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Nordic Cuisine Old and New
Christmas Tree in Santa's Village
Food and Cooking of Scandinavia
Top of the World
The Nordic countries, sometimes incorrectly called Scandinavia are lands at the top of the world, places of fire (Iceland) and ice. These are some of the coldest places on Earth that have managed to remain populated throughout a long history. The Nordic countries make up a region in Northern Europe and the North Atlantic which consists of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden and their associated territories, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland. These are lands that existed in splendid isolation for most of their history. Look to the east from Finland and you would see an endless sea of pine forests leading to Russia. To the north lies miles of tundra, snow and ice, herds of reindeer and maybe even Santa. To the west of course is the North Atlantic with more sea to the south. All this water led to a reliance on foods from the sea that is prevalent to this day. Although I treat these as one area with one cuisine, this is far from the truth, each of these countries has its own unique identity and its own variations of cuisine developed by the local environment and people.
In English, The word "Nordic" comes down to us through France from the old Norse words in the Norman dialect. All it means is "pertaining to the north" In 793, Vikings started expanding, moving south, invading and colonizing England and the Continent, leaving a permanent mark on the languages. Normandy, in France and the Normans in England all have Viking roots.
Claus Meyer - The Nordic Food Revolution
Timbale and Rosette Cookie Set
Eating like a caveman
One of the hot culinary trends in America and elsewhere is looking back to how we ate during prehistoric times. Eating like a caveman is cool, it's trendy, it's in and, depending on who you ask it may be healthy. Nordic lands still use many of the foods that their paleo-ancestors would have been familiar with but the new Nordic cuisine has modernized, incorporating foraged and local foods with modern.
Scandinavian Cheese by Gourmet-Food
The aims of New Nordic Cuisine
There is a group of culinary adventurers with a number of talented chefs that are developing the local foods for a modern palate. Claus Meyer is the Danish culinary entrepreneur behind much of the new Nordic cuisine movement. Meyer even has a culinary manifesto that expresses his view of the New Nordic Cuisine but his manifesto would serve many chefs and cuisines just as well:
"As Nordic chefs we find that the time has now come for us to create a New Nordic Kitchen, which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favorable with the standard of the greatest kitchens of the world.
The aims of New Nordic Cuisine are:
1. To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate with our region.
2. To reflect the changing of the seasons in the meals we make.
3. To base our cooking on ingredients and produce whose characteristics are particularly excellent in our climates, landscapes and waters.
4. To combine the demand for good taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being.
5. To promote Nordic products and the variety of Nordic producers – and to spread the word about their underlying cultures.
6. To promote animal welfare and a sound production process in our seas, on our farmland and in the wild.
7. To develop potentially new applications of traditional Nordic food products.
8. To combine the best in Nordic cookery and culinary traditions with impulses from abroad.
9. To combine local self-sufficiency with regional sharing of high-quality products.
10. To join forces with consumer representatives, other cooking craftsmen, agriculture, the fishing, food, retail and wholesale industries, researchers, teachers, politicians and authorities on this project for the benefit and advantage of everyone in the Nordic countries."
You don't need to go to Norway to see the best of Nordic cuisine, check out chefs like Olav Peterson at Bittersweet in Denver, Al Walker at Epcot in Orlando or Adam Aamann at Aamann's in New York City for a taste of modern Nordic cuisine.
Time and Place in Nordic Cuisin
Nordic foods, then and now
What kind of cuisine do these modern chefs have to work with? These lands were late comers to the industrial revolution so that many of the things we are familiar with, like Danish Design and IKEA had their beginnings in the 20th century. Before industrialization it was a land of rural poverty. For centuries the movers and shakers were in thrall to Gallic cuisine. If you were somebody, you hired a French chef.
The Vikings were early innovators at preserving foods for both their long cold winters and the many sea voyages. Of course along the way they brought European foods back to their lands so that to this day, restaurants in this part of the world tend to feature European foods not just Nordic cuisine. The idea of a Viking cuisine may seem ancient and anachronistic but this is one cuisine that has remained well represented in the modern Nordic diet. Leif Ericson would still recognize many of the foods served today in this part of the world.
