********** Yoshinori Ishii Executive chef of Japanese restaurant UMU in London ******************

------------------ 英国の日本料理店 UMU 総料理長 石井義典 のつれづれなる話 ------------

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Maybe island.  Faroe 諸島での経験

Salmon dishes disappear from the menu at Umu outside a season of wild Atlantic salmon, English or Welsh, yet in order to meet high demands from European guests, very occasionally only by request, have some delivered from pre-chosen farmers. After many trials and careful consideration, we current use those from the Faroe Islands.
The autonomous country of Danish Kingdom is located between Scotland and Iceland where a warm southern currant and a cold northern current meet, sharing similar characteristic to Japan, for which, as well as for its unique culture of producing meat and seafood based fermented products, I had always had profound curiosity. Situated right in the middle of currant crossing, the islands have close to none annual difference in water temperature, and having the world’s 2nd purest water (1st being Hawaii), making the marine products from the area one of a kind.
A business owner of seafood exporting company, Mr. Marni came to Umu some 4 months ago with his daughter, and we shared heated conversation on factors to degrees of seafood’s freshness and fishing industry in Europe. He insisted if I were to visit the islands, he would let me experience more than 20 flavours I had never tasted before. I could not resist the temptation, I decided to head over there during Thanksgiving holiday with my wife.
Direct flights from London are only available during summer, instead we had a long transiting flight via Copenhagen. Mr. Marni picked us up from the airport, and from the moment on, he became a wonderful guide for the course of our 3 nights & 4 days trip.

On the day of the arrival, my wife and I dined at KOKS, a new branching of Nordic cuisine that perked tremendously few years back. Traditional food culture is still very relevant and pronounced on the islands which is probably why, in comparison to Noma or other Nordic cuisine in Copenhagen, it was more easily comprehensible, and the we enjoyed our supper very much. Especially freshness of sea urchin and langoustine was superb, and a harmony created by combining with fermented product shared similar characteristic to those of Japan or other Asian countries, brought me a familiar feel. We had gibier dish for a meat course, a type of seagull, which nothing like the familiar wild, field-grown birds consumed in Britain, filled with unique minerality from growing by the sea. My wife could only take a small bite for tasting, in fact, the flavour was little too strong, even for me.
On the 2nd day, we firs toured old whale-oil factory, now abandoned. I recalled my childhood, when cod-liver oil was fed to me for vitamins.

Following the visit to the factory, we were picked up at a pier by a langoustine-fisherman who has close knit with Mr. Marni and headed out to the shore. Despite cold temperature, the sea was rather calm and the weather was good considering the nature of islands’ climate, being kind to our trip. The fishing uses a basket with barbed wires, in which pieces of herring and sole are placed as baits. A couple of langoustines were caught in each basket hauled in one after another, alongside with some sole and whelks. Some of those langoustines were very impressive in size.

It was the handling of langoustine more than anything that got my attention. Back in London, live langoustine is delivered in individual Styrofoam box in order to prevent any damage, yet more than half the time arrives in worn out condition. In hands of some traders, lively langoustines caught by a basket are mixed with langoustines in worse condition, picked up by trawlers, after the catch. Even if it wasn’t the case, most times langoustines are stored into a transfer tank once captured until it gets placed in a box upon returning to the dock. Here, each langoustine is carefully placed into an individual box right after the haul, and boxes are transferred and shipped without a further fuss. This protects delicate langoustines, keeping the damage to minimum.
After the fishing, on our way back to the port, the fisherman offered me a piece of dried meat. This is the only food he has while he is out fishing. We came across similar food the night before, and it was explained to us that, unlike any jerky from other countries, the raw goat meat is not cured with any salt and just hanged outside the door to let the ocean breeze dry the meat. A meat from a goat living by the cliff with ocean influence already has strong flavour, and maturing the meat further adds distinct smell, which I probably need good amount of time to get used to. 
As we returned to the land, I described the fisherman’s heartfelt caring and handling for the catch to Mr. Marni, who came to pick us up. He simply replied; “that’s the passion”.
Mr. Marni previously engaged in seafood trading in Greenland, where he realised and became concerned that fantastic marine products from his birthplace did not receive righteous cultural value outside the islands. His passion drove him to set up his own establishment, through which he determined to propagate the real taste of the Faroe Islands in its whole. Mr. Marni mainly delivers live langoustine and sea urchin to the foremost restaurants in America and around Europe.
He particularly puts effort into langoustine and advises all appointed fishermen to carefully pack each langoustine individually right after the catch. He relentlessly continue to lecture on how this specific method can significantly affect its freshness when it reaches the consumers, and making sure raw happy voices of consumers get back to the fisherman in order to gain understandings, consequently enabling to spread the true taste of Faroe. The amazing langoustine at KOKS and its excellent tecture was no coincidence. With an instant instinct, I wanted to see the langoustine on Umu’s menu.
After driving around the island, including his factory, it was time for a first grasp of many great suppers to come at his place.  
The wife and 3 daughters at his home, and a little puppy, all together delivered countless peculiar dishes, one after another, for the next 3 days, turned their home into the world’s best restaurant.
1st dinner at his place
(Juice from a live sea urchin and its eggs)
The sea urchin had purer taste than those used at Umu. The water within the shell had splendid aroma of ocean.
 (Local salmon and fatty tuna sashimi from a Bluefin caught nearby)
Salmon had no hint of farmed detected on the palate, both texture and flavour were extremely close to those of wild ones. Bluefin tuna, most probably due to its bait, had a good amount of fat and unmatching lightness.
 (Langoustine, medium rare, lightly blanched and seared)
A simple taste of joy; purer taste and firmer texture than Scottish ones. Lightly blanched one is my personal favourite.
(Whale meat Tatsuta-age; deep-fried starch coated, seasoned with soy – by my wife).
A flavour that reminds me of my childhood school meal.
(Speciality dessert by the daughters)
A heart-warming taste that made me go on a binge. 

