If you can stomach the questionable food, the Faroe Islands’ great outdoors makes for a fine getaway, says MARK STRATTON.
Arranged on a bed of lettuce, the smorgasbord from hell duly arrived. I’d been dithering between the fresh Atlantic prawns or buttered halibut when a ‘helpful’ waiter suggested I try the traditional Faroese platter. Always game to sample the local cuisine, I’d ordered one. And now I wanted to kill him.
If the wind-dried mutton proved stringy, the matured cod had the consistency of flaking athlete’s foot. Worse still, a dark black slice of boot leather turned out to be pilot whale served with a wobbling chunk of whale blubber.
Dessert, sir?” asked the accursed waiter.
“I couldn’t eat another thing,” I lied, suspecting something equally unpalatable lurking on the sweet trolley.
The Faroes are Europe’s most isolated outpost, spread over 18 mountainous, emerald-green islands, just south of Iceland. They’re instantly eye-catching and from the minute you arrive, the pristine and rugged landscapes are captivating. If the great outdoors is your bag, there are fine hikes amid towering fjords and along vertiginous cliffs of sea-stacks dotted with numerous seabirds.
The scattered villages are very traditional, retaining turf roofs on which it’s possible to witness the bizarre sight of locals mowing their roofs. Look out, too, for the slatted barns, hjallurs, inside which mutton is hung to be wind-dried.
If you’re at all squeamish over what you eat, though, you might want to consider staying at home. Daylight deprivation during dark winters means little grows on these North Atlantic rocks, hence the locals’ penchant for just about anything with fins or wings. In fact, it’s a diet probably not too dissimilar to their Viking forebears who first settled the islands around AD825.
From the Faroes’ pretty capital of Torshavn one of my first forays was to sail to Nolsoy Island. There, I joined Jens Kjeld-Jensen’s nocturnal hike to the world’s largest colony of storm petrels (some 400,000 breeding pairs). They’re odd birds: no bigger than swallows, they spend all day at sea before coming ashore to hide under rocks for the night, where they whirr away like mechanical wind-up toys.
On cue, when the midnight sun finally dozed off, the petrels were swarming all around us in the eerie half-light like bats. Jens netted a few and ringed them for scientific research. Well, that’s what he told me.
Back at his house, he showed off his collection of stuffed birds as, unusually for an ornithologist, he doubled as a taxidermist.
I suppose you find the birds dead then stuff them?” I asked. “No – we only stuff birds after we’ve eaten them,” he replied, adding a whole new dimension to birdlover. Puffin, it turns out, has a slightly lighter taste than duck, although Jens preferred the richer meat of guillemot or razorbill.
Faroese fish, on the other hand, are a real treat, and as nearly all islanders own boats, it’s easy to organise a spot of fishing or scenic boat tours.
Around Sandoy Island, Jóan-Petur took me out on his fishing-boat, Hvíthamar. At sea, we got a bird’s eye view of the island’s stunning coastline, skimming along western Sandoy Island’s lofty cliffs to a sea-stack shaped like an inverted ice-cream cone at Heygadrangur. Jóan- Petur manoeuvred his fishing boat into coves echoing to the cacophonous choirs of guillemots, fulmars, razorbills, and puffins. I’d never seen so many squawking seabirds. Meanwhile, curious grey seals with long curly eyelashes watched us from the steely Atlantic.
On the way back, we caught cod on the line and Jóan-Petur imparted stories of the trials and tribulations of the puffin hunters who dangle by ropes over these vertiginous cliffs driven by the thoughts of a nice seabird casserole.
But they’re not the only madmen risking life and limb on these dangerous cliffs. We see an impossibly isolated ledge of lush grass halfway up a skyscraper cliff being grazed by sheep. How did they get there, I asked?
“Oh, we rope them down there,” says Jóan-Petur, “because we like our lamb lean and tender … trouble is, sometimes the sheep get too fat and roll off into the sea.”
Besides the dodgy diet, until I’d met Páll stories of Viking derring-do seemed somewhat distant as the Faroese these days are really rather friendly and clean cut. Indeed, at Torshavn’s excellent Fornminnissavn museum there wasn’t a bloodied axe or horned helmet to be seen. Faroese Vikings here had been peaceful pastoralists.
I looked hard for a bit of carnage among relics from an archaeological excavation of Á Toftanesi, a 10th-century Viking longhouse discovered on Eysturoy Island. But the dig had recovered only pottery, runestones and board games, suggesting they preferred a quiet night in rather than a bit of rape and pillage.
But Páll was a giant of a man. His billowing red beard trailed over his traditional Faroese troyggja, a brown woollen tunic. We’d become acquainted as my hotel on Sandoy Island wasn’t serving dinner and the only eatery open on the island was Páll and Laura’s log-cabin somewhere beyond the black stump.
Arriving in a low fuzzy sea mist, I was soon warmed by a roaring agar while part-time actress Laura fed us succulently cooked lamb with kohlrabi and dollops of homemade rhubarb chutney. I noticed Páll gave the vegetables a wide berth, choosing instead to gnaw on a legbone of lamb.
After dinner Laura and I strolled along the nearby cliffs. The Atlantic shimmered in the sparkling midnight sun and we listened to curlews and oystercatchers’ whooping cries carrying on the breeze. The Faroes are at their best in the magical calm of the early hours.
But then an almighty crash disturbed the moment. “Don’t worry,” said Laura, “the outside toilet is always blowing over in the wind.” As Páll had disappeared pretty sharpish after dinner, I had this gruesome image of him laying in a tangled mess of wood and toilet paper with his strides around his ankles. Still, Laura really wasn’t concerned. “Now,” she continued, “you really should try my puffin cake in July …”
Best time to travel: Better weather and daylight means May to September is really the only time to travel.
Getting there: Sailing by Smyril Line (01595 690845; www.smyril-line.com) is an adventure hopping between the Shetlands, Faroes Isles, Iceland, and Norway if you have the time. Quicker, Atlantic Airways (www.atlantic.fo) has return flights from Stansted to Torshavn.See www.visit-faroeislands.com for tourist information.
Five foods (to avoid)
Grind og spik
The bloody annual grindadrap slaughters some 1000 pilot whales. Besides being unhealthy and morally dubious, it tastes awful.
Whoever thought hanging raw mutton in a shed for three months would make a good meal needs their head examining.
Matured cod tastes no better with a traditional accompaniment of garnatalg gravy made from sheep’s intestines.
Could you really snack on these cute, little mini-penguin thingamajigs?
Boiled sheep head and spuds
An eye-popping, X-rated dish – if you enjoy your brains stewed.”