Most of the Nordic population has always had a simple and natural larder built around the products of their environment. If we look to the far north we still find people living off their herds of reindeer. Andrew Zimmern has an excellent YouTube video about Finnish foods below. Reindeer is still the most popular meat in Finland and can be found in any well stocked market, what may seem exotic to us is everyday fare here. Reindeer filet is said to taste like beef if it is cooked medium but gets more like liver if it is cooked well done. In a land built from poverty they let nothing go to waste. We can leave it to Andrew Zimmern to try out the organs of reindeer but blood pudding is common and sometimes made in a tray so it looks like a brownie.
Bizarre Foods Finland
If you are concerned about food safety, these lands follow some of the most stringent food safety rules anywhere on the planet. In spite of the politicians here that decry regulations we could learn a lot from these countries of how to protect the interest of people. Genetically engineered foods are allowed but they must be identified on the label. The hormones and antibiotics which are common in our foods are regulated and often forbidden in European food animals.
There is evidence of cattle in the Scandinavian countries going back to the Bronze Age and with the cattle came a dairy industry which today includes some of the best cheeses, dairy products and butter available anywhere. When a cow went dry it was slaughtered so the meat was tough and stringy, this may explain the old time practice of grinding or stewing beef rather than grilling steaks.
Horsemeat was once quite common in this part of the world but fell out of favor when Christianization and the Pope banned its consumption. Iceland continued its love of horsemeat and it is slowly regaining its place in the other Nordic countries.
The Viking larder included wild game like bear, elk and moose as well as domesticated pork and poultry. Lamb and goats were raised both for their meat and milk while goats were associated with the Viking god Thor. To this day there is a Christmas tradition of a Yule Goat that would appear before Christmas to make sure the Yule preparations were done well.
Sautéed Finnish Reindeer Steak | euromaxx
The World Famous Swedish Chef
Sliced Gravlax, from Scotland
Food from the oceans as well as the many rivers and lakes has always been plentiful but with such abundance came the need for preservation. In a land that has a season of abundance followed by a season of scarcity food preservation goes well beyond a culinary choice. Food preservation here was a form of life insurance; harvest when plentiful and save for the lean times. The threat of hunger was a driving force behind many of the Viking's expeditions.
Salmon may be their best known local seafood, being cured into Gravad lax (Gravlax, cured with salt, sugar and dill) or smoked or dried, but also eaten fresh, baked, broiled or poached. Next may be herring, eaten fresh but also pickled or preserved in a sour cream sauce. In spite of these items, it was dried cod that let the Vikings embark on their voyages of discovery and plunder. Dried cod survives without molding through heat and humidity making it ideal shipboard rations. The Vikings enjoyed their seafood, not just cod, salmon and herring but also oysters and mussels and anything they could take from the water, even seaweed and whale. Viking tastes have continued up to the present so these are wonderful places to enjoy the bounty from the sea. You might have to go to Iceland to enjoy one of their specialties called Hákarl (rotting shark). This is a Greenland- or basking shark which has been cured with a peculiar fermentation process of burying it in gravel for months weighed down with more gravel so the juices drain away then hung to dry for four to five months. Hákarl is often referred to as an acquired taste and has a very particular ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste, "similar to very strong cheese slathered in ammonia." Andrew Zimmern described the smell as reminding him of "some of the most horrific things I've ever breathed in my life," and Anthony Bordain is equally dismissive of rotting shark.
Foraging the Forest
Cloudberry Preserves From Sweden
The selection of vegetables have been rather sparse throughout history here because of the short growing season but beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, dill, horseradish, rutabagas, turnips and potatoes have a long history. Some places still call rutabagas (or yellow turnips,) Swedes because of their association with Sweden. The green vegetables and salads that feature so well in European diets are only now beginning to take their place in the local diet. Apples grow well here but slowly and the locals will tell you that their apples have time to develop a better and more complex flavor than those grown in warmer climates. The there is an array of wild berries from the forest reputed to be the best in the world. Anyone who has picked wild berries can attest to the fact that their flavor is unsurpassed especially when compared to the commercially grown cardboard berries in our supermarkets. Lingonberries, cloudberries, blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, elderberries, black currants all grow here for those willing to trek in the woods to find them.
