Steile Karriere, Faröer Inseln, LHM 11-2019

Dramatic dining

  • TEXT AILEEN TIEDEMANN
  • PHOTOS ROMAN PAWLOWSKI

Per capita, there are more Michelin-starred restaurants on the Faroe Islands than anywhere else: exactly one. A gourmet trip to the North Atlantic

His fingers frozen and red from the chill, Poul Andrias Ziska carefully picks tiny leaves from a patch of sea purslane, an essential ingredient in the 18-course tasting menu he’ll be serving later that evening. Ziska, 29, runs the one and only restaurant on the Faroe Islands to boast a Michelin star; it’s located in a dramatic, windswept valley on the island of Streymoy. The remoteness of this archipelago has always compelled inhabitants to be self-sufficient, and this tradition is being uncompromisingly continued at the Koks – a Faroese word that means devoting oneself to attaining perfection. Here, at this restaurant the only ingredients used are those that can be foraged or caught locally. A bird’s-eye view of the restaurant’s location reveals just how difficult this undertaking can be. The Faroes consist of 18 small islands scattered randomly in the North Atlantic between Norway and Iceland.

A rugged setting for a visionary chef: Poul Andrias Ziska runs the world’s most extraordinary Michelin-starred restaurant

 You could be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing here apart from soggy meadows and bedraggled sheep. Not even trees want to grow here on these wind-battered islands. Happily, Ziska knows exactly where to forage for edible plants and flowers and where the best ingredients are hidden. We jump into the car, and two tunnels later, we are standing with windblown hair on a rickety jetty in a fjord. Ziska pulls on a pair of rubber gloves and drags a couple of creels out of the water; reaching in, he fills a bucket with 3-inch mahogany clams. “They can live for up to 500 years,” he says. “Next to the Greenland shark, they have the longest lifespan of any creature on earth. I have friends who are divers, and they dig them out of the seabed for me.” The clams are stored in the creels, where the crystal-clear, icily cold water of the fjord keeps them fresh. He once joined those friends on a diving trip, recalls the master chef, and despite wearing a thick neoprene suit and mask, lasted no longer than five minutes underwater before capitulating.

The view from Bøur village (left) over to the islet of Tindhólmur, which is also called the sleeping dragon

 Waterfalls tumble picturesquely into the valley around the Koks restaurant. Sheep amble through a stream, while the cooks dash with flying aprons from the kitchen in one hut to the dining room in another. “This place reflects the vision of the restaurant,” says Ziska, “we want to be as authentic as possible.” It isn’t exactly easy to run a gourmet restaurant that doesn’t have a proper road leading up to it. All the guests have to be picked up at a meeting place on the main road and ferried in a four-wheel drive along a bumpy track, through mud and over potholes to the turf-roofed 18th-century cottages that house the restaurant. “If there’s too much rain, we can’t even get through in the Jeep. And when we need new kitchen equipment, we often have to wait for weeks until the ship comes and brings it.” Despite the challenges, the father-of-two loves the wild solitude of his island home. “It forces me to experiment with new ideas.” It also helps that he has an international team. In the kitchen, Matteo Pagani, 23, from Turin, is chopping fermented lamb fat, which – assisted by intern Kohei Miyata, 22, from Tokyo – he mixes with cream for a spread called garnátalg. “I am very happy to be here,” says Pagani. “In the Italian restaurant I was at previously, which also had a Michelin star, I had 18-hour shifts and wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone during work. Here, we chat all day and go hiking together when we’re not working.” Sommelière Maria Ogl, 31, from Hungary, who has been at Koks for two years, can’t think of a better place to work. She has just been out in the meadow, picking flowers for the table decorations. “It is incredibly fulfilling to forage for food yourself, to smell it, cook it and then serve it. In the city, we have totally lost touch with nature.”

The wind ruffles the sheep's wool and chef Matteo Pagani's hair.

 In the restaurant, Ziska sits on a sheepskin-topped chair and serves coffee in rustic, handmade pottery cups. “I never set out to be a Michelin chef,” he says. “It was a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one. Happily, in this remote location I don’t feel any of the pressure that Michelin chefs usually have.” And that’s probably just as well because the pressure would now have doubled since Ziska recently won a second Michelin star, to go with the first one that was awarded in 2017. So what’s his secret? After training at the Food College in Aalborg, he went out into the world and sought inspiration in Spanish and Danish star-winning restaurants before returning home with the idea of cooking typical Faroese dishes, but giving them a new twist.

