Nordic by Nature
Darra Goldstein - May 2014
They’re gatherers—and sometimes even hunters. And they’ve been out front in drawing up a culinary ethos that prevails far beyond the forbidding topography of their northern homelands. Darra Goldstein deciphers the impetus and aesthetic that’s driven Nordic chefs to craft a food culture of global prominence.
Trends come and go, in food as in fashion. The billowing white toque that once announced the chef’s status has given way to arm-length tattoos. Gone, too, is the wild-eyed look of the chef-scientist who rose to stardom in the land of Salvador Dalí, turning food’s molecular properties on end. The poster-boy chef of today is just as likely to appear in knit sweaters and muck boots as in kitchen whites, as René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma recently did in Time magazine. For Redzepi and others on the New Nordic wave, it’s out of the kitchen and into the bog, or at least that’s how the movement puts itself forward, with its focus on soil and sea. This naturalistic wave arose in the wake of technology-driven cooking, a movement that’s now subsided. So why should so-called New Nordic, with its wholesome approach, continue to hold our attention some 10 years—light years in culinary time—since it was first spotted germinating above the permafrost? We understand that Italian food, with its ripe, sun-drenched flavors, remains an eternal favorite, but Nordic foodways are based on scarcity and the pressing need to preserve foods for a long, long winter. What is the allure of the North’s survival cuisine?
Scandinavia once referred solely to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The region has now been more glamorously recast as Nordic, to embrace Finland as well as Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and the Åland Islands (a Swedish-speaking autonomous archipelago belonging to Finland). Concentrated flavors unite all these countries’ cuisines, bringing a taste of the wild indoors. Although fish, game, and foraged foods are featured everywhere across the region, each country remains distinctive. The food of the islands is the most extreme, including Iceland’s sheep dung–smoked arctic char and whey-poached fish. As monarchies, Denmark and Sweden (to which Norway was subject until 1905) benefited from lively trade that introduced spices and foodstuffs from all over the world. The moderate climate of these countries’ southern tiers also meant that fruits and garden vegetables could thrive. Norway’s long coastline and mountainous interior necessitated a diet made up mainly of seafood and lamb. As for Finland, an appreciation for salty and sour shows the influence of Russia, to which it belonged for over a century.
New Nordic as a way of thinking about the overall cuisine of this region began when Noma opened in November 2003 and rose quickly to prominence (from 2010 to 2012 it topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list). Noma might have remained Copenhagen’s secret treasure had it not been for the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen, which turned a spotlight on Redzepi’s astonishing food. Issued in 2004 and masterminded by Redzepi’s then-partner, Claus Meyer, the manifesto called on chefs to focus on the foods of the Nordic region and “to express the purity, freshness, simplicity, and ethics” of the North. Seasonality and an awareness of health were important tenets of their mission. In 2005, the Nordic Council embraced the manifesto as policy (it’s now in a second phase, called New Nordic II) and poured millions of euros into promoting it.
Like all promotions, the manifesto’s buzz has been overhyped. Redzepi, having now parted ways with Meyer, maintains that Noma has always been the inventive soul of New Nordic cuisine. “Noma is 10 years old. The manifesto is only nine,” Redzepi explained last fall. “For some reason, most of the American media have totally messed this one up. Noma was a flourishing, existing restaurant before the manifesto was written. I always wondered why most of the American media have linked the birth of the restaurant with the document, as I see its writing as only a minor part of our success and history.”
Other players in the Danish food world also dispute the manifesto’s prominence, though for different reasons. Not a single female chef was invited to sign on to the original document. The magisterial Camilla Plum, founder of Denmark’s organic movement in the early 1980s and still enormously influential, was outraged by that omission. She and several other women protested the project’s gender inequality to the Nordic Council, and eventually a few women were invited to participate, although only one agreed to sign on. So Plum staged a counter event in 2005, on International Women’s Day, March 8, to launch the “Belly Rebellion.” Six hundred women from Europe attended the gathering to talk about the future of Danish food. Cookbook writer Trine Hahnemann echoes Plum’s sentiments, calling the celebrated New Nordic chefs “bad boy rock stars.” Both she and Plum argue that women do the real work of feeding people and are therefore best positioned to change the way people eat. But they don’t deny that the manifesto and the Nordic Council’s support created a cultural shift, a kind of awakening. As Helsinki food writer Kenneth Nars puts it, “It raised awareness of what we are, who we are, where we come from, what we ate from farm and forest, and how things are supposed to taste: leaner, more spartan—not foie gras.”
The charm of New Nordic is that it’s simultaneously new and nostalgic, since it looks to the past, the foods that the current generation of young chefs remembers from their grandmothers’ tables, which they idealize as simple and tasty. Born well after World War II, none of these chefs experienced the terrible deprivations of their parents and grandparents, so they’re eager to work with the foraged plants that once carried the stigma of survival foods. Think mushrooms and moss, rowan shoots and rutabaga, nettles and wood sorrel. One thing is certain: unlike the avant-garde Spanish kitchen, which creates magic from molecules, the New Nordic kitchen is all about a tangible place. It doesn’t exist in isolation from the land and the culture; it depends on them.
