Other countries are so easily famed for their great riches, namely several precious stones and metals, minerals, pearls, wine and corn, but all this God and nature have denied the country of Faroe.
Thus writes Lucas Debes, a Danish physician, in the introduction to the chapter “On the Fertility of the Country” in his book Færoe et Færoa Reserata from 1673—1674.
These few lines describe the Faroe Islands through centuries.
Even if we are wealthy in other ways, the Faroes are culinarily poor. Today we would instead of mentioning the absence of grain and wine rather point out that in Faroe we also have some of the world’s finest ingredients — first and foremost from the ocean around the islands. Here you find many species of fine fish. And the roughly 70.000 sheep grazing on the green mountain slopes supply us with mutton, which is not infested with the weaknesses of mass production.
A particular characteristic of Faroe food is the tradition of wind-curing it. It gives the special Faroe aroma.
13 years ago the Faroese were granted the option of serving beer, wine and liquour in restaurants. These 13 years the number of eating places has grown steadily, and especially younger people go out more and more to eat.
The traffic links abroad get better, the Faroese watch foreign TV- channels, use the internet and other amenities which today make the world smaller. This has connected Faroe with the global community and made it less unlike other countries.
Today the Faroese also have pizza-bars, Burger King, Sub-Way, ethnic restaurants and cafés. In the shops one may buy about the same goods as in other countries.
But one need not worry that the local Faroe specialities disappear. The food culture is strong and particular. The climate lends itself to the special fermenting process — at ræsa and drying the food properly — skerpikjøt and dried fish without first having to salt or smoke the food. One ræsar and dries both fish, goose, mutton and pilot whale meet, and much diligence is put into instilling the best taste in the meat. The area where the sheep have grazed is important and how the weather is while the drying process takes place. If it is too cold, the taste doesn’t mature.
The first step from fresh to dry meat is called visnað. The word is mostly used about fish which isn’t quite fresh any more, but has got a pungent taste and odour which foreigners for their lack of knowledge would probably call half rotten. The next stage is ræst, when the meat is still soft and smells and tastes strong. Visnað and ræst foods are cooked in salted water. When the meat is quite dry, both the mutton and whale meat turn almost black and hard and are eaten raw in thin slices. The dry mutton — skerpikjøt — reminds one of Parmesan ham, which has also gone through fermentation by being wind dried, though it has been salted first. Dried whale meat is eaten with uncooked dry- or brine salted pilot whale blubber. The blubber is also eaten with ræst fish.
The isolated location of Faroe is in the northern half of the Atlantic. The weather is mild and humid, unstable and windy. The country is 1.400 sqkm in size with less than 6% of the area cultivated. Most kinds of fruit and vegetables are imported, but several sorts of greeneries grow well in Faroe, and in all townships one sees potato and root patches. A few farmers grow potatoes and roots for sale, but most patches are for private consumption. The Faroese feel a need for self sufficiency both in terms of fish, dried meat and tatties. Utility plants grow wild here and were formerly used for healing, e.g. “læge-kokleare”……… ? against scurvy, mint, juniper, sorrel and angelica.
Today we know that the first settlers had sheep and then cattle. In summer they could hunt sea birds and gather their eggs, and the weather was also good for fishing and other sea hunting. In winter the birds had left, and it was not always possible to fish. Right up until the 18th century salt was often in short supply so it was difficult to store food till winter came.
This must be the story behind the tradition of hanging meat up to wind cure without salting it first. Lucas Debes wrote that the Faroese made their own salt, black salt, by boiling sea weed in big pots with sea water, and then it was dried and crushed. Svabo writes that normally the Faroese did not use salt for it was so important to have salt in store for when pilot whales came. So the Faroese must have learnt to hang food up for drying from the earliest times.
There were periods of starvation in Faroe, and there are many instances of people having been sentenced to death for stealing food to stave off hunger. In 1682 the Faroese didn’t get enough grain, and people starved. Many had only seaweed and limpets to eat. In 1687 as many as 50 people died in Suðuroy. It was a bad year for barley and fish, and no grain was to be had from Tórshavn. In the period from 1624 till 1630 there were repeated famines.
The whale hunt has always been important for the Faroese, and whale meat has often saved them from the jaws of starvation. It provided ample food and must have been a godsend for the poor people. Seyðabrævið (“Sheep Law”) from 1298 describes the then current rules when men find whales out at sea, and it says further: “Now men drive whales ashore”. The whale hunt is first mentioned in 1584, when some men find 4 beached whales on Lítla Dímun. After that there are yearly pilot whale statistics right up until today, and we know from excavations that the Faroese have caught pilot whales right from the time of the settlement.
Most of the foods that the Faroese ate 200 years ago is still considered good food. From the 1950s the food pattern has been influenced from Denmark, but the old local Faroe delicacies are still eaten. But present day television has had a globalizing impact.
Today most of the fruit, vegetables, pork and beef is imported from Denmark. About 70.000 sheep are slaughtered annually, but most of this harvest is hung up for drying, so a similar number of sheep is imported, mostly from Iceland and New Zealand. Fish is the most important export article, and the Faroese eat fish regularly — much more than our neighbours.