Defining yourself in a pithy one-line bio isn’t easy.
Especially when you’re of Scandinavian-English-American-Irish-German-Jewish-Lithuanian extraction.
Where to start? I was born in Munich, Germany to a Norwegian father and an English-American mother. This partly explains my greedy predilection for pretzels, beer and sausage; moving to Norway at the age of four meant I also learnt to love the food heritage of my dad’s Norwegian family. Think smoked mutton ribs, sour cream porridge and fish cured in lye! But one of my earliest food memories isn’t of bratwurst or mutton ribs, it’s of sunny days foraging for wild blueberries in the mountains of western Norway, near my grandparents’ farm. Summers in most countries are a blaze of colour but I remember distinctly the sweet scent of wild strawberries, during the briefest of seasons in midsummer. If anything the smell of foraging is more evocative than the sight of plump indigo blueberries and delicate wild strawberries.
If we grandchildren weren’t out picking berries, making jam and eating my farmor, or grandmother’s, most delicious sour cream and vanilla waffles during those short Norwegian summers, we were out fishing, swimming in the fjord, or going for day-long hikes in the famous Aurland valley. Our rucksacks filled to the brim with thermoses, a packed lunch of open sandwiches and more often than not I’d be fighting with one of my boy cousins who would get the lion’s share of the Kvikk-Lunsj, or Norway’s answer to the Kit-Kat. Chocolate may have been inclusion to our lunch packs to keep us happy and placid on long journeys but shamefully I was always a little too greedy to share my kvikk-lunsj.
Growing up in Scandinavia is in some ways akin to growing up in California or Australia. A love of the outdoors is deeply embedded in our culture, in fact it’s positively embarrassing to admit to a gym membership when you can kayak in the summer or go skiing all winter.
Living in London I miss foraging for berries in the summer, fishing in the autumn and going for day-long cross country skiing treks through the winter wilderness of Nordmarka near our old house in Oslo.
But we’re incredibly lucky here in Britain to have such a beautiful countryside, replete with a wild larder of food stretching from the spectacular Cornish coast up to the gentle rolling fields of Cambridgeshire, from the forests of Sussex to the craggy, outer reaches of Scotland. The wild is accessible, it’s just a question of knowing where to go and what to look for. We can all go outdoors and make the most of this larder, with a little knowledge but more importantly with a sense of curiosity about nature.
So as part of the process of writing my forthcoming book on Scandinavian food I’ll be turning to the wild for inspiration.
How does this relate to Scandinavian food? I’m often asked what defines our food culture, and I struggle to come up with a meaningful answer. “It’s not all herrings and meatballs,” I tentatively venture, “we love game and have a wonderful tradition of cake and bread baking, we love cheese and other dairy products.” But then so do the French, the British and other European nations!
If, as acclaimed Danish chef Rene Redzipi of the world’s top restaurant Noma asserts, a ”Nordic terroir” really exists then it is firmly anchored in the wild, in foraging for local ingredients, in celebrating our maritime and hunting heritage and marrying that heritage with modern culinary techniques and flavours. Food in Scandinavia is perhaps best understood as a way of life, as an ecology, rather than as a distinct cuisine. That philosophy of resourcefulness, a discreet frugality and a focus on provenance makes Scandinavian food distinctive but of course not unique. Perhaps that’s why we don’t like to shout too loud about it, and if anything I reckon that spirit of simplicity in our food is echoed in Japanese food more than any other style of cooking. Too much fuss or embellishment in cooking are anathema to the ethos of pared-back, even austere approach to food in Japanese and Scandinavian food. But then I’m biased, having spent my gap year in Japan, there is no other food – with the exception of Spain – that excites me as much as Scandinavian food as that you find in Japan.
I hope the recipes and anecdotes accompanying the blog posts here and eventually in my book will convey something of the magic of Scandinavia and its food. It’s not as esoteric as you might think. There is so much more to our little corner of the world than herrings and meatballs – excellent though they are.
Velbekomme as my grandmother used to say before a meal!
With thanks to Lucy Pope for the photos