The Faroes: 18 tiny, windswept islands in the North Atlantic. Home to 75,000 sheep and 45,000 people. And then one restaurant kick-started a fine food revolution, generating new industries and changing people’s lives
The main airport on the island of Vágar is minute and to get to the Faroese capital of Tórshavn, on the neighbouring island of Streymoy, I drive through an unlit, subsea tunnel that links the islands. My Land Rover Discovery Sport’s headlights pick out details of the rock-lined walls and before I’ve dwelt too much on the ocean just above my head, I’ve left the tunnel and am cruising along undulating single-lane roads. It’s a smooth journey and 45 minutes later I pull up at Hotel Føroyar, home of KOKS restaurant, which sits above Tórshavn with a sweeping view of the city, the ocean and the nearby islands.
To get to Kirkjubøur, you travel south from Tórshavn, and the roads get steeper with tight, winding curves. The Discovery Sport feels planted, keeping level contact with the road even on the tightest bend. It’s worth taking extra care on these roads as the local sheep gallop down the hills faster than any sensible sheep should, and often leap joyfully into your path. Local laws make it your responsibility if you hit a sheep – you need to immediately put it out of its misery and then contact the police to find out how much compensation the farmer requires. I slow down, keeping a close eye on the sheep that are grazing on the verge of the road.
Jóannes Patursson is the 17th generation of his family to farm this land. I pull up to a wooden farmhouse that sits on Streymoy’s southern coast.
Jóannes is dressed in traditional Faroese gear, in a fitted woollen jacket with ornate metal clasps and buckled shoes. I’m greeted with a ram’s horn filled with Aquavit. This is an honour. Other people who have been welcomed here include the Queen of Denmark and the Prince of Monaco. All of them come to dine in Jóannes’ mahogany-walled dining room that dates back to 1,000AD and is inside one of the world’s oldest timber structures.
The following day, Jóannes is dressed for farm work in a heavy wool jumper and sturdy shoes. He points at the steep hills around the farmstead where some of his 380 sheep are grazing. Unlike sheep farming in other countries, the Faroese sheep are wild. At most, Jóannes will gather his sheep five times a year, for general health checks, microchipping, shearing, and finally, slaughter. “The people who help me are not employees, they are volunteers. They are paid, at slaughtering time, with one ram, one ewe and one lamb, and the right to hunt hare on the farm.”
These hills are not the only place that his sheep graze. Every September, Jóannes transports some sheep to a nearby island by boat, with the intention to leave them there. He gathers any lambs born since his last visit and brings them home. Jóannes laughs as he remembers the time the weather was too poor for a boat trip and “my father convinced the newly created helicopter service to transport the sheep to the island”. Some sheep went into the passenger area, the rest were swinging in a basket below the helicopter. “We always find a way to have a little fun,” he says.
The grass on that island must be very sweet. KOKS recently bought a selection of those lambs for one of their new dishes. It could also be another key ingredient. Every winter, the sheep descend to the water’s edge to feed on seaweed. Jóannes reckons this makes up about 10% of their diet and adds to their remarkably delicious flavour.
Before I leave, Jóannes takes me to his drying shed, where a number of sheep carcasses are hanging, part way through the ræst process. The ram carcasses smell much sharper and stronger than the ewes, but all are covered in a fine layer of white bacteria that marks the fermentation’s progress. Each one has already been spoken for by a customer eagerly anticipating their annual treat.
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