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What is Nordic food?
An Englishman's notes on Nordic impressions.
I am in the home my wife grew up in. The kitchen table is laid out with milk, pudding rice, rye flour and the golden light of a setting sun. Late winter in south-west Finland. The room is heavy with the scent of creamy wild mushrooms enjoyed for dinner alongside roasted local rainbow trout. Bellies are satisfied for now, but thoughts have already turned to breakfast tomorrow. And, for my wife at least, a Finnish breakfast can't be so-called without Karelian pies: delicate little parcels of paper-thin rye pastry filled with hearty rice porridge. A simple food, but one requiring love and care (and practice) to make well. Making these is all that's needed for the evening's entertainment.
Meeting my Finnish wife set me on the path to becoming a chef all those years ago. And when I started to learn about the food of her homeland, it continued to inspire me as well. It taught me how much more there is to food than simply what we see and taste. It taught me about the rich and endless story, often one of struggle and imagination, of nature and how people find enough to eat. This is a story shared among cultures across the world, but in Nordic cuisine this story is particularly well expressed.
When I first started cooking in Sweden, I was asked by English friends to define “Nordic” food. It remains a question for which I've found no simple answer. Is it really all high-concept, Noma-style experimentation? Variations on different types of preserved fish? I knew it was more than this.
Whereas the year-long bounty of ingredients available in, say, Italy or Spain helps define their globally popular cuisines, things are altogether less clear in the Nordics. Instead, any definition is one that must see food as a part of a larger system. A system that connects ingredient, environment, technique, and philosophy.
Environment and ingredient
A long warm season from spring to autumn blesses the Nordic countries. The land offers countless and beautiful fruits and vegetables. Vibrant summer squashes and brassicas, indigenous fruits such as musk-perfumed cloudberries and astringent sea buckthorn, the deep and haunting mushrooms of late summer and autumn. Great root crops are synonymous with northern European cooking and the Nordic frosts make those growing here particularly sweet. From the cattle of the Stockholm archipelago to the freshwater fish of the Finnish lakes and shellfish of Norwegian waters, the Nordic diet celebrates and takes indiscriminate advantage of what the land offers (truly, the range of fish on offer here is remarkable and I always regret not being able to buy freshwater fish for my family when I go back to England).
One of the ways Finnish food in particular distinguishes itself is in its bread. The traditional grain of Finland is not wheat, of course, but rye. And if there is only one thing I convince you of in this note, it is for you to try proper Finnish rye bread one day. I grew up believing rye bread to be that dreadful pumpernickel stuff. But Finnish rye bread, though not light and fluffy like the wheat bread I adored as a boy, is truly a thing of dark, savoury and flavoursome beauty.
All this produce is elevated and complemented on the plate by the vast range of herbs that come to season in summer both in sweet or savoury dishes. With a limited growing season, using ingredients as widely and creatively as possible is a distinctly Nordic thing to do.
The price for this time of plenty is the long winter that follows. The ground will harden, the light will fade, and little will be able to grow at all. In many ways, the story of Nordic food is the story of how people act in the fertile season to prepare for this dark winter. But preserving food here is as much to do with maintaining the vibrant flavours of summer as it is mere sustenance itself. This is where the importance of salt, smoke and acid to the Nordic palette comes into play.
Technique and philosophy
Salt will dry a cod of such little moisture that it will remain edible for months. Salt will start fermentation of root crops, green vegetables, even berries to offer sustenance when the fields are bare. The antibacterial qualities of smoking fish and meat ensures their future use. Pickling will keep vegetables both vibrant and edible and preserve aromatic flavourings such as pine shoots, dill flowers and ramson berries to be enjoyed through barren months.
Eating "in season" is often considered a moral imperative in the food world today, but in a region where half of the seasons offer so little, it isn't a possibility in Nordic cuisine. The relevant "moral" impulse here is one of seasonal preservation. Eking the most out of ingredients in this way is, quite rightly, a popular choice in modern "no-waste" cooking, but it is a prerequisite of Nordic cuisine.
