Article | Faroe Islands

Recipes of Cultural Heritage: Culinary Traditions of the Faroe Islands

Get to know the fascinating culinary traditions of the Faroese culture. The Faroes are well-known for their cuisine, which includes fermented lamb, fish, and whale meat, rooted in the islands’ unique and isolated environment. Would you be curious enough to try some on your next visit to Tórshavn?
Faroese cuisine cod and potatoes

© Grace Cordsen

A meal of cod and potatoes, eaten aboard a sailboat in Tórshavn

The isles of the North Atlantic are the lands of legends, home to the Vikings and tales of old. When one visits these remote regions, they immediately feel as though they are being immersed in the rich history of the area. While it is impossible to visit these robust cultures as they were centuries ago, we do have one point of entry, which serves as a form of time travel: food. Food is a universal symbiosis not only between humans and the land, but also between peoples of different backgrounds.

Survival is dependent on passing down the culinary knowledge of older generations. The preservation of a culture is dictated by adaptations in agriculture and the integration of other cultures’ food productions. Without this exchange of knowledge, humans across the globe would not have been able to meet the new standards that environmental challenges inflicted on their sources of sustenance.

Foggy day fishing boat Faroe Islands

© Grace Cordsen

A foggy day in the Faroe Islands

A close examination of cuisine can reveal the multidimensional reasons for cultural evolution as well as cultural permanence. Food is not only olfactory and gustatory, but also optical—like the visual arts—making it one of the most immersive ways to experience the heritage of a culture.

Separate cultures have differing ideas about what is delicious, and even more plainly, about what is food. Despite the many questions that arise when discussing cuisine there is always one thing that we can all agree on: food, no matter what it is or how it is prepared, has always been central to survival. As this integral part of life, the way food is prepared in many culinary traditions has remained largely unchanged through time. These traditions are based on necessity, which is determined by environment.

The Faroe Islands are known for their unusual cuisine; the national food of the islands is famously fermented lamb. The process of fermentation is the most crucial part of Faroese culinary identity. As an extremely isolated land within a subpolar oceanic climate, the Faroes rely heavily on storage and preservation methods—like fermentation—in order to have access to food through even the coldest of seasons.

Fermenting fish hanging from Torshavn building Faroe Islands

© Grace Cordsen

Fermenting fish hanging in the salty Faroese air

Fermentation can be explained simply as leaving something out to rot. Rather than become spoiled from this process, the meats preserve and dry out. In the Faroes, the fermentation of food is considered a delicate artform rather than an undesirable decaying process. Their fermented meats and fish are not salted or stored in any particular way, they are solely exposed to the chill North Atlantic air to dry them and start the fermentation process.

Fish that has been hung and dried for over two weeks is called ræstur fiskur. Lamb meat that has been fermenting for two to three weeks is called raest kjøt, while lamb meat that has been fermenting for about two months is called skjerpekjøt. The smell of either type is intense, and the taste is notably strong. Fermented lamb or fish can taste very different depending on the air in which they were dried or the food the animal had been eating.

Reboiled fermented lamb Faroe culture food

© Grace Cordsen

A bowl of re-boiled fermented lamb

The second most crucial part of the Faroese culinary identity is the consumption of the meat and blubber of pilot whales. This controversial practice has received a lot of media coverage over the past few years because it requires the killing of a respected species. Without the pilot whale hunt, the Faroese people would have never survived on the land they called home. Before the Islands began mass importation of food and supplies, pilot whales were the Faroese’s most vital source of meat and fat.

Another debate has come into the spotlight recently, surrounding the potential health concerns of pilot whale consumption. The research of Pál Weihe, head of the Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health in the Faroese hospital system, revealed an uncommonly high level of mercury in pilot whale meat, which makes consuming it harmful to the development of children’s brains.

This has added another layer to the pilot whale debate. Should the Faroese stop the hunt of pilot whale simply because other groups are against the killing of whales as a species? It should be noted that the pilot whale hunt has no effect on the pilot whale population, as they are neither endangered nor at risk of becoming endangered. Should they stop eating whale because of the negative health effects? It seems that both of these arguments against the consumption of whale meat have only made the push to preserve this long-held tradition of the Faroes even stronger.

The whale hunt discussion is ongoing and leaves many questions unanswered. Though whale has become a contested food-source, it remains an important aspect of Faroese cuisine.

Carving whale blubber Torshavn

© Grace Cordsen

Whale blubber ready to be carved

During my time as a Young Explorer, I learned the most about the rich culinary culture of the Faroe Islands through interviews with locals about their own experiences and what Faroese food means to them. In my interview with Pál Weihe, I was fascinated by how the Faroese view their culinary past and present.

When Pál was a child in the 1960s, his family would eat seafood six days a week. Sunday was the only meat day, when lamb, beef, or chicken was served. This practice is exemplary of the strong fish tradition from which the Faroese come. Pál would help his mother hang up their meats and fish to dry. He described the taste of fermented lamb as “delicate and heavy.”

During Pál’s childhood, staple meals in the Weihe family included salted and boiled Atlantic cod (or bacalao) with potatoes and butter, as well as fried or boiled fish minced and cooked with the fats from the lamb intestine. Pilot whale meat was also a staple in the Weihe family. The pilot whale blubber would be dried or boiled, after which it becomes translucent and, supposedly, more delicious. All these dishes are still extremely common in the Faroes today.

Dried fish and Faroese beer

© Grace Cordsen

Dried fish enjoyed with a glass of Faroese beer

All these reflections on Faroese cuisine were brought about through Pál’s memories of the way he was brought up as a Faroese man. He looks back fondly on the times he spent learning to preserve and prepare food the Faroese way.

When considering the way that the Faroese diet has changed throughout his lifetime, Pál remarked that, today, if there are no fishermen in your family, you probably rely on the supermarket for all sources of food. Because of this, many Faroese families eat fish around once a week—a diet Pál compared to that of the families in Copenhagen.

Fish is now seen as a special food, just as lamb once was. Various seafoods are expensive options in the supermarkets, despite the fact that the island is surrounded by water teaming with fresh fish.

Fish fermenting in salty air Faroe Islands Torshavn

© Grace Cordsen

Fermenting fish, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands

While the regular household appears to be moving away from a fish-centric diet, there has been a sharp rise in the appreciation of fish and a traditional Faroese diet in the kitchens of many of the nation’s restaurants. This is particularly true in Tórshavn, the nation’s capital, where Faroese restaurants abound.

About half of the Faroese population lives in Tórshavn, the number one tourist stop for visitors to the archipelago. Just like when one dines in a restaurant, Pál believes that “it is important to properly compose a meal. One must make time to both talk and eat.”

Pál hopes that the current and future generations of Faroese will open their eyes to the precious cuisine they have available to them on their remote islands and love it just as wholeheartedly has he has throughout his life.

This article is an excerpt of Grace Cordsen’s Young Explorers final project, “Recipes of Cultural Heritage: Culinary Traditions of the Faroe Islands.” For further information and more beautiful photos, we encourage you to read this digital book in its entirety.

About the Author

Grace Cordsen

Grace Cordsen

Young Explorer & Scientist-in-Residence

Grace Cordsen is an explorer, researcher, and entrepreneur. She joined the 2018 class of Young Explorers on Adventure Canada’s North Atlantic Saga expedition, completing a research project that focused on the cultural and culinary traditions of small communities along the North Atlantic coasts, and later returned as a Scientist-in-Residence on Greenland & Wild Labrador.

Learn more about Grace and her work in this Mindful Explorer feature.