Rebecca Mead, for her sins, travels to the newest foodie travel destination: the Faroe Islands, a Danish territory in the North Atlantic, between Norway and Iceland. Get your barf bag ready for these excerpts:
When eaten fresh, the fish is subjected to prolonged boiling (or “killed twice,” as some locals put it). The Faroese also preserve fish, though not with such familiar Nordic techniques as salting or smoking; the islands are so windswept that almost no trees grow, and as a result there’s little lumber available either to manufacture salt or to generate smoke. Instead, a catch is suspended from the eaves of a house, like wind chimes on a porch, where it dries and ferments. After it is sufficiently decomposed, a process that takes several weeks, it is boiled, then served alongside boiled potatoes. A condiment of fermented tallow, made from lamb intestines, is poured on top. This dish is as delicious to an islander as a crustacean freshly plucked from the clean waters of the North Atlantic might be to just about anyone other than a Faroese.
It’s a mystery why the islanders decline to eat a rich supply of foodstuffs that elsewhere would be considered delicacies. When I visited the archipelago recently, locals offered me several explanations. Many said that the Faroese are afraid of getting food poisoning from eating anything too raw or mollusky, a caution that has hardened into tradition. It’s as if, in the ancestral era, a Faroese had eaten a mussel and died, while, a thousand miles south, his Gallic equivalent had discovered that a mussel becomes a tasty morsel when steamed, especially if you have wine, garlic, and parsley at hand.
You know what they will eat? Fermented lamb! And that’s not all. Here, Mead talks about a restaurant called Koks and its chef, Poul Ziska, who is at the center of her story:
Under Ziska, Koks gleefully embraces the potentially disgusting aspects of Faroese cuisine. In the nineteenth century, a Danish physician named Peter Ludvig Panum wrote a treatise entitled “Observations Made During the Measles Epidemic on the Faroe Islands in the Year 1846,” which noted that the archipelago’s inhabitants regularly ate meat that was crawling with maggots. Panum’s writings made many Faroese feel embarrassed about their culinary traditions, but Ziska does not doubt the account’s accuracy. “If you ferment the meat and the weather goes wrong, then you get maggots in it,” he noted, cheerfully. “It’s a completely natural thing to happen to any meat. Back then, you couldn’t throw any meat away—it was too valuable. You had to eat it to survive. What we did back then—and still do today—is you cook the meat but add rice.” (Rice has been imported for centuries.) One dish that Ziska has served at Koks is a twist on his ancestors’ starvation-level fare: flatbread filled with cooked fermented lamb and topped with ground mealworms, which Ziska buys from a pet-food supplier on the Internet. “Maggots are a very good source of protein, and could potentially save the planet, but when I give them to diners I don’t present it in that much depth,” he told me. “I just tell that fun little story about the rice.” Diners at Koks tend not to be timid eaters; with rare exceptions, the mealworms go down the hatch.
Read the whole thing. It’s a good piece, but now I can tell you that there’s at least one place in this world that I will never visit. I make my travel decisions based in part on local cuisine. I told my wife this story. She said, “Is it haggis, things like that?” Ha! If only! Haggis sounds like cheesecake compared to this stuff.
I think I have a reputation on this blog as an adventurous eater. It’s not true. I actually have a very queasy stomach. In general, I’m not interested in organ meats (liver pâté being a big exception) and fermented things. “Fermented” means “rotting.” It’s not all bad. Cheese, for example, is nothing but fermented milk. Sauerkraut and kimchi are fermented cabbage. I love them all. But mostly, I am not a risk-taker in the area of fermentation.
A while back, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s episode in which he visits Iceland, and eats fermented shark, a traditional dish that he called one of the worst things he’d ever eaten (also on the list: Namibian warthog rectum). Here’s a clip of Bizarre Foods’ Andrew Zimmern eating the stuff. That whole Bizarre Foods episode made me write Iceland off my bucket list. I’d love to see the country and meet its people, but man, I couldn’t handle the native cuisine.
How about you? Any foodie travel destinations appeal to you? For me, the most appealing, strictly in terms of cuisine, are Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. Iceland and the Faroe Islands, not so much. I’ve never found much reason to think about South America (except Argentina for steak) and Africa (except Morocco for its spicy food) as places to go for their culinary offerings. Should I rethink that?