Not much grows on the rocky green fjords in the Faroe Islands, an archipelago in the North Atlantic between Iceland, Norway, and Scotland. Faroese locals have traditionally subsisted on fishing and hunting sea birds, including puffins, gannets, guillemots, and fulmars.
The annual fulmar hunt lasts for one week a year. At the end of every August, baby fulmars fall from their nests in the fjords, where they live through the summer until their parents get sick of feeding them and often just push them off the cliffs and into the water.
We left to go fulmar hunting from the capital city, Tórshavn, with Høgni Mohr, a Faroese journalist who also hunts to provide food for his wife and kids. Høgni and his father-in-law took us out sailing on the open ocean, just north of the Faroes. Since it was a few days earlier than the typical start of the season, he told us, the birds had fallen from the fjords a bit sooner than usual.
The baby birds are too fat to fly, so they just bob around helplessly for about a week until they lose enough weight to take off. In that same week, the Faroese set out in their boats and scoop them from the sea with nets on long poles.
The only defense mechanism that the baby birds have is to vomit in the face of their enemies, naturally. It's greasy, neon orange, and has a strong fishy smell, which gives the fulmars their name, "foul mouth." The vomit destroys the waterproof coating on the feathers of other birds, costing them their ability to stay warm.
Sadly, it doesn't do much to humans except piss them off.
Faroese hunters like Høgni easily pluck the flightless fulmars from the water, one by one, assassinating them by a few different methods, all of which involve breaking the necks first.
The most economical approach is to swiftly rip their heads off by hand, making sure that the stomach's still attached. This effectively guts them of all the puke, which you don't want leaking into the meat. Known as "magadraga" in Faroese, this technique requires the neck to be snapped and the head pulled off without breaking the esophagus, all in one motion. It takes practice.
The head is then tossed back into the sea like an oblation.
Despite their adolescent appearance, Høgni admits that their soft, baby feathers are no distraction from their delicious meat. "I think they are really cute. I love them… but I don't feel like I'm not supposed to kill them because I want to eat them."
As Høgni put it, "If I didn't eat fulmars, I would maybe eat chickens instead. What's the difference? I know what life the fulmars have had and I killed it myself, so nothing is hidden. And I like that. It's better to be honest then to be dishonest about where the meat comes from."
The Faroese have been eating birds as long as they've been around the islands. An average Faroese person in a small fishing boat can catch 100 to 300 birds in one day. It's a long and repetitive process. Most people hunt just for their extended families and friends to eat throughout the year. Some sell their extras at the fish market in the docks of the capital to city folks who don't have boats of their own.
Once the birds are gathered, they're usually taken to a boat house, where they're either skinned or plucked and feathered, which requires more time and patience but also leaves a half-inch-thick layer of fat on the meat. Once the feathers are plucked, the rest of the fluff is burned off with a blowtorch. This gives the birds extra flavor.
With the skin still on, the birds are baked with salt and pepper. Without the skin, they are boiled and eaten with gravy and a side of potatoes. Høgni picked potatoes for us from a mountain near his house to accompany our meal.
Faroese people make a point to drink schnapps with any fulmar feast. Høgni believes that it keeps you from vomiting up all the fat, which is, apparently, a thing.
Fulmar hunting spans the full range of human emotions—it's cute, disgusting, funny, beautiful, sad, tedious, and appetizing all at the same time. Høgni kept about 30 of the birds for his family to last throughout the year, and the rest of the 89 we caught were set aside for his extended family and neighbors. After a full day of hunting, feathering, skinning, torching, gutting, and cleaning, he cooked the birds with the fat and skin still on, and we ate them with Høgni and his family. They didn't taste anything like any other kind of bird I've encountered—or devoured. They're like eating an incredibly fatty fish. They were delicious.
We did not drink schnapps, but no one vomited.
Watch the full documentary on fulmar hunting this Monday, November 17, only on MUNCHIES.