The byproduct of preserving produce in this way is an abundance of salty, smoky and acidic flavours that have defined the alphabet of Nordic cuisine. Dishes are heavily seasoned and sauces often lighter than those found on the continent, the use of acidity more pronounced. (Note: maybe my palate is destroyed from years of professional cooking and over-seasoning, but when I travelled to America some years ago I was struck by how delicately seasoned I felt my food often was compared to what I had become used to in Sweden)
A traditional Swedish sauce may indeed be rich, buttery and full of cream, but there will be the addition of, perhaps, the ramson berry pickling liquor mentioned above. The result is a sauce of deeply integrated herbal and acidic flavours. This balance between preserved and fresh flavours is reflected in the cuisine's use of produce as well: a compromise between the pleasure of fresh ingredients and the need to preserve them for use tomorrow.
Preservation is the most explicit form of this no-waste cooking, but it extends to the pragmatic way in which Nordic cuisine embraces foreign ingredients. Rice in Karelian pies, cardamom spices in Swedish pastries. Some of the region's most iconic dishes include distinctly non-Nordic produce. But with such ingredients becoming economical to import over time, the philosophy of using everything at ones disposal saw that a place was found for them within the local cuisine.
The relationship with food here, one of pragmatism, respect for the ingredient, and frugality, is inseparable from the Nordic view of nature itself. The "right to roam" and freedom to take responsibly from the fruits and vegetables the land provides is enjoyed by citizens across this region. Picking berries in summer, mushrooms in autumn is not just a source of enjoyment but even a responsibility. A collective stewardship of the land demonstrating respect for its history, a desire to make the most of its bounty today, and a determination to see its conservation secured for the future.
To understand a plate of Nordic food is to understand its temporality and place within this larger ecosystem. The connection between the meat and the animal, the fruit and the earth.
But those Karelian pies…
They say so much to me of Nordic cuisine. Simple, nourishing and hearty. The recipe has evolved over hundreds of years, but at heart they remain unchanged: a small rye pastry filled with porridge. When first created, this would be a barley porridge. Potatoes subsequently became the starch of choice when first introduced to the country. Then, in the 20th century, rice became the standard when importing it became cheap enough. From a recipe based entirely on what was native, it adapted to use what was most readily available. It was a logical choice, a choice informed by necessity, sense and what fitted with regional taste.
To define Nordic cuisine is to reference the ideas and philosophies that lie behind it. The closeness with nature, an understanding of the limits the seasons impose, a sense of respect for what one does with the fruits of the land. In as much, it is a constantly evolving cuisine, one open to great experimentation and creativity. Nordic fine-dining restaurants are world-famous for the way in which they push the limits of technique and flavour. But as far as those limits are pushed, a Nordic identity remains absolute. It does so because of its understanding of place and the creativity that came before.
To enjoy a truly Nordic dish is to enjoy something not far removed from nature.
And nature is a very creative place indeed.
- Karelian pies (Finnish: Karjalanpiirakka)
For the dough:
1 tbsp oil
130g rye flour
40g plain flour
For the filling
200ml pudding rice
1 tsp salt
1 Onion sliced
1 bay leaf
My recipe is a little untraditional in that it flavours the milk a little with onion and bay. It’s not totally necessary but I think it’s a nice touch.
Get the filling going first by infusing the milk with bay and the onion. Meanwhile start boiling the rice in the water for 5 minutes. Then, when the milk is infused and taken on the flavour of the onion and bay, strain it into the rice. Let that cook slowly for 30-45 mins being sure to not let it catch on the pan. Add the salt and let it cool completely.
Now the dough. Mix everything in a bowl and work it together before rolling into a bar. Then cut it into about 20 slices. Roll these out very thinly so they are only a couple mm thick. You’ll need a pretty well-floured surface for this. Then spread a thin layer of rice porridge on top, but leave a 2cm gap around the edge. Be careful not to overfill! Then get crimping the edges so you have something approaching the picture at the top of this post. Have fun with this, they are supposed to look terrible the first time you make them.
Then bake in a hot oven, say, 250C for 15 mins. They are best slightly brown on top. Baste with a lick of butter straight from the oven.
They are great fresh from the oven, but also reheated in a toaster. Serve with cheese, butter, egg butter (the traditional Finnish accompaniment of chopped eggs mixed with butter) or my favourite: marmite.