For Poul Andrias Ziska, there are two reasons you become a cook: “The first one is that you’re brought up in a home where people share a passion for cooking; the second reason – my reason – is that you’re tired of school. I just knew that college and university weren’t for me.”
Accidental though his career path seems to have been, things have worked out remarkably well for the 27-year-old chef. It’s late August and we’re chatting before another fully booked dinner service at Koks, his little restaurant in a grass-roofed cottage about 15 minutes from the Faroe Islands capital Torshavn. As we speak, sheep and cattle amble just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows and drifts of cloud seep downwards from the hilltops; beyond, the swell of the Atlantic ebbs at the shore and the faint silhouettes of distant islands emerge through the haze like apparitions. It feels elemental – and, like so much of the Faroes, is staggeringly beautiful.
Spectacular panoramas are regularly encountered when roaming around the Faroe Islands CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
When Koks was awarded a Michelin star early last year, epicureans the world over suddenly took note of this tiny nation of just 50,000 people, set some 400 miles (644km) above the Shetland Islands. Officially a self-governing community within the Kingdom of Denmark and most commonly reached via a two-hour Atlantic Airways flight from Copenhagen, the Faroes are a collection of 18 windswept, treeless islands that collectively accommodate between two and 24,000 people.
At the airport, the first local I meet is tour guide Johannus Hansen. Within 30 minutes of my arrival, we commence our short hike to Sorvagsvatn, a lake in a hollow by the coast which, through an optical illusion, appears to float above the ocean when viewed from a cliff.
Governmental buildings in the capital Torshavn CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
After I take some photos that couldn’t possibly do the spectacle justice, we walk for five minutes and turn a corner to see Bosdalafossur waterfall cascade from the lake into the ocean. I’d no idea another remarkable panorama would reveal itself so suddenly, but I’m momentarily distracted by a grazing lamb we pass along the way. “How cute,” I comment; “We will slaughter it in October,” Johannus replies.
They’re not sentimental about food in the Faroes, and as we walk and talk I learn more about the islanders’ pragmatic approach to eating. Believed to have arrived in the archipelago more than 1,000 years ago, the first settlers found the islands devoid of indigenous land mammals and near incapable of supporting the growth of any crop that flourishes above the ground. Root vegetables were an essential staple and any animal killed was used in its entirety. The paucity of produce called for creativity, too, with the Faroese fermenting meat and fish for use during the fallow months.
A grass-roofed church in Saksun CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
In his 20s, Johannus may be a dab hand at drone photography and Instagram, but he seems just as tethered to the earth as his forefathers. The day before my visit, he had led Rene Redzepi, the Danish chef, and his colleagues from “the world’s best restaurant”, Noma, on a culinary tour of the Faroes; as we amble, he tells me about eating freshly captured gannets and how, after finding one beached on the shore, he recently tried dolphin again for the first time in years.
That, of course, brings our conversation to the Faroes’ most controversial culinary habit. As has been the case for centuries, whaling occurs here today. Records of all pilot whale hunts have been kept since 1584 and while the practice is regulated, its continuation has been subject to international condemnation.
Distributed according to strict guidelines and for free to those who have participated in the killing and butchering of the animals, the meat and blubber remain a notable part of the local diet. The Faroe Islands’ tourism website pointedly notes that while there have been understandable “strong reactions to media reports and pictures of the hunt in other countries” these are often concentrated in “urban communities, where most people have never actually been witness to the slaughtering processes from which their own meat derives.”
Dranganir rock from the air CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
All the locals I discuss it with support the practice. Ziska occasionally uses whale meat in Koks and tells me later: “If someone from the outside tries to take away your traditions if feels like an attack on your identity, which is why people in the Faroes are practising [whaling] more now… than ever.”
While it remains an emotive subject for international visitors, immersion in the ways of the Faroese is otherwise benign and the country’s truly ethereal beauty is captivating. Indicating the destination’s growing popularity, I’m told the islands’ 300 hire cars are already in use during my visit and so I travel with local taxi drivers, who detail our surroundings in impeccable English and are pleased to indulge my frequent stop-the-car requests when I’m confronted by yet another astonishing panorama.
