What’s cooking up north?

What’s cooking up north?
14 Dec 2014

WHITE GUIDE NORDIC: The now legendary New Nordic movement was a fresh approach to everything: the ingredients chefs used, how they sourced them, how they cooked them – or not – and how they presented them. But behind the hype is a rich mosaic of traditions, local variations and individual cooking styles.

(This is an extract - you can read the entire article in The White Guide Nordic Book)

By White Guide’s publisher-editor Lars Peder Hedberg.

When the Copenhagen-based Noma made its trial appearance at Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo in early 2014, it was a roaring success. Savvy Japanese diners couldn’t get enough. And Noma’s René Redzepi wanted more of Japan. It was true love. So, for two months in the beginning of 2015, the entire restaurant is relocating to Tokyo, this time without the Nordic foodstuffs, but only the mindset.
Extremely fresh (as in “live”) and its opposite, rotting (as in “fermented”), are two of the many elements that contemporary Nordic and traditional Japanese cuisine have in common. This gastronomy is not for the faint of heart, but for those who dare to venture outside their comfort zones.
        Leading Nordic chefs, such as Copenhagen’s Jakob Mielcke at Mielcke & Hurtigkarl, have been inspired by Japan for years now. In Sweden the fusion is especially palate- and eye-catching, where leading restaurants such as Restaurant Frantzén, Oaxen Krog, Mathias Dahlgren, Gastrologik and Fäviken Magasinet all, in different ways, meld Swedish and Japanese techniques and traditions. But the best place to enjoy Swedish-Japanese fusion is at Sayan Isaksson’s triple-unit establishment in Stockholm – the fine dining Esperanto (ranked Best Restaurant in Sweden 2013 and 2014 by the White Guide), the innovative restaurant Råkultur, and the casual izakaya, Shibumi.

Maaemo, an Old Finnish word meaning, “Mother Nature,” is one of the best restaurants in The Nordics right now. It’s located in Oslo, Norway, and the chef, Esben Holmboe Bang, is Danish. The maitre d’/chef sommelier, Pontus Dahlström, is Finnish. In a way it makes sense that this cross-Nordic venture is creating the purest New Nordic cuisine today, as exemplified by the poetic signature dish: oysters from Bømlo served as an emulsion with blue mussel gel and a warm mussel and dill sauce.
       The most prominent feature of the New Nordic movement is its focus on fresh, local and preferably indigenous ingredients, including rare, forgotten and unexplored flora and fauna. This has made it an exotic alternative to the Mediterranean cuisine that dominated Europe ten years ago.
In 2004 a group of chefs published the “New Nordic Manifesto.” The document dramatized a current in contemporary gastronomy that had been swelling in many places for some time – a switch in focus from the generically global to the genuinely local, from perfect execution to playful curiosity, from mastering the world’s staple luxuries to exploring the simpler stuff around you.

Coping with seasonality – enjoying it at its freshest and making it last beyond its natural lifespan – is what makes Nordic cooking special. Because of the lengthy, cold and dark winters, people all over the Nordics have put much effort into making the brief cornucopia of summer last throughout the year, efforts that increase the further north you get. Drying and fermenting foodstuffs rich in protein – fish in particular – have created some of the most iconic Nordic dishes, such as Norway’s rakørret (fermented trout), Iceland’s stockfish (air-dried cod), Sweden’s surströmming (fermented Baltic herring) and gravlax (“interred” salmon) – and of course pickled herring, countless versions of which are found throughout the Nordics.
      In Finland, foraging has never gone out of fashion. Roaming the forests for edibles – especially mushrooms – has always stocked larders here in a way that was never the case in the rest of the Nordics. The same goes with preserving food. The Finns even pickle some mushroom species that are not considered fit to eat in the neighbouring countries.

