Flung far north in the wind-lashed Atlantic Ocean, 18 small islands huddle together half-way between Iceland and Norway, yet they are far from being lost at sea. Together, they are called the Faroe Islands, a proud, semi-autonomous nation within the Kingdom of Denmark. They have their own traditions, language, flag, national dress, and a formidable football team. Lured by the intensely beautiful grassy moorlands that rise northwards before plunging theatrically into the frothy waves below, my friend and I made our way to the Faroes and hiked the hills that were alive with the sound of seabirds.
The lush, treeless slopes stretched as far as the eye could see, with a generous sprinkling of thickly-clad sheep. While sheep are pretty iconic in the Faroes, so are the grass-roofs on the wooden homes. And as these homes are often built into the hillsides, it’s not uncommon to see one icon mowing another. Over the next few days, we walked and drove to the far corners of the isles with our guide, Johannus Hansen of Reika Travels.
While the capital, Tórshavn, and the central isles had some good restaurants, the outer isles had none. Clambering over tussocks of grass for hours left us ravenous, and all we could see were more sheep and lonely clusters of homes. We hoped Hansen had a plan to get us a nice hot meal. He did. The table had been booked. We knocked on a front door and joined a local couple at their dining table for some heimablídni, or home hospitality.
Heimablídni, pioneered in 2012 by a local couple, Anna and Oli Rubeksen of Velbastaður island, is a uniquely Faroese concept where one can visit the locals for home-cooked lunches and dinners. It benefits the locals and travellers alike. The locals make extra money and enjoy an exchange with a diverse set of people, and the visitors (having pre-booked on visitfaroeislands.com) relish an authentic experience over a three- to five-course meal in a Faroese home.
Heímablídni became the precious key that unlocked the Faroes for us. Together with Hansen, over the next few days we either booked online, or kept a lookout for signs outside homes, fixing meals a few hours ahead of time. We would rest our weary limbs on a sofa by a crackling fireside, shedding our jackets and shoes to slip on pairs of thick, hand-knitted woolly socks taken from a basket. All our hosts spoke English. We felt extraordinarily privileged as we took in the views from the picture windows and the décor within— the photographs, sheepskin throws and heritage objects such as the hjallur whaling knives hand-crafted by elders.
Conversation flowed along with the beer and mulled rhubarb juice; on foraging and hunting traditions, the scarcity of local women (who often marry men from other countries while studying or working abroad), forcing the Faroese men to select life partners from bride catalogues from Thailand and the Philippines. Dishes made from grandmas’ recipes were passed around by our new-found friends. Many showed us the traditional drying sheds adjacent to their homes where hunks of meat ferment in the salty sea-air to turn to ræst, a local delicacy.
The dishes varied from home to home. Hansen predicted the farmers’ kitchens would offer lamb and the fishermen’s, quite unsurprisingly, a variety of seafood. “The dishes we offer are quite seasonal,” said Olivar, one of our hosts. “In the spring, pilot whale, sheep and goose are on the menu. In the summer, we serve seabirds such as puffins, razorbills and black guillemots. Not much grows here, given the cold weather and the hard basalt rock under the grass. All we can manage is some rhubarb, potatoes and carrots.” “Fruits have long been a luxury here,” added Hansen. “Both my grandfathers had an orange once at Christmas.”
In addition to the supplemental income, every single host seemed to enjoy showcasing their Faroese traditions. The heritage of their tiny nation of 50,000 people was being preserved and perpetuated. They would light up when we admired their traditional jumpers with brass buttons, or asked about gathering peat for the fire, or foraging eggs on the cliff-sides. “We are forced to live differently up here,” said Olivar, “and when our children see our culture being appreciated by foreigners, it gives them a fresh perspective. Even fermentation is having a renaissance.”
New-age travellers are seeking authentic, intimate and unique experiences. Insights into people’s vulnerabilities and fears, hopes and dreams, and their most interesting stories are invariably shared along with such meals. Over time, I realised that when people took me in, they also took me into their confidence, offering yet another prism for viewing their world. Often, the plainest of facts would hit me between the eyes: like an Iranian man saying, “Oh, you are from India, you are so fortunate to have the monsoon, much of our land is a sun-baked desert”, or a Kyrgyz woman describing how she was kidnapped and married by a veil being put on her head, and was particularly gutted when her father’s message arrived, saying; “Now that you have crossed their threshold, you must stay there, it is our tradition”. Or a woman from Papua New Guinea showing me how her immediate scenery (sago, coconut, wild sugar cane) and what we were eating were the exact same thing.
These insights cannot be found in books or in the talk of guides. Yet these are the exchanges that remain lodged deep within my heart. And perhaps the locals too see their lives afresh through my eyes and have fresh appreciation for what they might be blasé about—the pure air, or the unparalleled vistas of mountains or icebergs, the romance of their night skies, or the thrill of being surrounded by wildlife. While home hospitality has its challenges, it is already budding in India as well. It can take off in a spectacular way if organised properly and vetted for safety and quality. In Argentina, Closed-Door Restaurants are increasingly popular with locals and visitors alike. The Slow Cyclist, a British company, organises biking holidays with stops for lunches with the locals in Romania, Georgia and Greece. Turning one’s table into a restaurant can be a fun and advantageous avenue for talented cooks, and give them a chance to become ambassadors for their lands.
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. Instagram @geetikaforest