Breaking bread: dining with sheep farmers in the Faroe Islands

On their farm in the Faroe Islands, where the sheep roam the hillsides and the chickens put themselves to bed, Óli and Anna Rubeksen dish up a feast of local ingredients ranging from rhubarb to lamb hearts.

Óli and Brim the dog, on the coast close to Velbastaður.

Photograph by Ulf Svane
By Nicola Trup
photographs by Ulf Svane
Published 15 Sept 2022, 06:04 BST

The fog rolls over the fjord, obscuring the island across the water. The air fills with a light moisture that clings to grass, clothes, skin, hair. The sheep dart around, their wool gathering barely visible droplets as they dodge Brim, the border collie chasing them around the misty hillside with the tentative authority of a supply teacher. Brim’s a little out of practice, Óli tells me — another of their dogs usually does the job these days — but she eventually manages to corral a few sheep, leading them down the slope. 

Óli Rubeksen has been shepherding here in the Faroe Islands since 1995, when he and his wife Anna took over running her family farm — the ninth generation to do so. And while they both have other jobs — Anna as a nurse and Óli as a social worker — the farm is central to their lives. The meat from the sheep they rear is an almost daily part of their diet, along with eggs from their hens and the produce they grow in a small fruit-and-veg patch. And it’s all served at the regular supper club the couple run from their home to supplement their income. What they don’t produce themselves is sourced from elsewhere in the Faroes whenever possible. “You have to be sustainable, green and use local food,” says Óli.

Hugged by the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic, this little archipelago — home to around 54,000 people — is a self-governing part of Denmark, but it lies closer to Shetland than to Copenhagen, and has a language, identity and landscape quite distinct from that of the Danes. Connected by a series of tunnels and ferries, the islands are scattered with fjords, waterfalls and craggy mountains carved out by long-extinct volcanoes. Along the salt-and-kelp-scented shoreline, northern fulmars tuck themselves into cliff faces, oystercatchers swoop over the sea, and unseen snipes announce themselves with a distinctive call that sounds like bottles being filled with water. And from the highest peaks to the water’s edge are sheep, the farming of which is intertwined with Faroese culture. Ovines outnumber people, woollen clothing is ubiquitous, and owning a flock is a common side hustle.

Left: Top:

View over Kunoy village, on the island of Kunoy.

Right: Bottom:

Óli with one of the couple’s chickens.

photographs by Ulf Svane

Dressed in a coarse woolly jumper and jeans tucked into knitted socks tucked into boots, Óli is every inch the Faroese farmer. He shows me around his property in the village of Velbastaður, a 15-minute drive from the capital, Tórshavn. Here, in a small, enclosed field just downhill from the Rubeksens’ home, live a handful of the family’s flock of 150 sheep and 140 lambs. The rest, Óli tells me, are “living freely in the mountains. They know where they belong — they’ll always come back.” 

He leads the way to the chicken shed to collect some eggs for dinner. There aren’t many today — the birds’ productivity has decreased recently, says Óli — but there are just about enough, so he gathers them up to take back to the kitchen. Across the track is the ‘hjallur’, a shack where the Rubeksens dry and ferment their meat. As soon as I walk in, I’m hit by an intensely tangy, meaty smell, to which I imagine Óli is by now accustomed. A few dried legs of lamb hang from the ceiling beams. It’s early summer now, but in October, Óli says, the shed will be full of fresh cuts of meat, which are left here for two or three months. Because of the amount of salt in the air that blows in, the food ferments rather than rots. “The process is coming from outside, from the wind and humidity,” he says. “We’re in the Gulf Stream, which helps the fermentation, because it can’t be too cold.”

Óli removes a pair of dried, fermented legs from the rafters, takes out a penknife and slices off a sliver. The meat inside is a rich, plum colour, glossy and solid. The Rubeksens’ 27-year-old son and his friends help with the slaughter each year, and for their efforts, they’re each rewarded with a lamb. “It’s a trade,” Óli says. 

Left: Top:

Marinated lamb hearts on the barbecue, cooking for just a few minutes on each side.

Right: Bottom:

A cabinet in the Rubeksens’ dining room, the bottom shelf taken up by cookery books.

photographs by Ulf Svane

A taste for rhubarb

Tucked into the hillside, Óli and Anna’s home is a black, boxy, wood-clad bungalow, its roof blanketed in grass. A centuries-old tradition, the rooftop lawn provides extra insulation and absorbs some of the rain that’s all too frequent here in the Faroes. The couple have six grown-up children between them, and although they live here on their own, two of their offspring also live in Velbastaður — their daughter in the old farmhouse in which Anna grew up, just down the hill. Anna points it out from the huge picture window from which Hestfjörður — Horse Fjord — and little Hestur island are also visible.

We head down to the fruit-and-veg patch in the sloping garden, where Anna and the couple’s 15-year-old next-door neighbour, Marjun, pick vivid-pink stalks of rhubarb. It’s one of the few things — along with potatoes, turnips and kohlrabi — that grow well in the challenging climate. “Everywhere you go in the Faroe Islands, you’ll have a rhubarb dessert,” says Anna. “You don’t have any other fruit if you want something Faroese.” The Vikings would apparently use the leaves to wrap lamb before smoking it, and Anna experimented with this technique before discovering the leaves can be toxic — now she just scatters them in among the growing plants, returning them to the earth.