Some say that Norway had its gastronomic heyday in the 1990s, and indeed for a long time it seemed paralyzed - star struck by old school French chefs and Bocuse d’Or competitions. (Norway has been the second most successful nation after France throughout the years.) But the many accolades seldom transferred to the restaurant scene – with the exception of Chef Eyvind Hellstrøm at the legendary Bagatelle, which survives today in its simpler incarnation, Lille B.
As one of the twelve co-signers of the New Nordic Manifesto, Hellstrøm has served as a liaison between the old and the new. Dining out was never a strong tradition in Norway, and eating lunch out was unheard of. This is changing. Being the wealthiest country in the world, young chefs like Even Ramsvik at Restaurant Ylajali and the new mega-star, Esben Holmboe Bang, are championing a thriving modern restaurant scene.
       In Finland foodies around the world turned their interest towards this unspoiled food haven. All of a sudden the international press was full of Karelian pirogues, fried vendace and classic sourdough bread – and of course, smoked meat, including reindeer. All of this built up the Finnish self-esteem, but true gastro modernity did not enter the scene until recently. Finland is a late bloomer when it comes to New Nordic, so late that the party may almost be over. New Nordic can be enjoyed today perhaps in its purest form in restaurants such as Ask in Helsinki.

Iceland, in spite of its remote location, tiny size and hard-hit economy, keeps up remarkably well with anything “in vogue,” including gastronomy. While the real heights are still un-climbed, restaurants like Dill in Reykjavik may well trek into masterclass territory. The diversity, quality and freshness of local seafood have put sushi and sashimi on almost every Reykjavik restaurant menu for decades. The Faroe Islands, the dramatically beautiful archipelago in the Atlantic between Norway and Iceland, has become an unexpected gastro-tourism destination. Everyone who visits the leading restaurant, Koks, is surprised that it holds its own against restaurants in Copenhagen and Stockholm. 
       Today, leading chefs from all over the Nordics meet and cook together. They inspire and sometimes copy each other, forging a common philosophy, while simultaneously evolving their individual cuisines.  Take, for example, the distinctive style of Rasmus Kofoed at Geranium in Copenhagen. He’s a technical virtuoso whose plates are minimalist in appearance but contain highly defined flavours. Björn Frantzén at Stockholm’s Restaurant Frantzén has a more eclectic approach, ranging from Japanese to French, but he always zeroes in on what can be sourced from his own two gardens. At Daniel Berlin in Skåne’s Österlen, the Tuscany of Sweden, everything is grown by the inn’s own gardener, just across the road. On the small island of Bornholm, in the outskirts of Denmark, the creative team at Kadeau have made it their mission to put the island and its flora and fauna on the culinary map. Those who can’t make it to this island restaurant above the beach in Åkirkeby can sample some of the goodies at their sister restaurant in Copenhagen.

However, when it comes to starring as the local hero, no one can beat Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken Magasinet, so far north in Sweden that it’s almost at the Polar Circle. Nilsson, ranked #19 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and rising fast, almost matches Redzepi in global celebrity status. Everything he serves is farmed here, or picked, hunted and fished from nearby forests, mountains, lakes and fjords.  Nilsson is not just one of Sweden’s most talented chefs, he is also one of its foremost food scientists. His lavish restaurant-lodge on an historic Jämtland farm hides a veritable laboratory behind its picturesque setting. Based on the philosophy of the old self-subsistent household, where everything was sourced from the farm or its immediate surroundings, his research has contributed to understanding how taste profiles develop when foodstuffs – meat, fish, fowl and veggies – are preserved under various conditions, such as being “graved,” or put back into the dirt in the earth cellar.

For some time now Nordic gastronomy has been reflecting on where to go next. It’s only natural that after ten years the Nordic movement is heading in new directions – away from the very local, away from the “freshness” that was initially its foremost characteristic. Today, leading chefs are looking to other food cultures for inspiration and pushing our limits to appreciate what is beyond the obviously palatable. The region’s gastronomy has become truly experimental and forward-thinking rather than nostalgic, despite strong elements of gastro-archaeology. If there is a version 2.0 of the New Nordic movement, it is being driven by research and development as much as by creativity and artistry. Leading chefs and we, their passionate devotees, have turned into hunter-gatherers of knowledge.
       As top gastronomy is getting more radical and perhaps also more “elitist,” its earlier achievements are widespread in the restaurant industry. Today you can enjoy the best of the New Nordic classics for less money in many restaurants – and not only in the big cities.

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