Gourmet Survival in the Faroe Islands

Text by Carlo Spinelli
Photographs by Claus Bech Poulsen and Luca De Santis

Conversation with chef Poul Andrias Ziska from the KOKS restaurant

In the Faroe Islands the cold wind and ocean waves are the engines that have marked the pendulum of man’s gastronomic life for centuries. Since the first Viking landings, between Norway, Iceland and Great Britain, and the first settlements of the Irish monks, just over a millennium ago, Faroese cuisine has been rich prey for the climate and the Norse whims of Njörðr, god and sovereign of the sea, wind and cyclones, but also fertility and prosperity. Between good and bad, silence and storm, taste and survival, the KOKS restaurant in the capital Tórshavn has taken upon itself to tell the story of these pairings, through its cuisine on the edge of Europe. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Here, nature rules.

The eighteen islands of the Faroe archipelago are astounding. They look like poetic pastel sculptures, despite the violent gusts and untiring waves buffeting them, the rain, snow and fog that over the centuries have prevented trees from growing, as well as systematic crop cycles, and a quiet life for farm animals. This place is absolute. Concentrated and isolated, it’s the wind’s servant and queen of natural instinct: it’s often said how they can’t go out fishing due to the sea conditions, how April snow storms sometimes kill the lambs from one night to the next, how the weakest vegetables are uprooted by the wind, how common it is for aeroplanes  to be cancelled owing to the pitiless climate. But perhaps this is where its positive side lies: in the profoundly natural ecosystem, the isolated beauty of the nature-machine, the purity of the air and the fierce enthusiasm for fishing and collecting molluscs, the hunting, the semi-wild livestock and the foraging.

The sea of the Faroes teems happily with fish and abounds with seafood; wild herbs as well as seaweed, lichen and moss cheerfully proliferate. “Sea produce has been part of Faroese cuisine for generations, while the technique of fermenting sheep’s meat developed over time to try to preserve precious proteins throughout the year. Without any trees we couldn’t smoke and because of the damp we couldn’t even produce salt to preserve our meat and fish,” young chef Poul Andrias Ziska from KOKS tells us. So in these lands there is a gastronomic contrast between high and fermented meats and the freshest fish gifted by the mild sea. Throughout history, the recipes have also been complemented by whale, dolphin, puffin, meaty crustaceans and aromatic seaweed, all ingredients arriving directly from the whims of Odin, but most of the time it was human genius that got them into the recipe books. 

The Faroe islanders are nourished for example by “skerpi kjøt [fermented meat ‘dried’ by the polar wind], glowing, tasty seafood salads, vitamin-rich and anti-oxidizing salted seal and whale blubber, traditional sauces obtained from the fat of fermented mutton and beef, legendary ræstan fisk [fish left to ferment and then boiled] and garnatálg [fermented gut covered by its membrane], the way a typical grandmother would cook, then fulmar [the sea bird], dried seaweed that tastes of truffle, sheep’s fat that tastes of blue cheese and sea birds whose meat is like beef but with the taste of fish,” Poul Andrias continues. In addition to this, a whole range of mushroom varieties can be found, amongst which the Psilocybe semilanceata, among the most hallucinogenic in the world, as if the visionary atmosphere of the place weren’t already enough. 

While on one hand they ‘chew’ on unique foods, thirsty mouths can also find comfort in the native drinks. This is what the KOKS’s skilled sommelier, Karin Visth, tells us: “The tap water is pure and crystal clear – and it’s slightly sweet too – this is why it’s considered the best non-alcoholic drink in the islands; the Føroya Bjór and Okkara Bryggjarí artisan breweries instead produce unique beers, while Havið is the ultra-strong Faroese aquavit. And then there are also the local juices based on elderflower, rosehip and angelica, or made with rhubarb and gooseberries.” KOKS offers a very interesting, assorted menu, with a wealth of subpolar food and beverages typical of the tundra.

With its most unusual culinary habitat, marked over time by highs and lows in man’s gastronomic survival, now the Faroe Islands are considered marvellous little dots floating in the ocean, blanketed with endless pastures, perennially at the mercy of the sea and uncontaminated northern climate. These mystical places provide immense opportunities for new contemporary cooks, the ones who will dare, with nature as their sole, zealous inspiration.

But what an immense luxury it is to create the new Nordic cuisine in desolate lands, to wait for the day’s catch or go out to the cliffs and forage, or check on the various pickles, infusions, meat and fish fermenting in their pantries. Poul Andrias Ziska is very conscious of this, because this is what he does day in day out at KOKS, the restaurant in Tórshavn, capital of the archipelago, where he is chef. Together with owner Johannes Jensen and Karin Visth, like a water diviner he seeks out an avant-garde cuisine, with Viking roots though. Boss Johannes reveals that “the restaurant was established in April 2011 – so very recently – with the very idea of making the most of the age-old ingredients of the Faroes. Old and new, KOKS is the number one communicator and promoter of the islands’ food culture!” But then, speaking to Poul Andrias, other subjects come up in all their splendour: “The silence, the wind, the cold, the damp and the wild nature have developed the inhabitants’ minds. They somehow live in an aura of mystic concentration, dating far, far back into human history, resting on that thin layer of the subconscious. Without realizing it, in their everyday lives the Faroese have perhaps developed an almost supernatural sense of contemplation towards nature.” Symbiosis stemming from reverence, one might say.

Poul Andrias feels this mysticism as he forages for seaweed and wild herbs, grasping all this abstract strength through these simple gestures. Perhaps this is why they come from all over the world for a food experience on the edge of Europe, to understand, through every single ingredient, the unique and pure magic of these islands. 

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