Back in the kitchen, Marjun is set to work making a rhubarb lemonade, slicing the plump stalks to boil up with lemon juice and zest, sugar and water. She and her siblings often come over to the Rubeksens’, not just to spend time with them but also to help out with the supper clubs. Steintór, Marjun’s 10-year-old brother, is Óli’s unofficial assistant shepherd, helping him to tend the animals and present them at shows. Throughout the day, the Rubeksens reiterate how important it is to pass traditions down through the generations, particularly when it comes to food, and they honour what’s been passed down to them. “Our cooking comes from the traditional dishes of the Faroe Islands and from our parents,” Anna says, describing one of her favourite childhood food memories: “The day after the slaughter, our mother made a dinner: liver, intestines, blood sausage and pancakes — that was a special meal.”

The couple still incorporate a lot of offal into their cooking. “We use this English saying: ‘from nose to tail’,” Óli tells me — and lamb hearts are on the menu tonight. There’s also a mutton sausage Anna has made by salting meat for two days before adding liquid smoke and drying it for two weeks. “We use all the mutton,” she tells me proudly, as she cuts thick slices of sausage and fermented lamb to serve as nibbles when their guests arrive.

Anna and Marjun pick rhubarb in the fruit and veg patch.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

Óli, meanwhile, is preparing a huge pile of lamb ribs, marinating them in a combination of beer, olive oil, cider vinegar, thyme and garlic, before putting them in the oven, ready to be finished off on the barbecue later. On top of all that, there’s a starter and dessert. It strikes me as a lot of food, even for a dozen-or-so diners, but the Rubeksens assure me they’ve learnt, through trial and error at their supper clubs, how much people tend to eat. And nothing will go to waste. “We’re not fond of leftovers,” says Óli, adding that any uneaten meat will be boiled up for stock.

As the guests — Marjun’s family, another set of neighbours and the Rubeksens’ daughter-in-law — let themselves in the front door, Anna and Marjun ladle out rhubarb lemonade. For the adults, there’s the optional addition of Einar’s Gin, made from local botanicals in Klaksvík, the Faroes’ third-largest town. Without the booze, the lemonade is both tart and very sweet, but with a glug of gin, that sugariness is offset by the herby, slightly bitter spirit. Standing around the kitchen, we raise a toast, and everyone starts picking at the meat platter. I can see 10-year-old Steintór getting excited, which turns out to be because lamb hearts are on the menu (“I don’t do it at home but it’s his favourite,” says Mimmi, his mother). Another neighbour — an adult this time — pumps his fist when he hears we’ll be having salt cod for starters.

The fish dish, Óli tells me, is “based on memorable food from my childhood”. Along with sheep farming, fishing is a huge part of life — and a significant source of income — in the Faroes. The fjords are dotted with partly quaint, partly industrial towns such as Klaksvík, whose boat-filled harbours sprang up to serve the industry. Even in quiet stretches of water the telltale ringed nets used for fish farming can be seen.

The old town in Tórshavn, capital of the Faroes.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

Shepherds and sheepdogs

The salt cod has been soaking for a couple of days before Anna boils it and removes the bones, the flesh falling away in soft flakes. She lays hunks of the fish on top of sliced potatoes, crowning each portion with wedges of boiled egg, their amber yolks just on the cusp between soft- and hard-boiled. Óli drizzles over some brown butter — a touch inspired not by his mother’s cooking this time, but by the couple’s travels around Europe — and Marjun whisks the plates over to the waiting crowd, who’ve taken their seats around the long, Douglas fir table, which Óli made himself. 

The dish is beautifully simple but delicious, the rich nuttiness of the butter offsetting the salty fish. It’s clear the Rubeksens are used to hosting supper clubs — they sit down with us only occasionally, mostly eating their food on the move as they prepare the next course. Óli is a no-nonsense farmer — someone who’ll stand in a field and talk matter-of-factly about slaughtering animals, gesticulating with a knife, his hands covered in lamb’s blood — but he’s also an avuncular host, and he flits around, laughing and joking with the guests, making sure everyone’s drinks are topped up.

After the starter, I follow him out onto the patio, where he puts the next course, the lamb hearts, onto the barbecue. I could have sworn the Rubeksens’ two dogs were still inside, but somehow, magically, they’re now here, sitting patiently, staring at the meat. Next door, Marjun’s family’s border collie is watching from the window, its nose pressed against the glass. 

“I’ve been inspired this year to barbecue,” says Óli, as he grills the lamb hearts for a few minutes on each side. This is his own twist on a Faroese favourite that’s usually slow cooked. The hearts have been marinated in oil, vinegar and “whatever herbs are on the shelves” — oregano and cloves today — and when they’re done, the roasted ribs go on. As they’re charring, Óli gestures down to the chicken coop. He’d mentioned earlier that the chickens tend to put themselves to bed at 6pm, and here they are, trooping in, just a few minutes shy of their bedtime.

