If you care one whit about the World of Foodie, you’ll know that Scandinavian cuisine is where it’s at. Does that matter? Of course it does, for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, even if you avoid fashion, fashion will find you. Seen anything pickled, smoked or otherwise preserved on a menu recently? Uh huh. It’s influential and you probably can’t escape it. Secondly, there’s plenty to learn from the burgeoning northerners, including: midsummer crayfish parties (properly lubricated with snaps). Okay, that might be my rather personal wish. More broadly though, we should look at a certain Scandinavian lightness of cuisine, and continue right along the spectrum to newly conceived dishes that are as much about place as they are about eating.
Even if you say contemporary trends mean nothing to you, traditional Scandinavian food has plenty to offer. I wouldn’t like to live in a world without Danish pastries — although in Denmark they call them Vienna pastries, just to foil us when we visit. Smoked salmon and gravadlax— these are regulars in my fridge. You might or might not like herrings and rollmops and other little fish items, but I would suggest trying them before writing them off, especially if you like those pottles of marinated NZ mussels. They are closely related.
I’m a sucker for home baking, so when I learnt that Swedish people still regularly knock up batches of cinnamon rolls at home, I was sold. Think about this: they eat about 300 per person per year. Nationalism at its best. Seriously; this is enough to make me think I should move over there (and learn to drink a lot more coffee than I currently do).
From what I can tell, the Swedish are very attached to humble home cooking, and in particular, their own home’s cooking. If you want to know who makes the best Swedish meatballs, just ask a Swedish person. Answer: their mother. No? Then obviously it’s their grandmother.
Scandinavia covers Denmark, in the south, and Norway and Sweden which both stretch well up into the north-of- north Arctic circle. Fresh ingredients in Denmark are not so different from New Zealand ingredients, on the whole, but when you get way up north, interesting things like reindeer and elk start to appear. In fact, I found one 1960s recipe for Swedish meatballs that recommended a 2:1 elk:pork mince ratio, which made me think that we New Zealanders could take a broader look at how we use our own venison.
So what is this emergent Scandinavian cuisine? Copenhagen restaurant Noma has led the way, and now there are adherents scattered throughout the greater Nordic area and beyond. Noma’s Rene Redzepi has shifted the focus on restaurant food substantially. The food is ultra- creative and experimental but adheres to fairly rigorous rules and philosophies.
The big game-changer is the intense connection to nature, and to place. In a public talk Rene Redzepi gave a couple of years back, he showed a dish where the asparagus was paired with spruce tips from the windbreak around the asparagus field, and another where the seafood was paired with sea vegetables and foraged weeds from the edge of the bay it was fished from. Talk about local.
This is not to say that Noma is the only Scandinavian restaurant worth noticing. It’s much bigger than that. The general Scandinavian food movement has a few markers:
- Interesting cooking techniques that range from age-old to brand new; charring, smoking, pickling and air drying, among others.
- Foraging. Major Trend Alert.
- A different taste palette which has restaurant food moving past comfortable, lush, rich experiences to something more challenging and less cloying. There are lots of sour and bitter flavours.
- That lightness of touch. Each plate may be smaller and it’s likely to be a working of just one strong idea, instead of a complex concoction. Things are somehow pared back, just as with all the other Scandinavian design we love so much, such as architecture, furniture and homewares.
- Very interesting ingredients. And some very challenging ingredients. Milk skin, anyone? This is not to say it’s unconvincing. The point of this food is that it is well thought through. Aside from that particularly freaky item, other notable ingredients include juniper, birch, weeds, roots, berries, sea vegetables. Actually, a new emphasis on vegetables, and what can be done with them, is definitely part of the whole Scandi movement. Given that this is happening at the same time as everyone is becoming interested in kitchen gardens and heritage vegetables again, it seems very zeitgeisty. I’m all for it. Why not pay vegetables more attention?
So to revisit the question of whether this foodie Scandimania matters . . . I think it can. We could revisit our humble tradition of home cooking. We could truly embrace the food our country produces. We could follow Scandinavian culinary prompts, and quite possibly end up with an intensely New Zealand kind of food. Food that speaks of place — worth thinking about, anyway.
Laurie's Scandinavian recipes