Extract from Part Four: Meat
Skerpikjot – Faroe Islands
On the Faroe Islands, in the north Atlantic, there’s a centuries old approach to farming which reminds us that it’s possible to have a more harmonious relationship with the animals we eat than is found in much of the world’s intensive farm systems. The Faroese practice of fermenting mutton (sheep which have lived longer lives) results in a preserved meat designed to be eaten sparingly through the winter. Without this food, surviving on these remote islands would have been impossible.
‘When we go inside, don’t panic. You’ll see mould all over the place and something that’ll make you want to run away rather than eat.’ The wind was blowing in this barren landscape, but luckily (I thought) I had been promised lunch. Stepping through the creaking doorway of the wooden shed, I glimpsed my meal in the half-light, hanging by a hook from a rafter. As my companion, Gunnar Nattestad, put it, ‘It looks like part of a dead animal I found in the road.’ The hunk of meat was coated in a thick layer of mould, with patches of creamy yellow, chalky white and an ominous dark brown. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll wash it a little before we eat.’
Nattestad is a farmer, shopkeeper, carpenter and butcher, his string of professions reflecting the inescapable self-reliance needed for life on the Faroes, an archipelago of eighteen islands in the north Atlantic. To the north is Iceland, further east is Denmark (of which the Faroe Islands are an autonomous outpost) and two hundred miles to the south are the Scottish isles. The 50,000 people who live on the Faroes are easily outnumbered by some 80,000 sheep. I was looking at a piece of one of these animals. From the shape of it, I recognised it as a leg, but its colour and texture made it look more like a mass of old parchment or decayed leather. There was a strange beauty to it, like a fallen rotting tree that had grown patches of moss on its bark. Two forces had exerted their influence on the carcass; one was time, the other was fermentation. The sheep had been slaughtered the year before, in September. It was now May and in those nine months, bathed in air salted by the sea, the meat had become dense and solid to the touch. This strange object meant survival to generations in a land where few crops could grow…
Crucial to the process of preserving the meat I was looking at was the wooden shed itself, called a hjallur (pronounced chatler). This ingeniously designed rectangular building has long horizontal beams from which food can be hung, protected by the building’s sides which are made of vertical wooden laths with a thumb-sized gap between each one. Unlike every other building on the Faroes, the hjallur is designed to let in the brutal Atlantic winds. ‘The winds are exceedingly uncertain and violent,’ wrote one visitor to the Faroes in the 1840s, ‘storms ... overturn houses and ... move blocks of stone, making it necessary for the traveller to throw himself on the ground in order not to be carried away.’ And there was something particular about the Faroese winds, the visitor added, ‘sea mists of the Faroe Islands contain salt particles in considerable quantities . . . salt crusts cover the face after a trip in a boat’. The hjallur is designed to turn this assault from the sea into a means of preservation.
Trees, and most other vegetation, stand no chance of prospering on the exposed landscape of the Faroes. With no trees, and therefore no firewood, it wasn’t possible to preserve sheep with smoke, or by boiling seawater to create salt. Instead, the islanders built their drying huts and fermented their sheep meat with the help of salt blown in from the sea. ‘Skerpikjøt wasn’t invented,’ Gunnar Nattestad told me. ‘It was given to us by the islands. They make this meat.’