Foraging has always been a tradition here, born of poverty but now foraging is practiced by some renowned chefs to add variety and authenticity to their menu. It should come as no surprise to see Reindeer Tongue on a Scandinavian menu but Rudolph has nothing to worry about. this is not a meat delicacy, it is a species of moss that reindeer (and chefs) munch on.
Cutting edge Nordic chefs are "sprucing up" (pun intended) their dishes with products from the pine forests. The tips of fir branches are being steeped in simple syrup to flavor cocktails and to flavor game birds with a woodsy aroma. Pine needles are being infused in oils and used as garnish, ground into a fine powder. Spruce needle tips are sprinkled over salads, added to marinades and used to flavor oils, vinegars and even cakes. Juniper berries have long been used to flavor gin but they also flavor game, seafood, desserts and may be smoked to flavor meats and fish. Birch is used to make syrup, birch beer and even ground into a bitter flour that is added to breads. If you are foraging the forest, this place is ideal for wild mushrooms but you need to know what you are doing to avoid poisoning yourself.
Grains and Dairy
Historically, Scandinavians have depended primarily upon grains like spelt, rye, barley, and oats to make yeast breads, porridges, and baked goods. These grains are hardier than wheat and easier to grow in these northern latitudes. As any baker will tell you, it is impossible to make yeast bread without a measure of hard winter wheat, so any wheat bread in Scandinavia has depended on expensive imported wheat. The common folk had to make do primarily with barley, oats and rye made into flat breads. Although it is possible to make a rather heavy sourdough bread with rye flour, before the modern transportation system Norsemen were probably eating something more like what we would call a cracker or a flatbread than our raised breads. One of the interesting aspects of Scandinavian bread is the practice of scalding the other grain flour before incorporating it into the wheat bread dough. This method has ancient roots in Scandinavia. "Breads made with the scalding method are generally hearty and robust, and can last a long time without refrigeration – up to several weeks - which was of course crucial in less technologically-advanced times" (See links for more info)
Spelt is an ancient hybrid form of wheat which was used in Europe and Scandinavia as long ago as the iron age but during the late Middle Ages it fell out of favor. More recently it is being reintroduced as a healthy alternative grain.
Modern transportation brought plentiful wheat to these shores and the locals made good use of it to develop a wide array of breads, desserts and pastries. Where would we be without a buttery Danish pastry to start a special morning. Scandinavian pancakes are similar to the French crêpes. These countries each have their own subtle variation for their recipe for pancakes where In some of the countries they are served with fruit, cream and jam as a dessert while others add a variety of savory fillings for part of a main meal.
Following their waste nothing tradition the Nordic Region has an extensive cheese-making tradition, some of the more popular ones are:
SVECIA (28% fat): Being one of the few Nordic cheeses that hold "Protected Designation of Origin", Svecia is the oldest Swedish cheese, and was first developed in the 12th Century. Semi hard, mildly acid salty cheese made from cow’s milk.
PRÄST (31% fat): First developed in the 15th Century, Präst is powerful, yet creamy. Once made by churches because there was a local custom of tithing milk to the priest. It is now a commercial cheese which is occasionally cured in whiskey. Flavor is nutty, smoky and mildly acid
GREVÉ (28% fat): Developed in the 1960s, Grevé has similarities with Emmental, but with a stronger character as well as a lingering after taste. Grevé has a dense, creamy texture, and it contains large holes throughout. This cream-colored cheese has a sweet, nutty flavor that becomes more intense as it ages.
HAVARTI (38% fat) is a creamy semi-firm Danish cheese, named after the farm where it was developed. Havarti is a mild cheese, similar somewhat to Gouda in flavor, it contains small holes throughout. In addition to being sold plain in blocks, Havarti is often flavored with dill, caraway, cumin or other spices. Havarti has a following in the US so this is the cheese we are most likely to see in the market.