The 3rd day, first went over to see divers in business with Mr. Marni, whose specialty is catching sea urchin. The tide is inevitably high and rough at fishing points located in between long and narrow islands at the crossing of currant, and reaching the points is already quite a work. Nonetheless, the basket was filled with sea urchin and varieties of shellfishes as the diver surfaced. The diving suit, which helps to retain heat in the freezing water, is unique to the island and made of goat’s fur. Soon after we returned to the land, Mr. Marni took out a bag from the car and started setting up all tools and condiments, including plates, knives, soy sauces and even Sansai. In a brizzard, the world’s second best restaurant was assembled right there and then. Cracked open sea urchin, razor clam, etc. directly out of the basket, and washed them down with a dash of soy sauce, I soon forgot the harsh, blasting blizzard. I realised Mr. Marni was also an expert in giving surprises. I had yet to see a dive fishing that catches shellfish one by one with hands outside Japan, and I quickly had newfound respect and gratitude to the divers who gave us such encounters and delicious treats.
We had a quick sightseeing tour around the island, e.g. the Executive Office of the President, then
proceeded to our 2nd supper at his place.

(Two kinds of smoked salmon & smoked cod)
Quality of the salmon was exceptional, giving the smoked salmon another layer of taste.
(Bacon made of subcutaneous fat of whale and dried red meat)
Matured flavour of the salty fat and the smell of the red meat come harmoniously.
(Whale bacon and dried cod)
Texture of dried cod is accented by whale’s fat. Delicious nibble.

(A hang-dried and fermented Alaskan Pollock. Boiled for 30 minutes, accompanied by subcutaneous fat in a sauce made of fermented whale internal fat surrounding guts and butter.  )
While it was still raw and Mr, Marni was preparing the dish, I questioned whether food could actually stink so indescribably. The fermented fat mixed with butter begin to bear the smell of blue cheese. But when everything comes together... unexpectedly delicious! I could not help but asked for a 2nd plate, yet none was left as it was everyone’s favourite dish, and I never got that 2nd plate...

