I feel a sinking sensation of falling as a strong and rugged hand grabs ahold of mine just as the deck of the boat falls away to a subsiding north Atlantic swell. A brief moment later, my boots crunch firmly down on a limpet-encrusted boulder, and I am saved. I am surrounded on three sides by crystal clear turquoise water, but have not fallen in.
I look up toward the man attached to the hand I am still holding. Jógvan Jón greets me with a smile and a short phrase in heavily accented Danish, “Be careful Magnus, the stones are slippery.”
The island is a perfect natural fortress.
It is my second time here on the island of Stóra Dímun, a truly remote place. First you have to get to the Faroese archipelago, in the middle of the ocean about halfway between Iceland and the very northernmost point of Scotland. Then it’s either a thirty-minute helicopter ride from tiny Vágar airport or, as today, a two-hour boat ride from the Faroese capital of Tórshavn. And because of the way the 2.6 square km island itself is shaped, it is almost impossible to access. Swept for eons by eroding ocean currents that polished its volcanic rock and created steep cliffs which drop straight into turbulent seas, the island is a perfect natural fortress.
Stóra Dímun has no beach and no harbor, so actually landing a boat is impossible. To disembark, you have to jump onto one of two carefully selected boulders as the unmoored craft reaches the apex of a swell and rests still for a short second. The two boulders are as close as the islands have to a dock, chosen for their size and proximity to a rope that you will then have to use to climb the roughly 200m high cliffs.
As I am just beginning to contemplate how to haul myself, along with my gigantic yellow duffel bag containing clothing and camera gear, up the vertical escarpment ahead of me, I see Jógvan Jón, now also joined by his father-in-law Óla Jákup, unroll a sheet of rough burlap. The men tie the meter-long cloth securely to the handles of my bag and then Jógvan Jón hoists the whole thing up on his back. My ungainly luggage is apparently going to be kept in place, not by his shoulders as I first assumed, but rather by the burlap pulled over his forehead. The muscles of his neck carry the heavy load, leaving his arms and shoulders free for climbing.
The high cliffs of Stóra Dímun. Photo by Magnus Nilsson.
Jógvan Jón takes the lead and we begin the ascent. About halfway, I look down and feel my stomach turn. The drop below doesn’t end in solid ground, but rather in crashing waves and churning water. The movement below makes me feel as though I myself am moving, like watching a running train from one stopped at the station. For a brief second, before your mind tells you that you are in fact standing still, it feels like the opposite.
At the top of the cliffs, a little blue tractor with a hayfork attached to its front is waiting for us, idling. Jógvan Jón balances my yellow bag on the tractor’s steel prongs, I sit alongside, and we make our way to the house.
As the tractor pulls up in front of the ancient stone walls, a faint scent catches my nose, like lost strands of music barely audible though the wind. It’s not a delicate piano etude or a flatteringly engineered and edited modern pop song. Rather, the scent carries a notion of ancient times, of winter storms, of hardship and endurance all the way back to the Viking ages—it is the scent of Skerpikjøt.
Skerpikjøt is the traditional preserved (or perhaps rather kept) meat from places where salt hasn’t been affordable or even available for more than a few hundred years. The Faroese climate is too cool to evaporate seawater in salterns and there is no naturally growing wood on the islands to fuel saltpans. This situation, combined with their remoteness, especially during the era of sailing ships, has historically made salt a rare and expensive commodity.
The Faroese practice of producing Skerpikjøt basically by hanging pieces of raw, unsalted mutton in an airy house called hjallur. The meat is left until it has either reached the desired maturity, or until it is needed. The country’s location in the middle of the Gulfstream makes the climate quite humid, and so completely drying a piece of meat is a very lengthy process often taking more than one full year.
There are three stages of maturation in Skerpikjøt production, called hjaldane. The first is called visnadur and takes place after a few days. The Faroese name for this stage literally means “wilting,” and it is what most would refer to as dry aged meat. If it is eaten at all, it must be cooked. The next step, raestur, is a stage that depends on atmospheric factors like humidity and temperature. To the unaccustomed palate, raestur is pretty much decaying meat. Covered in a thick crust of mold and smelling intensely of putrefaction, it is consumed raw or cooked, warm as a meal or cold on bread. The third and final step in the maturation cycle of Skerpikjøt is turrur, which means “dry.” Turrur is achieved when enough water has evaporated and the meat has become firm, like a saltless charcuterie. Surprisingly, turrur is far milder than raestur and is eaten raw in thin slices on bread.