New Nordic cooking is not just a style—it’s an aesthetic, the most recent iteration of Scandinavian design that was first articulated in the 1910s, when the region’s architects and designers decided to focus on practicality, insisting that everyday goods of greater beauty could enhance the lives of the masses. The blond wood and minimalist lines of furniture and tableware weren’t about opulent materials or embellishments but about the beauty of local materials and intrinsic forms; they reflected the northern landscape’s bleak beauty and its extraordinary light. Today, substitute the words “chefs” for “designers” and “food” for “goods,” and the relation of New Nordic cooking to the enduring pleasures of modern design becomes clear. This kind of holistic approach to the meal is visible in the carefully curated tableware at Daniel Berlin’s Krog i Skåne Tranås (named Sweden’s best restaurant in 2013). At first glance, the centerpiece foliage seems merely decorative, but a closer look reveals an onion chip nestled in the blueberry stalk. Luxurious parsley cream—the dip for the chip—appears as a mossy mound organically growing out of the red granite it sits on. Naturalistic presentation is also practiced by Jarmo Pitkänen of Studio Restaurant Tundra in Kuusamo, Finland, who makes all his own pottery, designing it to showcase such beautiful dishes as seared black grouse fillet with cèpes and lovage, or reindeer tongue salad with fresh horseradish and garlic.
In many ways, this type of cooking is a renewal, a recasting, of the past. Perhaps paradoxically, it also endures thanks to social instability. Scandinavia’s demographics are rapidly changing. Beginning in the 1970s, the region’s foodways, which had been static for centuries, were shaken up by the introduction of new flavors by the immigrant groups suddenly coming into the region—Turkish, Polish, Greek, and others. When Finland and Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, the influx increased. These new flavors have enriched the restaurant scene and brought a vast array of new products, but they’ve also spurred a kind of anxiety, a desire to retain as well as reassess native traditions. Indeed, the “new” in New Nordic is a bit of a misnomer, because New Nordic is based in large part on traditional methods and foods, a return to a more elemental way of cooking (without the worry of subsistence).
New Nordic also taps into the current obsession with the local, though several chefs are quick to point out the difference. Michael Björklund, of Smakbyn in Åland, says that “New Nordic is about the things that surround us—it’s not quite the same as eating locally. It’s a recognition of what surrounds us, and of who we are.” New Nordic, then, is about the identity of place, not just about growing something in that place. It focuses on ingredients that people see every day but might overlook—brilliant flavors hidden in plain sight. Where local is fresh and often subtle, New Nordic has intensity. The flavors are concentrated, with strong elements of mineral and brine. New Nordic cuisine, while rooted in the way people traditionally ate, highlights each food’s essential characteristics and presents the foods in a way that emphasizes the wild taste of the North and the natural environment. Hence the muted grays, greens, and browns of the tableware; the branches, leaves, and wild berries decorating the plates. Cooking can be long and slow, to intensify flavors, as in the suovas—salted and smoked reindeer that Marcus Jönsson Åberg of Camp Ripan in Kiruna, Sweden, serves with spruce needles and dried lingonberries. Or it can be quick, for freshness of taste. Pitkänen rubs perch with coarse salt and smokes it over alder for just a few minutes before finishing the dish off in the oven. Björklund plays with color and texture in his trio of whitefish—tartare, mousse, and roe—garnished with pickled onion, radish, black bread crumbs, and dill.
This sense of place is so keenly felt that several of Scandinavia’s most decorated chefs have returned home after cooking in high-end metropolitan restaurants. The New Nordic movement has validated the pull of their native soil, making their return an affirmation of who they are rather than an apparent retreat from success. Even chefs who have migrated far from their roots, like Fredrik Berselius of New York City’s Aska, insist that a reverence for nature underlies New Nordic cooking. “It’s about respect for what you eat and how it’s produced. It’s not just about luxury foods but about caring for nature. Therefore, it’s not a trend. It’s an approach, and something that endures.” This concept is visible in the widespread Scandinavian principle known in Swedish as allemansrätten—the right of public access giving everyone freedom to forage wherever they like as long as they are respectful of nature.
New Nordic reverberates with concern over the erosion of the environment and of culture, and not only on its home turf. For much of the world, Scandinavia stands as an emblem of the pure and pristine. At a time of high anxiety about the industrial food system, about the sources of food and the contaminants that surround us, the New Nordic approach offers a way to reconnect with nature by carrying us out to field, forest, stream, and beach, where we can forage for the unseen right underfoot. The ubiquitous spruce shoots and young birch leaves on New Nordic menus haven’t taken hold just because they’re unfamiliar to Americans. Their appeal lies in their elemental taste, of the forest and of spring, an aroma of the wild, a reminder of the majesty of wilderness. That’s why the best New Nordic chefs take their cues from nature rather than from the stove.