GJETOST the name means goat cheese but it is made with cow's milk whey cooked down with extra cream to the consistency of a buttery fudge. Whey is boiled down to remove the water when it is turned into a brown sweet cheese called Mysost or Gjetost depending on processing.
Many other good cheeses come from these countries but they also use dairy products in much of their cooking. On the farm whey might be drunk as a refreshing sour beverage, or used in baking. Sour cream is used extensively as is sour milk and buttermilk. It was once common to leave a plate of milk on the counter until it curdled before it was consumed. In Iceland there is a popular yogurt type product called Skyr, mildly acid taste eaten with sugar and fruit the way we eat yogurt.
The Famous Dishes
People that know nothing else about Nordic cuisine have likely heard about Smörgåsbord. From Wiki: This "is a type of Scandinavian meal served buffet-style with multiple dishes of various foods on a table, originating in Sweden. In Norway it is called koldtbord, in Denmark it is called det kolde bord, in Finland seisova pöytä, in Iceland it is called hlaðborð, in Latvia "Aukstais galds" and in Estonia rootsi laud (meaning Swedish table)." Smorgas or in Swedish 'smörgås' means literary sandwich, and bord means table. The traditional large smörgåsbord with its lavish array of foods can be found only in a few restaurants, usually at Christmastime. Typical dishes are Swedish meatballs, new potatoes, "Janssons frestelse" (a traditional Swedish casserole made of potatoes, onion, pickled sprats, bread crumbs and cream,) different kinds of seafood like cod, salmon, shrimp, eel, pickled herring, various salads, sauces and dressings, cold-cuts like ham and roast-beef, eggs, breads, especially rye bread, cheese and butter and, sometimes also desserts.
In Denmark they have brought the simple open faced sandwich to dizzying heights. Smorrebrod, translates as "butter bread," includes countless open-face sandwich combinations, from the meager to the most extravagant concoctions imaginable. Start with a slice of rugbrød, which is sour-dough rye bread. It is a dark, heavy bread to underlie your toppings. Traditional toppings include pickled herrings, thinly sliced cheese, cucumber, tomato, boiled eggs; liver sausage, a variety of cured meats in thin slices, smoked fish such as salmon; mackerel in tomato sauce; pickled cucumber; and rings of red onion. Pickled beets, pea salad. To top it all off mayonnaise, horseradish, remoulade and spicy mustards. Smørrebrød is usually eaten with utensils. In a household the custom is to pass the bread around the table followed by the toppings but in restaurants it is served like a Smörgåsbord buffet
Frikadeller Is usually called the Danish version of meatballs, may be made with beef, pork and veal or a mixture of any of those. They may be grilled in patties or made into balls and fried in butter.
· 8 ounces of lean diced veal
· 8 ounces of lean diced pork
· 1/2 cup of chopped onion
· 1 large egg
· 1 1/2 cups club soda
· 1 tsp salt
· 3 tbsp rye flour (or wheat)
· 1/8 teaspoon ground all-spice
· 1/4 teaspoon ground dill weed
· 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
· 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
· Butter for frying
1. To make this you need a meat grinder although I think a food processor would work as well.
2. Pass the meats and onion through the fine blade of the grinder. Repeat this, gtinding the meats at least twice.
3. Place the meats in the bowl of an electric mixer with a dough hook, or a sturdy bowl with a stout wooden spoon
4. Add the egg, club soda, salt, flour, all-spice, dill weed, nutmeg and pepper.
5. Beat this on low speed until the mixture is light and fluffy.
6. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour, this will make the mixture firm enough to shape.
7. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over a medium fire
8. Use 2 spoons or an ice cream scoop to form small balls or ovals, dropping the meat balls in the skillet as you go.
9. Alternatively, you can form patties in your hands if you constantly wet your hands to keep the meat from sticking.
10. Fry a few at a time, removing them to a platter and adding more butter to the skillet as you go.
When you are done use the pan drippings to make a cream gravy. Serve with pickled beets, new potatoes and red cabbage.