Danish chef/TV personality/entrepreneur Claus Meyer.
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Northern Lights

Jim Poris - July/August 2008

With centuries-old sibling rivalries nearly laid to rest, the Nordic world that stretches from Finland to Greenland is finding common ground in their culinary heritage. Jim Poris looks at the united front that's drawing worldwide attention.

Surely it was the captivating youthful beauty of the doomed lovers and not the lush wild strawberries they so ravishingly fed each other that melted audiences watching the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. Ah, but those strawberries—plucked from the soft-focus summer ripeness of Tåsinge, the Danish island that starred as the pastoral set of Bo Widerberg's film—awakened other latent senses. Licentiously red, they seemed to taste as good as the actors looked. And they induced dreams of a wide landscape of Scandinavian food beyond canned hams, jarred baby shrimp, pickled herring, crisp rye crackers, and plasticized cheese.

Decades later, in September 2004, that same impulse to imagine a preindustrialized food world spurred the Danish chef, culinary entrepreneur, and television personality Claus Meyer to call the "gastro-intelligentsia" to a Nordic food symposium at his new restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. Meyer and younger partner/chef René Redzepi, of Danish and Macedonian parentage, opened Noma in November 2003 with a missionary's zeal "to redefine Nordic cuisine so that it embraces the Arctic area and brightens the world by virtue of its unique character." Translating Meyer's mandate at Noma, housed in an ancient dockside salt warehouse, Redzepi harnesses the plugged-in genius of the Spanish vanguard to wring excitement from the relatively flat palette of the far-flung Nordic larder—for example, lamb, yogurt-like skyr, salt cod and langoustines from Iceland; flounder and grouse from Greenland; musk ox, reindeer, moose, and king crab from the north of Norway, Sweden, and Finland; oysters from Denmark's Limfjord; wild salmon; and some 50 varieties of wild berries. Redzepi, who trained at The French Laundry (United States), El Bulli (Spain), and Au Jardin des Sens (France), has now attained two Michelin stars—a singular feat for a Danish restaurant—to show for the creative control he fully exerts at Noma. That level of endorsement for such renderings as poached Danish oysters with sago porridge and oat waffle, raspberries and beetroots with marinated rose hips, and tour de force crackers fabricated from chicken and fish skins endows Noma with tremendous sway as Nordic chefs search more closely for the weeds, seeds, and other things wild and cultivated distinct from the racier ingredients that add poignancy to more widely appreciated cuisines. Word on the Nordic street has it that Redzepi wants to tilt the creative axis from Spain to Denmark; he proved his reach last September by hosting a who's who of European chefs (and Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York City) for a weekend of techno-colored cooking entitled Looking North.

Meyer and Redzepi couldn't have known at the date of their summit that Noma would have such an effect. Chefs and restaurateurs from the Nordic region's Scandinavian core—Norway, Sweden, Denmark—have historically cooked in the grand European tradition, now pejoratively called Continental. Scandinavian chefs have excelled in international competitions such as the Bocuse d'Or, and they can be found worldwide in grand hotels or on luxury cruise ships. But, with exceptions, of course, their food couldn't be defined as distinctly Scandinavian. As long ago as the 1920s and '30s, the great Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun castigated his accommodating compatriots for putting out a welcome mat and turning Norway into—God forbid!—Switzerland. To the twin demons of the industro-food complex and standardized restaurant fare, Meyer saw a third hand numbing the Nordic palate—the brooding presence of a "300 year long evil partnership formed in our region by ascetic doctors and puritan priests...[who have] led an anti-hedonistic crusade against the pleasure giving qualities of food, and against sensuality as such." In a word, a food culture as styled by Ingmar Bergman in need of being subverted by the genius of the epicurean cook in Babette's Feast.

"The basic idea of the symposium was to unite chefs and farmers in all Nordic countries, small and big companies, politicians and private people around a common idea: to define the contours of a new Nordic cuisine," Meyer told a gathering last fall in New York City, where he cooked a promotional dinner for his PBS series New Scandinavian Cooking. "We believed that if you share in public with such powerful people the idea that they have the capacity and therefore the obligation to do something beautiful, to make the greatest possible products—be it just in a small corner of the company—then they will go home and do so."

More than just talk and debate, Meyer, Redzepi, and the gathered chefs from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, and their associated territories of Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and the Åland Islands (a Swedish speaking Baltic archipelago that belongs to Finland) issued the Manifesto for the New Nordic Kitchen, their Declaration of Independence (see sidebar). The Manifesto calls for a multitude of culinary and industrial initiatives informed by tradition, sustainability, seasonality, and health—all to be undertaken to preserve and promote a region the participants felt had not yet reached its potential.

"The Vikings burned down European villages and raped the women," Meyer said. "The Nordic cuisine movement is different. It's not a declaration against French food, Mexican mole, or sushi. It's not a crusade against Italian pizza or the American burger. We don't feel any affinity with nationalistic ideas. We just think that food from our region should have a beautiful voice in the choir of the world's other great cuisines."

To give impetus to the nascent movement, the Manifesto called upon "the Nordic Council of Ministers to establish a secretariat to anchor the future process in order to develop and expand the potential of the Nordic Kitchen." The Nordic Council, formed in 1952, and the Nordic Council of Ministers are co-operative supra-governmental organizations that facilitate parliamentary initiatives for the collective benefit of the region's five countries and three autonomous regions. With an eye to the culinary weather vane, the Council agreed to adopt the tenets of the Manifesto as a three year branding program to run from November 2006 until 2009 and backed up the commitment by tapping 14 culinary ambassadors—including Redzepi—to represent its eight member entities. But like any assertive movement that gains recognition, the consensus fractures over how to formally present its practical and visible—and, in this case, edible—victories.