Berlin is a case in point: his dish of raw roebuck, tender pine shoots, and beech leaves with an emulsion of grass was inspired by the sight of a wounded deer lying on a bed of leaves in the forest, a picture he essentially painted on the plate. A thousand miles away, Åberg strives to capture the light, movement, and color of the Far North as diners progress from birch-smoked reindeer with lingonberry sorbet and earthy mushrooms, to cured arctic char with golden vendace roe and leek ash, to sea buckthorn sorbet with tiny needles of spruce. At Noma, a sweet dish of grilled onions and pears gets a sour tang from its garnish of wood ants.
But there’s another phenomenon that helps explain New Nordic’s ability to endure. Fine dining in Scandinavia historically meant classical French food. Little pride was taken in indigenous culinary traditions, which were considered paltry by comparison. People aspired to eat the fine white bread of the aristocracy, not rye hardtack so dry that it keeps for months. Butter-rich quenelles de brochet seemed so much more elegant than plebian fried cod balls. This lack of native pride was pervasive, and until the affirmation brought by New Nordic, Scandinavian food suffered from the kind of hangdog self-deprecation parodied in A Prairie Home Companion, with lutefisk the butt of endless jokes. Many people came to disdain the region’s all-too-ubiquitous herring and cod and the monotonous diet, but now that pollution has diminished fish populations and warnings are issued about Baltic herring consumption, diners are taking another look.
As for the chefs, with the anxiety of scarcity hovering over the globe, and buoyed by New Nordic’s emphasis on foods of the region, they’re rediscovering the innovative methods of the past, ones intended to preserve foods but that also resulted in exceptional artisanal products. It’s impossible not to admire the creativity behind the way cod has been dried for centuries on the Norwegian coast: there’s klippfisk, salted and laid out to dry on the klipp, the large flat rocks by the sea; tørrfisk—air-dried cod, hung on racks to dry and take on the salt air; and boknafisk, semi-dried cod that poaches to a silky consistency. Even though the now-oil rich Norwegians can purchase whatever they want, they’re taking a second look at what their own environment provides, including fenalår, mountain lamb that grazes on wild herbs and is delicately cured like prosciutto. As for French cuisine, why serve bœuf bourguignon when you can braise moose fillet in dark beer, or eat fraises des bois when dusky cloudberries are in season?
The DIY aspect of New Nordic food also appeals in this era of lingering recession—when it’s not an arduous, repetitive task necessary for survival, preserving can be a satisfying pastime and in some circles has great cachet. No vacuum chambers or gels or hydrocolloids are needed to ferment, smoke, pickle, cure, brine, or dry—all ancient preservation methods in lands where stocking up for the winter was a vital and burdensome requirement. Porridge, once a mainstay at all too many a meal, is now considered chic, especially when made with the flavorful heritage grains that Plum is bringing back into circulation. Conditions in the northern climate may be harsh, but they foster creativity. Artisans are at the heart of this approach; they don’t reject the past but build on it, innovating with flavors while remaining true to the region’s natural materials, its ingredients. Functionality or sustenance may be the starting point, but as with design, beauty and refinements of taste are the sought-after result.
Just as nature is always adapting, so too must cuisine. In 2009, Redzepi and Meyer created the Nordic Food Lab “to spread knowledge by means of a scientific and methodological approach to new, natural foods.” In a barge docked outside Noma’s front doors, a team of chefs and scientists is taking the age-old preservation techniques of fermenting, curing, smoking, and drying to extremes and experimenting with new ones, like inoculating hops with Botrytis fungus. Most recently, in a move recalling Heston Blumenthal’s 2006 disavowal of the term “molecular gastronomy,” Redzepi told the Danish newspaper Politiken that “for me, the words ‘New Nordic cuisine’ are totally dead.” He wants his work to be seen for its individuality rather than being blended into a movement.
Whether or not Redzepi sticks with the moniker is beside the point, for New Nordic is not just a passing fad. Its durable values represent certain sustaining ideals in our culture: the seasonal and local; a leaner, healthier diet; an awareness of place, heritage, and identity. These values are reflected around the world. Witness the recent mini boom of New Nordic restaurant/bar openings in New York City alone: Aska, Acme, The Copenhagen, Tørst, Skál. This approach to cooking has thrown off the fetters of the aristocratic kitchen once and for all. Even if the most lauded New Nordic restaurants are beyond most people’s means, the culinary ways of the North confirm that it’s possible not just to survive under harsh conditions but also to prevail over pallid flavors and to thrive.
Darra Goldstein, founder and former editor-in-chief of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food & Culture, teaches Russian at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.