The Ræst is History

21 Jul 2009

When you visit another country, it’s always interesting to taste the local foods. Not that the various specialties are always a great success! That’s what happened to me with the food of the Faroes. I’m a Dane who’s been living in the Faroes for 16 years, so I’ve tasted virtually everything there is to taste. Most of the stuff doesn’t simply smell bad—it stinks the room out! Yet, though a lot of the dishes wouldn’t exactly find a place on my list of favorite foods, they usually manage to taste quite good. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to eat real Faroes food—and the inhabitants are very hospitable—you risk having to endure flavors and odors not easy to stomach for anyone who has grown up in a milder climate.

Take ræst fish, for example: rows of headless whiting hung outside houses to dry. After two or three weeks, depending on the temperature, the fish becomes ræst, which means it is not completely dried but has undergone a process of fermentation that some would define as putrefaction. At this point, they bring the fish inside, skin it and fry it in butter. It gives off an indescribable stench which clings to your clothes and remains in the air for several days. The taste is pungent, highly pungent. The delicacy is eaten with potatoes and melted butter.

If ræst fish is left to dry completely—it has to become so dry you could use it as a hammer—it is called, not unreasonably, dried fish. It is not salted but only dried and you can keep it for several years. It is hung in a hjalla (pronounced “chaldel”), a hut that protects it from the rain but lets air pass through. To cook it you take a large stone and hammer, you put it on the stone and hit it with the hammer until it becomes soft, then you skin it. Served with the dried fat from a black whale and melted butter, it’s delicious.

You can make ræst with meat too and eat it with soup. During October, when sheep are butchered, their meat is also hung in the hjalla, where it remains until Christmas, by which time it has turned from red to green. Since the meat isn’t salted, the color comes from molds. In another country they would say it had gone bad, here it’s become ræst. When there are sheep hanging in a hjalla you can smell it from miles away. When it’s time to cook it, the meat is boiled or baked in the oven. What a stink!

I remember the first time I was invited to a Faroe house, ræst meat was served with the soup. As soon as I got near my nose told me there was something special on the menu. Then the door opened and the host came forward with a small glass of schnapps to welcome me. I couldn’t speak, I had difficulty breathing, my pulse went weak and my heart stopped—even my watch stopped. But I did manage to knock back the schnapps and return to life.

The soup in question is made like any meat broth, with lots of vegetables. The meat, served with potatoes, is packed with flavor, redolent of something between Roquefort (without the white bits!) and a very old cheese. It is the dish they serve here at Christmas when the family gets together. Just like the fish, the meat too can be transformed from ræst to dried by leaving it to hang for several months. In this case, its name becomes skerpikjøtt. You shave it with a knife and eat it with bread and salt and a small glass of schnapps. The taste is a bit acrid but, believe me, it’s an exquisite dish and one of the ones I like the best.

Even sheep’s head is considered a delicacy. The hairs are singed and then it’s split in two lengthways. You can then leave it in a hjalla for several weeks, if you prefer the meat ræst. Many eat the brains with great enjoyment, others dig out the eyes.

Then there’s the lunde, or puffin. You catch it with a racket—as long as it hasn’t got a fish in its mouth, that is, in which case it has chicks in its nest and you’re not allowed to shoot it. On days when the wind blows in the right direction, bird-catchers can net hundreds of birds. Lunde is served boiled whole, or the breast is braised as you do with game and served with a thick sauce, Waldorf salad and redcurrant jelly. The taste is somewhere between wild duck and pheasant. Boiled lunde is more unusual. The bird is stuffed with a simple sponge cake bought at the corner store and served with potatoes—no sauce. It’s a great culinary experience, though the combination of bird and sponge may come as something as a surprise.

Black whale is served in various ways: dried, boiled, stewed and cut up into steaks. When dried it is often used as the final course. The one that means “After eating this, please go home!” (In Denmark, we do exactly the same with soup.)

On the subject of the sea, the large chick of the Arctic stormy petrel is too big to take off into flight. So it’s shot or caught with a racket, then boiled or roast. Delicious!

Gnettir is chopped fish mixed with sheep fat and shaped into balls, which are then boiled and served with potatoes and melted butter. They look like mucky snowballs and, again, don’t figure on my list of favorite foods.

Like sperril, which constitutes a singular page in the book of Faroes culinary arts. Sperril is highly admired by the local population, as the following true story shows. At the court of Torshavn, a judge presided over a case involving a Faroes inhabitant accused of stealing a sperril. The judge was Danish so he hadn’t the foggiest idea of what a sperril was. When he learnt it was a sheep’s rectum, he let the accused off scot-free. After all, how can you sentence a fellow for nicking a rectum?

That said, sperril really is considered a culinary delight. Once cleaned, it is filled with meat from the muscles round the heart (sometimes the kidneys go in too) and the whole lot is boiled or lightly smoked. It is eaten sliced. You can also stuff a sperril with lard and a sprinkling of flour and then boil it. When wafers are being baked, sperril is often used to grease the mould.

It’s up to every individual conscience whether to interpret all this as a warning or a temptation! In any case, if you find yourselves in the Faroes, you can risk savoring the local cooking without fear. Don’t trust your nose—it all tastes much better than it smells.

First published in Slow 45

Georg Sylvest Pedersen is a Danish journalist

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