Think of the most dramatic landscape you’ve ever seen. Now, heighten the peaks, so that they cut into a stormy sky. Make the cliffs sharper, and cover their sides in the greenest grass. Dot them with the fluffiest of sheep, and make the sea below as mercurial as the sky above. Imagine all this, and even then, you’ll find yourself gawping at the awesome beauty of the Faroe Islands.
During the five days I spent on the islands, clustered in the North Atlantic halfway between Scotland and Iceland, my jaw grew sore from dropping. Travelers come here to fish the pristine fjords or hike paths that cut up the gentler side of those jutting cliffs. But, however spectacular the scenery, it’s the local culture—hardscrabble and only a few steps removed from survivalist—that truly fascinates.
Shepherding lies at its heart. At the shop Guđrun & Guđrun, in Tórshavn, the pretty Faroese capital, a saleswoman told me that just as the Inuit have dozens of words for snow, the Faroese have hundreds of ways to describe sheep’s wool. They spin it into thick yarn, then knit it into the islands’ distinct sweaters, worn so famously by the Detective Lund character in the Danish television series The Killing. The Faroese eat mainly mutton. Faced with so restricted a diet, they expand the range of flavors by air-curing sheep’s meat to different degrees of fermentation. They also carefully tend the skins, which they make into clothing and rugs.
On Stóra Dímun, a windswept island inhabited by a single family that dates back eight generations, I get to see all of this. Jógvan Jón Petersen and his wife, Eva úr Dímun, welcome the few visitors who arrive by boat or helicopter. When I visit, Jógvan Jon takes me to a slatted shed where sheep legs hang from the ceiling, and explains that the prohibitively high cost of salt meant that the Faroese learned to cure meats using air alone. Later, Eva will serve some of the fermented mutton at lunch. It is pungent to the point of tasting, well, rotten, but in its powerful flavor I can sense the harsh seas and weather that have shaped these islands over centuries. —Lisa AbendNorth-West Adventures offers seven-night walking tours of the Faroe Islands.
This appeared in the August/September 2014 issue.