Redzepi, for the most part, has cast his lot with the Harry Potters of the continent, those whose machines zap food into edible "soils" and "dust." Meyer, now minimally involved with Noma, claims to be "much more simple in my cooking"; such dishes as crab/apple bisque, brisket of veal braised in beer and cider, and celeriac baked in hay and clay, which he cooked in New York City last year, bear this out. Nowhere has this dichotomy been playing out more dramatically than in Iceland, where in February, during the seventh annual Food & Fun Festival in Reykjavik, the Nordic Council's culinary ambassadors were officially introduced at a reception at the Blue Lagoon.

Founded by Norwegian Vikings and their Irish slaves (mostly women) in 874, Iceland became fully independent in 1944 after centuries of fealty to Norway and then Denmark. Long cut off by geography and its own choosing from the political and cultural maelstroms of Western Europe, Iceland has just recently developed a high-powered economy not far removed from hardscrabble farming and fishing folkways. Taking what their sub-Arctic environment would give them, the isolated Icelandics came up with some novel foods, many of which hang on as peculiarities for gonzo tourists: hakarl, the putrefied Greenland shark "cured" by being buried in the ground for a few months; sheep dung–smoked fish (trout, salmon, and Icelandic char) and mutton; flaky air-dried cod; and sheep's liver and blood sausages. But take note, chefs: some of Iceland's ancient foodways could be taken to heart in the modern kitchen to startling effect. Siggi Hall, a combination Thomas Keller and Emeril Lagasse and Iceland's most well-known chef (his eponymous restaurant will reopen in the Reykjavik National Theater this fall), is old enough at 56 to recall instances of food for winter consumption being preserved in the whey left over from the production of skyr, just as the Vikings did. Or mutton hoisted high over the fireplace to catch the smoke from a peat fire for months—very, very slow-smoking—before being served during the Christmas season. Or Icelandic schmaltz—the melted sheep fat that's traditionally spooned over a dish of salt cod and potatoes.

"In Iceland we had limitations on food imports, so we grew everything we needed," says Hall. "We started to make new dishes out of what we have—lots of a lamb and fish and salt cod." Though he himself is one of the culinary ambassadors and the impresario of the Food & Fun Festival that invites international chefs to cook their dishes with Icelandic products in local restaurants and to compete in a cooking contest using supermarket purchased food, Hall's meaning is unmistakable: Iceland has been following the Manifesto out of necessity, not choice. Oddly, the geothermal energy harnessed for year-round greenhouses makes Iceland nearly self-sufficient in tomatoes, bananas, peppers, and many other fruits and vegetables, a decidedly un-Nordic pantry.

"As always when the ‘sisterhood' [of Nordic countries] comes together there is always a dispute of who leads these projects," says Hall. "Some of the countries—Denmark and Sweden—believe that they're self-appointed leaders, as they've always been through the times. As one of the greatest chefs in Denmark said: ‘If the Nordic countries would be Spain, then Copenhagen would be Barcelona and Stockholm Madrid.' To that an Icelandic chef said: ‘Good, and Reykjavik is San Sebastián of the North, which it truly is.'"

At this year's seventh annual Food & Fun, Hall shared the stoves at Vox in the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica hotel with its executive chef, Gunnar Karl Gíslason, a member of the Icelandic culinary team; Sven Erik Renaa, a consultant at the Norwegian Culinary Institute at Stavanger who won the fish prize at the 2007 Bocuse d'Or; and Michael Björklund, a Nordic culinary ambassador who runs the Maritime Pavillion in Mariehamm on the Åland Islands. Together the four chefs made a clear statement--traditional and modernist at once—about the New Nordic Kitchen: 15-minute cured Icelandic char with oysters, apples, and horseradish; fried Icelandic langoustines with root vegetables and sea-buckthorn berry cream; Norwegian king crab with sunchokes and king crab sauce; salt cod with sweet turnips, smoked pork belly, and onions; Danish gadwall (a species of wild duck) with foamy potatoes and incinerated leeks; Icelandic lamb with spices and pepper, glazed carrots, whipped cream of mushrooms, and (more) root vegetables; pears cooked in Jacobsen Saaz blonde (beer); and skyr, caramel, and oatmeal infused with (non-Nordic) cinnamon and lemon. A far cry in presentation from the Vikings' midwinter feast called Thorrablót but made with foods they ate every day.

"If we really want to speak about the New Nordic Kitchen, then this type of happening is the best way," says Kim Palhus, executive chef/lecturer at Finland's Laurea University of Applied Sci­ences in Espoo and one of the Finnish culinary ambassadors at the Blue Lagoon event. "But this is not just about fine dining. If we really want to push this through, we need to have more chefs in public than Claus Meyer. Nordic countries are full of skillful young chefs who really can back up the new Nordic food revolution. But we have to find a way to display them because up to this point a lack of funds has kept them from showing what they can do. We also have to remember that this project is about everyone, from babies to grandmothers, especially grandmothers, because they taught our parents how to cook and they, in turn, taught us. Now we have to show them how we plan on preserving their food culture while bringing it back in new ways."