Herring with mustard, open sandwiches on buttered bread... The writer samples the new Nordic fare.
Culture doesn’t just lie in the great attractions of a city. There’s many a cultural insight to be gleaned from what’s at the end of your fork. Scandinavia — with its bright intense summers and long cold winters, traditionally served up meals that were hearty and simple. Repasts of whole grain breads baked that have a long shelf life, rich seafood stews, meatballs in gravy, rich potato dumplings — were meant to sustain you during the long, cold winters. You ate to live.
The forest and the sea continue to influence Scandinavian cuisine. New Nordic fare by top chefs, who’ve shifted from the classy to the folksy, to include food foraged from the Scandinavian wilderness — berries, roots and rye, moose, roe deer, stag, hare and indigenous oysters from shallow inlets — are the order of the day. Club these unique local ingredients with modern techniques and creative vision, and you’ll see a distinct trend in Arctic gourmet. Fancy restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm serve up this authenticity. But these meals, artfully arranged to look like the culinary equivalent of the Paris Catwalk, are just the icing on the cake.
The food on sale in the Torvehallerne market in Copenhagen is most revealing of a society in which the commitment to the organic and the local is more than skin deep. Antidotes to the mass-produced abound in stalls selling a nostril-humping collection of fresh seafood, seasonal vegetables, artisanal produce like organic honey from the brown bees of the island of Laeso and herbs foraged from the woodlands and beaches. An especially enthusiastic seller tells me how it makes sense to use fruits, vegetables and nuts from no more than 100 km away when possible, both for the fresh quality of the produce and to sustain local markets.
The Torvehallerne marketscape brims over with warmth and good humour. Children dig into trays of marzipan — delicate and intricately crafted mounds of almond infused with honey and soft fruit, while the adults stand around laughing and drinking beer. I’m participating, I am told, in what the locals call ‘hygge’ — a feeling of cosiness and contentment born of food, family and friends.
Conversation with strangers comes easy and I end up discussing with some locals my visit to Carlsberg — the fifth 5th largest brewery group in the world. They tell me proudly that the Scandinavians are champion drinkers. They use references from Shakespeare and the past to back up this claim. I’m informed with the same playful spirit in which many conversations that involve beer, transpire: “What Oil is to Texas, Beer is to Denmark. In days of old, it was common practice to start the day with a shot of the flavoured, traditional potato-based spirit called ‘snaps’ for fortification against a cold winter morning, even in summer.”
But while alcohol is important, the opening gambit in any ritual of hospitality is Smorrebrod or open sandwiches on buttered bread. Made of rye (which stays fresh longer than white bread), the bread acts as base for a variety of toppings — mild cheese with peppers, strong cheese and radishes, pickled herring with hard-boiled eggs. This may sound like a simple affair, but the art of preparing and composing these open sandwiches is a culinary discipline in its own right.
My next foray in Scandinavia is into Stockholm in Sweden. Here it is just as clear that no emerging celebrity chefs are needed to further convince Scandinavians of their culinary wisdom. Herring caught in the North Sea has always been an integral part of the Swedish diet. At a herring buffet, I encounter dozens of ancient and creative ways in which herring can be served. Herring with mustard, with onions and with spices are classics. Herring with garlic is relatively new. The accoutrements of well-aged cheese, sour cream, crisp bread and freshly-boiled potatoes are kept especially simple, because the herring is the obvious star of the show.
The other thing that Stockholm does well is hold its binaries. In sharp contrast to its wholesome meal tradition — like potato dumplings and meatballs — are its extravagant desserts. Soft, sweet yeast rolls, cinnamon, cookies, meringues, curdcakes, pies and tarts stuffed with raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries, and strawberries bring most good meals to a close. It’s not uncommon for the berries to be frozen post harvest, to be served later in the year as embellishment for winter desserts. What’s especially marvellous is that despite, or perhaps because, the summer harvest months are short, the outcomes of the harvest are celebrated with greater intensity.
Scandinavians — like most people with singular cuisines — are completely hung up on their own. The Emirates flight back from Stockholm to India turns into an extension of the trip itself, for there’s local cuisine on board. I end up ordering smoked salmon and pickled herring in caviar mayonnaise and a poached fillet of cod, scallop and prawn. These dishes of identity — that link modern Scandinavia to the hardships of the past — are replete with a message. For at a time in history when home-cooking is starting to fade in favour of fast food, it’s clear that a meal in Scandinavia will never be boring.