blubber dates back to the Norse settlement of the islands in the 12th century, while recent studies have indicated that pilot whale blubber may be positively associated with vitamin D levels. However, the study concluded that whale blubber alone is not going to cut it in these high-latitude islands and "efforts to improve vitamin D status in this population are warranted."
Also, slaughtering 800 pilot whales in one day does seem just a tad barbaric in an age of global food trade and ethical farming, especially when the whale blubber contains such high levels of mercury that the Faroe Islands' Chief Medical Officer warned that whale meat may not be suitable for human consumption
Despite this, according to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation, the yearly slaughter is estimated to take less than 0.1 percent of the 750,000 population of pilot whales. And it takes a long time to fight nearly 900 years of tradition.
Of course, I mentioned none of these reservations when Óli Kristian á Torkilsheyggi started talking to me about whale blubber. I giggled, nervously, as he described the taste as, "like beef. Fishy beef." And I said nothing as I walked past the fisherman standing by a wet concrete slab down on the docks of Tórshavn selling vacuum-packed slabs of whale blubber. I merely thought to myself that they looked like blank-rinded chunks of edam cheese and moved on. I am, you see, like my taste for porridge and tea over coffee and dried fish, English at heart. Too meek, too soft-spined, too cowardly to make a fuss.
Faroese food may taste like something of a leap for a mainland European like me, raised on a diet of no meat and 17 vegetables. But while dishes of dried fish and potatoes, the famous langoustines, air-dried lamb, and white rolls sprinkled in brown sugar seem as beige as the sheep that scamper on the surrounding hills, they are undoubtedly delicious. Not to mention comforting.
But it'll probably be a while until I eat fermented sheep for breakfast again.