A rare mountain delicacy - arctic lamb
Right at the top of the highest mountain on the Faroe Islands graze some very special lambs, whose excellent meat quality has made them a rare and coveted delicacy on the islands in recent years.
On the island of Eysturoy, at the foot of the highest mountain Slættaratindur, lies the small village of Eyði. It’s home to sheep farmer Jan Thomsen, who owns the 70 or so sheep that graze all year round on two pastures at the top of Slættaratindur and neighboring mountain Gráfelli at a height of 880m and 856m respectively.
The sheep are known as ‘Arctic lambs’ and Thomsen is the only sheep farmer on the Faroe Islands who is able to offer this rare specialty.
One of the definitions of an Arctic climate is an average temperature of below 10 degrees in the hottest month of the year. The Faroe Islands as a whole do not actually have an Arctic climate, but at an altitude of over 700m, where the sheep graze, it’s a completely different story. Here there’s an Arctic climate all year round.
The temperature means that the vegetation at the top is far more sparse than further down the mountain. There’s less grass at the summit, so instead the sheep eat the various mountain herbs that grow at high altitude. This more frugal diet means slower growth and a lower slaughter weight, but the mountain herbs help to give the meat from the Arctic lambs a sweeter flavor and a much darker color than the meat from Thomsen’s regular flock. Perhaps because of the mountain herbs’ naturally high content of omega-3 fatty acids.
“In the coldest months I supplement the natural mountain diet with a little hay, but the sheep have only a very small amount of concentrated feed,” Thomsen says. “It does result in a much lower slaughter weight, but on the other hand the meat quality is also noticeably higher.”
Arctic sheep are rare, because the sheep farmer cannot just increase the number of sheep on the mountain tops. That would mean there’s not enough food to go around, and then the quality suffers.
Thomsen has been a sheep farmer for 25 years and has always known that the sheep that grazed highest in the mountains were also the ones that produced the best-quality meat.
The rest of the Faroe Islands, however, only really discovered this quality in 2012. That was when Thomsen entered a skerpikjøt competition at Hotel Føroyar, where the meat was tasted and compared with a wide range of other versions of the Faroese specialty beloved of the islanders.
Skerpikjøt is leg of mutton that has been hung for up to nine months in an outdoor drying shed, where it undergoes a natural fermentation process that gives the meat a highly complex flavor.
In the competition, the skerpikjøt from the Arctic lamb was awarded three times as many points as the second-placed entry.
“After the competition, demand just exploded,” Thomsen says. “We knew that we had good quality, but we had no idea that the difference was so pronounced.”
The Faroese love their skerpikjøt, so if you fancy trying some Arctic lamb for yourself, it’s highly likely to come in dried form, as the lamb is rarely eaten fresh. You’ll also probably have to wangle yourself an invitation to dinner from one of the locals.
“Almost all the meat ends up as skerpikjøt,” Thomsen says. “The quality and the level of demand mean I can get a price per kilo that’s 80% higher than for normal skerpikjøt. Right now I sell mostly to private customers because the restaurants are unfortunately not willing to pay that much.”
Text: Lars Roest-Madsen