Dressed in rain jacket and sneakers, Ziska welcomes his evening guests outside a wooden fish-drying shed close to a patch of ground just off the road, where cars can park. The Koks has space for 26 guests. Before he drives them there, Ziska hands out aperitifs. “This is the farthest I’ve ever traveled to dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant,” says New Yorker Sally excitedly. Now, it’s time for the Koks team to leap into action. Restaurant manager Lars Nicolajsen, clad in a crisply pressed shirt, welcomes the diners and leads them to their tables, warning them to watch out for their heads, as the rafters in the old shepherd’s hut are so low that very few people can stand upright. The evening sun shines brightly through the small windows as the first of 18 courses is served: fresh Atlantic scallops. This is followed by sea urchins, wind-dried lamb, minced halibut, and the aforementioned mahogany clams, plucked from the fjord only hours before, served with seaweed, moss and wildflowers. It tastes like biting into a slice of the Faroe Islands – enticingly different.

Ziska pulls fresh seafood from the fjord

Horse mussels with elderberries

Sea urchin with pickled parsley stems is one of the dishes served at the restaurant

Each of the 18 courses is explained to the guests

 Next day, during a guided hike with Jóhannus Hansen, 30, of Reika Adventures, a trekking and climbing tour operator, we learn about some of the hair-raising lengths the Faroese will go to to find food. He takes us on what was once the postman’s path along vertiginous cliffs to the hamlet of Gásadalur. We hardly dare to look down, as Hansen casually mentions that he abseils here in May to lift fulmar eggs from the nests. “They’re twice the size of hens’ eggs and taste absolutely delicious,” he says. “When Johnny Cash’s son came here for a concert recently, I fried one for him.” It hasn’t always been as cosmopolitan here as it is today. Hansen points down to the village: “My grandmother lived there in a cottage without heating. Every day, she would knit as she walked up the mountain with an urn strapped to her back to milk the cows.” Even as a six-year-old, he would climb the mountain alone to visit her. There’s a tunnel now, but the mountain route still feels like a pleasant stroll to him. As we arrive in Gásadalur, the fog lifts, revealing a view as enchantingly beautiful as a glossy calendar panorama: Below a lush, bright-green meadow, a waterfall tumbles off the cliffs into the sea. On the hill above is one of the islands’ very few fertile fields. “The best turnips in the world grow here,” says Hansen. “Their flavor is particularly rich because they ripen so slowly in the cold air. The farmer supplies the legendary Michelin-starred restaurant Noma in Copenhagen amongst others.”

Trekking guide Jóhannus Hansen high up on the old postman’s path

Faroese hospitality: Anna and Olí Rubeksen entertain guests from around the world at their home

 Anna and Olí Rubeksen, 58 and 61, cook only with regional ingredients. They regularly invite guests from all around the world to enjoy fabulous meals at their farmhouse in Velbastaður village. They call these evenings heimablídni, which roughly translates as “hospitality at home.” As we arrive, Olí finishes herding some reluctant sheep up a steep meadow and then invites us into his turf-roofed home for a welcome drink. Just like the Vikings, who feared being poisoned at their feasts, we all drink from the same glass. With our drinking and dining companions – a group of Finns and two Danes – we sit around a wooden table with a stunning view of the sea. “Sometimes, we see schools of pilot whales passing,” says Olí. Anna serves a broth of fermented fish with smoked salmon, and adds: “I don’t travel much myself, but I love having the world come to our table.” She inherited the farm, which has been in the family for nine generations, from her father. Following the old traditions, the Rubeksens ferment fish and mutton in a hjallur, a kind of ventilated outdoor larder made of wooden planks, and they use the wool from their sheep to make thick jumpers. Olí and Anna are so much a part of their native surroundings that sentences like “Sheep’s head tastes best with blood sausage,” or “Puffins are really delicious, their meat is so tender,” come completely naturally.

The flavors get increasingly rich and interesting from course to course, the Faroese beers stronger. Liver served with mashed pumpkin is followed by leg of lamb with caramelized potatoes. “Skål!” calls Olí Rubeksen for the last time after the main course. We raise our glasses and gaze contentedly over the Atlantic at the summer sun that simply refuses to set.


GETTING THERE

Lufthansa is flying five times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) and up to five times daily from Munich (MUC) to Copenhagen (CPH) in November. Regional airlines fly from there to the Faroe Islands (FAE). Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app