Poul Andrias Ziska CREDIT: JOHN O’CEALLAIGH
One journey leads us past what must be one of the prettiest penitentiaries on the planet: a low-slung series of grass-roofed buildings, the detention centre accommodates fewer than 20 residents and is set at the cusp of a fjord.
On another trip I’m taken on a thrilling Rib speed boat ride to Koltur, an island the size of Monaco and home to just one couple. As I wander a cluster of abandoned stone farmhouses by a black-sand beach I encounter the duo, who chat cordially before boarding the heavily subsidised helicopter commuter service to Torshavn for a doctor’s appointment. Left to my own devices, I hike to the island’s 1,570ft peak and admire the thousands of puffins circling below me. The setting is so serene and my encounter with the helicopter-hailing farmers so surreal that I feel truly removed from my everyday stresses. It’s magical.
Hotel Foroyar, overlooking Torshavn
My base for these expeditions is Hotel Foroyar on the outskirts of Torshavn. Regarded as the country’s best hotel but basic by international standards, it is nonetheless a pleasant resting place and allows for daytime trips to the centre, for strolls to the old town with its assembly of turf-topped cottages in cherry-red and black.
In the evening, I visit Etika sushi restaurant – while the rice and dessert are disappointing, the chunky cuts of fish are so fresh they practically flip – and Barbara Fishhouse, an atmospheric eatery where I dine on monkfish with pumpkin and anchovies, and plump mussels with chorizo and onion, washed down with wine and cider. It’s simple, considered fare, generous and unpretentious enough to appeal to locals as well as tourists.
Barbara Fishhouse CREDIT: BARBARA FISHHOUSE
As Ziska tells me, hunting and farming are such ingrained practices here that many Faroese simply aren’t used to paying for food at restaurants, and I’m privileged to get a taste of authentic home cooking at one of the heimablidni, or “home hospitality” supper clubs hosted in the country. Hosts Anna and Oli serve a moreish salmon and turnip soup, mutton with potatoes and gravy, salted cod, and rhubarb ice cream. It’s truly local dining, with the produce harvested from the couple’s farms or provided by their neighbours.
This immersion in local cuisine also serves as an edifying precursor to my final-night meal at Koks, where the dining experience is so imbued with the character of the country that it would be impossible to replicate it anywhere else.
Heimablidni, or home hospitality, with Anna and Oli CREDIT: INGRID HOFSTRA
My table is decorated with a sprig of heather and I dine on a succession of exceptional dishes. Topped with fragrant fir and scented with turf taken, I’m told, “from the island over there”, langoustine served on a bed of pebbles is as plump and fleshy as lobster; lamb with lichen is intense and delicious; hard pellets of turnip, “the best in the world”, crunch like crudités; served raw in sashimi-like strips, my sprightly mahogany clam arrives in the first flush of youth. “It’s about 60 years old,” Ziska tells me, “they can grow for up to 500 years; if you cut them in half you can count the rings like trees.”
Sea urchin at Koks CREDIT: JOHN O’CEALLAIGH
More challenging is mutton with worms, a dish, I learn, pays tribute to islanders who, in times past, couldn’t afford to waste fermenting meat that had become infested with maggots. If not quite as enjoyable as other courses, it proves to be a memorable moment on a menu rife with finesse and emotion. Yet again I find myself caught off guard by the Faroes, where a reverence for tradition is still so visible and the majesty and might of nature is inescapable.
Black Tomato (020 7426 9888) can arrange a five-night tailor-made holiday to the Faroe Islands from £3,500pp, based on two travelling. Price includes accommodation at Hotel Foroyar, car hire, private tours and flights from London via Copenhagen.
Koks reopens in a new location in April. A tasting menu costs from DKK1,400 (£165) or DKK2,500 with wine.
For more information on the Faroe Islands and heimablidni see visitfaroeislands.com