(Atlantic crab from the abyss)
Unfortunately raw, fresh one was unattainable, therefore we settled for a frozen one. Mr. Marni seemed very disappointed. It had stronger unrefined sweetness than brown crab. The fresh one would have been even more outstanding.
The 4th day. The diver siblings who performed sea urchin fishing the day before have doctorate in marine algae, and we headed over to the sister's office for a seminar on a range of algae found around the islands. It was in my deep curiosity how would seaweeds from the Faroe be like, covered in bare rocks with constant harsh impact from the currants, in comparison to Japanese kelp enriched with minerals created in forests that flow into the ocean via river. The flavour was expectedly delicate, could be considered "pure" in a good way, "unsatisfactory" in  another.  My wife is in a business distributing supplements produced with nutrients from algae, and as fellow-professionals, engaged in what seemed like a deeply interesting conversation. I, on the other hand, kept tasting and comparing the kelps, and brainstormed into dishes it could be applied to. 
We headed to a salmon fishery in the afternoon. We do not include salmon dishes in the menu at Umu outside the season of wild salmon. I was aware that the Faroe’s farmed salmon having very high standard in quality, as I would serve farmed salmon from Faroe Islands, only by advanced orders, yet seeing the place where the salmon coming from with own eyes gave me more assurance. Fish tanks at the farm are placed in a strong currant and constantly receive a circulation of fresh water. Needless to say, the water is the highest regarded factor affecting the quality of salmon cultivated there, but in addition, baits are also taken into consideration, using only pellets that caught in coastal water as main ingredient, which prevent the salmon there to build excessive fat nor unattractive smell commonly associated with, making them distinctive from farmed salmon from other locations. Still does not bare same fragrance to those of wild salmon, yet it is the only farmed salmon I trust enough to bring to my mouth.
At this particular fishery, fish tanks are brought in all the way from the shore, and draw fish via water feed pumps. The fish is finished at an end of the pump as it swims up. This way, steps such as scooping with a net or storing in a smaller tank for transport are eliminated, keeping stress factors during the process to a minimum, a matter of quality taking precedence over anything else. In fact, at any stage of distribution line, preserving the quality is regarded as the highest priority, and combined with the factory’s high standard of hygiene, I was very much impressed with whole operation at his factory.
As we finished up the tour of the fishery, Mr. Marni rushed us to his car, cheering; “the best souvenir surfaced!” Later we realised, whale fishing was being performed in his father’s village of residence.
On our way, topics to discuss piled up, i.e. the fact that whale fishing commonly seen as problematic globally; relationships and cultures, including whale fishing, that uniquely ties the Faroe Islands and Japan; etc. I was told only few beaches within the whole islands are blessed with opportunities for whale fishing in winters, occurring only once in a month or even less, thus naturally I did not expect to get the chance during this time around. The road was getting dark, yet Mr. Marni stepped on the wheel to get us there. 
Whales caught at the islands are never used in commercial purposes, rather a long established rule specifies to share evenly within the village, as all crew take part in cornering a whale once surfaces in the shore, which is then instantly killed with a method unique to the islands. Never intentionally seek out for a whale to surface, an opportunity must arises naturally. In the long history of the islands, people survived countless occasion off whales, when supply routes were cut off, both by air or sea, due to the islands’ extreme climatic characters.
As we arrived at the port, we spotted whales already disembarked and lined up with stomachs open in order to lower temperature before dismantling. Mr. Marni shared newly learned information that, from a moment the whale surfacing in the shore to being finished off took only 45 minutes and we were too late to catch the actual action. Looking at the whales being lined up, although I am used to seeing uncountable number of fishes laid in markets, I felt uneasy despite the fact that both are equally living thing. I must admit that it felt hypocritical, which made me put some serious thoughts in.
The experiences I had, thanks to Mr. Marni, truly enriched our trip, moreover the unexpected opportunity to peek into the Faroe’s whale fishing tradition was a wonderful surprise gifted by Mr. Marni’s luck.
The dinner continues at his place on the final day

(Grilled langoustine with a splash of Cognac)
I had ridiculous amount of langoustine over those 3days. My favourite was still the one simply blanched to medium rare.
(Traditional slow-cooked fish dish of the Faroe: Salmon, cod, ocean perch and island potato. )
I do not usually consume farmed salmon, but I munched on significant number of huge slices nonetheless, ocean perch was my favourtie out of the fish selection. Asparagus potato used as a garnish had very distinct flavour and I inhaled so much of it without any seasoning.

(Mama Marni’s speciality dessert – 3 kinds)
The best dessert I have ever tasted! Even better than ones made by renowned French patissier or dolces found at popular cafe in Italy. I do not usually have sweet tooth, yet I could not help but kept asking for more!
Our Faroe trip was blessed with endless hospitality, filled with great experiences, even a tenth of which we could not encounter with just a guidebook in a hand. Mr. Marni promised me more than 20 new flavours, but the number exceeded by far, countless experiences, so extraordinary, yet a little in common with Japan, leaving me a little nostalgia.
We were discussing the Faroe’s colourful weather in his car when, I noticed the road ahead was clouded while snow was seen through a window on the right and sunshine on the left. Walking down a street of the islands, clear sky with sunlight can appear for a moment, and next second could be covered in snow. Some out of already limited number of flights during a day, often cannot land due to a bad timing, and it is not rare to see some planes to turn around or head to another airport. An untouchable land where all plans go ‘unaccordingly’, the Faroe Islands was called “Maybe Island” by British during a war time. The hospitality Mr. Marni had provided me may be the best of my life, in fact, definitely the best of my life! To me, the Faroe Islands is “Definitely Isalnd”!  











車の中でMarniさんとFaroe諸島の天気の話をしていたとき、車の行く先は曇り、右のウィンドから見る景色は雪が降り、左には日が差していました。外を歩いていても太陽光が見えたと思ったら突然の吹雪になったり。一日数便の飛行機もそのタイミングによって着陸が困難になり、引き返したり他の国に行くことも多々あるそう。到着できるかどうかわからない、何をするにも予定が立てられないこの島を戦時中、英国の人々は“Maybe Island”と呼んだそうです。おそらく(Maybe)私には今回Marniさんがしてくれたおもてなしは人生で一番の、いや、間違いなく(Definitely)一番の素晴らしい体験でした。 私にとってFaroe諸島は“Definitely Island”です!