Left: Top:

Anna’s rhubarb, cream and hazelnut dessert.

Right: Bottom:

Salt cod with potatoes, egg and brown butter.

photographs by Ulf Svane

In the kitchen, Anna is preparing the sides – a red cabbage slaw, and boiled potatoes, into which she’s adding sliced lovage. “It has a very strong taste,” she says, gesturing to the herb. “In Faroese, it’s called bótarurt — ‘stock plant’ — because it’s used in stock.” It has a strong celery scent, and when I sit back down to eat, I find it gives the potatoes a slightly aniseedy note that contrasts with the sweet, creamy cabbage.

The charred hearts and crispy barbecued ribs go down a treat, guests reaching over each other to the serving plate. “As children, we used to have offal boiled in a stew,” says Mimmi, with a face — she much prefers them the Rubeksens’ way. The smoky aroma has enticed the dogs back inside, and the neighbours’ collie has even turned up — whether it broke out or was brought over, it’s welcomed, and competes for attention with another diner’s dachshund.

Once the plates are cleared and the dogs rewarded with some scraps, it’s time for dessert. Marjun whisks up cream and soured cream, while Anna crumbles up a biscuity slab of homemade hazelnut meringue. It’s all layered up in glasses with rhubarb compote the pair made earlier by boiling the fruit with sugar, and then it’s ready to go. We lean back in our chairs, full, but with just enough room left for pudding, the rhubarb fool-like flavours complemented by the crunch of the hazelnut crumb. 

Then, suddenly, Óli remembers he has something to give to Steintór, and disappears for a minute, returning with a tall wooden staff. It’s called a ‘fjallstavur’, he says as he demonstrates it to Steintór, who looks ecstatic at the gift, which he’ll use in his shepherding duties. “He’s 10 but I’m sure he’ll also be with us when he’s 40,” says Óli. “He’s part of the atmosphere.”

As the evening wears on, people swap seats, pick up dogs, pour coffees and teas, chatter away or simply sit back, digesting the food and the conversation. Although it’s still light outside — and will be until about 11pm at this northerly latitude — it’s time for me to go, and, thanking my hosts, I leave them to catch up with their neighbours, stealing one last glimpse out the window at the fjord, where the cloud might just break in time for the sunset.  

Anna and Óli take a break from cooking to share a toast with their dinner guests.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

How to make it: Anna’s rhubarb dessert recipe

This dish works best when the rhubarb’s frozen first, as it gives the compote a chunkier texture. You’ll need 10 glasses to serve.

Serves: 10    
Takes: 40 mins, plus overnight freezing 

For the compote
1 vanilla pod
300g caster sugar
1kg rhubarb, sliced into 1cm pieces and 
frozen overnight

For the base
2 medium egg whites
200g caster sugar
zest of 1 orange
100g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
100g ground hazelnuts
100g whole hazelnuts

For the cream
200ml whipping cream 
200ml soured cream


1. Heat oven to 185C, 165C fan, gas 5. Start with the compote: slice the vanilla pod lengthways using a sharp knife, then scrape out the seeds. Put both the seeds and the pod into a large saucepan along with the sugar and 200ml cold water. 
2. Place the pan over a high heat and bring to the boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer for 30 mins, stirring occasionally, until you have a thick syrup. Stir in the frozen rhubarb and simmer for 15 mins, until the rhubarb is soft but not mushy. Take off the heat and leave to cool.
3. Meanwhile, make the base. In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks using an electric whisk. Add the sugar a little at a time, continuing to whisk as you go, until fully incorporated. Gently fold in the zest, butter and ground hazelnuts, then the whole hazelnuts.
4. Line a large baking tray with baking paper and spread the base mixture evenly on top. Bake for 25 mins, until light golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely in the tray.
5. As it cools, add the whipping cream to a medium-sized bowl and whisk to stiff peaks using an electric whisk. Add the sour cream and gently whisk again until fully incorporated.
6. To assemble, break up the cooled base with your hands until it has the texture of a rough crumble. Divide between 10 glasses, layer the cream mixture on top and finish with the cooled compote. Serve immediately. 

The Rubeksens’ guests enjoy their meal with glasses of local beer.

Photograph by Ulf Svane

Top four restaurants in Torshavn

1. Roks
Launched as a pop-up in 2020, Roks now has a permanent home in Tórshavn’s old town. Expect dishes such as crispy cod skins and sea urchin omelette. 

2. Ræst
The set menu at Ræst, also in the old town, centres on ingredients prepared in its own fermenting shed — kimchi, fermented rhubarb sauce and more. 

3. Bitin
The ‘new style Nordic sandwiches’ here have fillings ranging from haddock and chips to fermented fish with lamb tallow and pickled gooseberries. 

4. Ruts
There’s very little vegetarian dining in the Faroes, but Ruts has a veggie menu. Try the pizza on a base of paratha (Indian flatbread). 

How to do it

Atlantic Airways flies from Edinburgh to the Faroe Islands, where Hotel Føroyar has B&B doubles from 1,100 DKK (£125). The Rubeksens’ supper club, Heimablídni, costs 995 DKK (£114) per person, including drinks.

For more information, visit

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