Saturday, February 14, 2015

Skerpikjøt and Garnatálg

Map, in Danish, showing the Faroe Islands in relation to Europe
(Wikimedia Commons)
When they lack firmer evidence, archaeologists sometimes reference "folk" practices about the making of food or clothing on the supposition that such practices preserve information about how such items were made when those items needed to be handmade by each household. Scholars are reluctant to make such references, because it is usually impossible to prove how far back in time such practices went, making any inferences that might be drawn speculative.

Recently, I saw an article about food that makes me wonder whether it provides information about Viking era cuisine.  The article appeared, of all places, in the on-line edition of Newsweek at the end of January. It talks about cuisine in the Faroe Islands and can be found here.

The Faroe Islands (named in Danish as Faerøerne on the above map), also called simply the Faroes, are an archepelago in the north Atlantic Ocean that was settled by the Norse around 600-800 CE; it remains unclear whether the islands were already inhabited by other people at the time.  The Faroes are now an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark; its official website may be found here.   The images on the country's website, as well as other pictures easily locatable on the Internet, suggest that the Faroes may be the real-world inspiration for the rocky islands that feature as the setting for the movie "How to Train Your Dragon."  They are a place where people have lived for centuries by using their ingenuity to obtain enough to eat.  In a country as small as the Faroes (where the total land area is only 1,399 square kilometers), that is surrounded by the north Atlantic, that means most of your food comes from whatever land animals you can raise, or from the sea. Moreover, before modern refrigeration techniques became available, other means of preserving meat had to be employed, and in this regard the Faroes were even more constrained than Scandinavia. Professor Jóan Pauli Joensen, one of the people the Newsweek reporter interviewed for the article, noted that the only technologies available on the Faroes in early times were drying and fermenting; even salt was rare.

The highlight of the Newsweek article was its discussion of how a Faroese restaurant called Koks is taking the native foods of the Faroes and re-inventing them as haute cuisine.  The title of this post names two of the traditional Faroese foods featured in the Newsweek article: skerpikjøt—air-dried and fermented lamb, and garnatálg—a rolled sausage made from sheep’s fat and innards. Apparently, such Faroese meat dishes have exotic flavors and mouth qualities rivaling those of sushi, according to Newsweek's reporter, who writes about an entree consisting of fermented whale meat and salt-cured whale blubber:
After explaining the region’s specialties, Johannes Jensen, managing director of the Hotel Føroyar [where Koks is housed], offered me a platter of waxy new potatoes and instructed me to place one atop a canapé of fermented pilot whale and a square of salt-cured whale blubber the size of a pat of butter. “First the whale meat, then the blubber and last the potato,” he said, layering the ingredients on his plate. The whale meat was the color of onyx, arranged in thin slices that resembled black truffles. The translucent pieces of blubber looked like miniature daikon-radish cakes and gave off a faintly floral aroma. The potato was a potato. ....
Within seconds my palate was flooded with a cacophony of intense flavors. High-toned treble notes of herbaceous and floral flavors were followed by deeply funky, musky earthiness. The texture was thick and oily, and the potato had prolonged the act of chewing it. The experience remains firmly fixed in my memory.
“It’s an acquired taste,” Jensen shrugged, before adding with a note of concern, “I hope we haven’t shocked you.”
Of course, most exotic, gourmet foods are an acquired taste, from Limburger cheese and caviar to durian fruit and olives. If the fermented meats and whale blubber of the Faroes have taste qualities that can be described in such imaginative terms, there may indeed be a market for them as international delicacies--especially if the "Viking diet" takes off in popularity in the U.S. and Western Europe. Keep your eyes open for skerpikjøt and garnatálg to show up in a gourmet food store near you.

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