Nordic food culture – A historical perspective
Henry Notaker is a well- known Norwegian historian, specialist of books and articles about food, culture and history. He has got awards for journalism on food history, he was responsible for TV series about food and history in the 1990’s, and he is currently teaching in food history at the universities in Bergen and Agder and at Akershus University College (courses on food culture). Henry Notaker is a member of the editorial board of the scientific journal Food & History. He has published almost 20 books on food in Norway, Nordic countries and Europe, as for example the two last ones: “Food culture in Scandinavia” (in 2009 at Greenwood Press) or “Printed cookbooks in Europe, 1470-1700 : a bibliography of early modern culinary literature “ (in 2010 at Oak Knoll Press). More info at: http://www.notaker.com/
1Virginie Amilien: Henry, you are one of the “world-known” Norwegian culinary experts. Already in 2000 you published an article called “Do we have a national Food Culture” in a Norwegian journal. Twelve years later, the Nordic Food Manifesto is now well established in the western culinary landscape and I would like to ask you – quite directly- : “Do we have a Nordic Food Culture”.
2Henry Notaker: Arranging the characteristics of a geographically-limited food culture, for example a Nordic Food Culture, becomes a rather complicated mosaic work. It becomes complicated even though we only concentrate on the raw materials and dishes, as I have done. We must initially make clear which time period we are talking about, present or past. We must also continue to be aware of the many geographic, cultural, and social differences which exist within the area included in the Nordic Council.
3VA : So we have an initial complexity in the concept of “food culture” and a second one in the concept of “Nordic”....
4HN : Yes.. First of all, the region is divided into nations where there are clear notions of national dishes. This means dishes which are consciously or unconsciously connected to the identity of the nation in question and which are considered part of the nation’s food culture. The problem here, as with any debate on nationalism, is to identify a lasting definition of the national food culture. Is it a food culture which is both representative of the whole nation while also being unique and special in relation to other cultures?
5In Norway, mutton stew (fårikål) is often referred to as a national dish. We know now that dishes with combinations of mutton and vegetables exist in different forms in the majority of the countries along the North Sea. The form which is used in Norwegian fårikål is meat and cabbage, which are added alternately to a pot. This is a dish which exists in German cookbooks from the 18th century, spreads northward to Denmark, shows up in the elite Norwegian cookbooks in the 19th century, and becomes part of the Norwegian national diet around the beginning of the 20th century, thus less than a hundred years ago.
6In a book on European culinary traditions published by the Council of Europe for some years ago, the chapters on Sweden and Finland are devoted to the national dishes of these two countries, köttbullar [meatballs]. According to the author, both countries thus identify these dishes as representative of their own nation, dishes which otherwise don’t deviate so much from the typical Danish frikadeller [meatballs] and the typical Norwegian kjøttkaker [meatballs]. Between the Nordic countries’ varieties, the similarities are greater than if one goes to the Spanish albondigas or Turkish köfte, but the principal is the same, and it is difficult to use this as a starting point for a shared Nordic food culture. As one can see, however, the national has less to do with what is actually distinctive than what is experienced as such. Now it will soon be added that there is not a special Nordic phenomenon. In Italy stoccafisso is regarded as a national dish, but it is actually based on the introduction of raw materials from Norway, albeit adapted to local ingredients.
7If we move away from the national to the regional, we encounter similar problems. In the Skåne region of Sweden people make many dishes with their black soup, but according to Swedish ethnologists this is also found in other regions, including parts of Denmark. In the reverse, I believe mämmi or memma, a Finnish Easter dish, has its origins as a regional course in the southwestern part of the country. It eventually became a national dish.
8It is not only a question of national and regional dishes within each of the Nordic countries. There is a community across the borders, something which in part has to do with differences and similarities in the natural conditions of the region. It is no surprise that many coastal areas have a similar food culture where the drying of fish is common. The most renowned area is, of course, Northern Norway, where cod is dried until it is almost completely rid of moisture. For over a thousand years, this dried cod (called stockfish) from Northern Norway has been shipped to other Nordic countries and the rest of the world. Fish was also dried - or salted and dried - along the coast of Iceland, in Bottenviken, in the southern part of Norway, and even on Jutland. Tørre jyder, which could be translated as “dry Jutlanders,” is an expression which often repeats itself in Danish history. It is said among other things from the Jutland West coast, that fish was divided like the Norwegian dried cod, then folded and laid out to dry. While the Norwegian dried cod was placed on cliffs in the northwest part of the country, in Jutland - where there were no cliffs - they either laid the fish out on the rocks or simply on the sand. In northern Sweden and northern Finland it was also a tradition to dry freshwater fish, such as pike. This is mentioned in Olaus Magnus’ large work from the 16th century, where he also mentions the custom of soaking fish in lye. The origin of lutefisk has been a subject of simple contention between Norwegians and Swedes.
9VA: That’s funny because pike was not so popular in neighboring countries, like Norway, is it not? And what about of soaking fish in lye: is this really a Nordic way of conservation?
10HN : I personally believe I can say with fairly strong certainty that the practice of soaking fish in lye is not an original Norwegian tradition, even though the actual raw material of dry fish is. I have found recipes for lutefisk in German cookbooks, Swedish documents from the 16th century, and Spanish and Polish cookbooks from the 17th century. The lutefish tradition in Norway began in the late 18th century, when the stockfish prices sank as a result of competition from the more popular klippfish (dried and salted cod). Today is it connected to national identity both in Sweden and in Norway and even amongst those with Scandinavian heritage in the American Midwest.
11Fermenting is another treatment of the fish that is done across The Northern part of Scandinavia. Fermenting is used in both Norway and Sweden on salmon while it is only used on herring in Sweden. Surstrømming is a method which was also common on the Norwegian West Coast until the 19th century and was used on so-called pickled herring. In Iceland this is used on shark, in a process which not only conserves the meat, but which also eliminates or neutralizes a natural toxin in the fish. This method also exists outside of Norway, in the circumpolar regions in Russia and Japan.
12As it can be seen from the examples of lutefisk and rakfisk, regional Nordic dishes have kinship with dishes and regions outside the Nordic boundaries. This obviously applies to regions such as East Finland, where there are similarities with Russian food culture, such as pirogues and a lack of red meat.
13VA: Russian food culture has had an important impact on certain aspects of Nordic food culture, and it is the reason why we also included Russia and Baltic countries in this special issue on Nordic food culture. But is there any other country which is not geographically a part of the Nordic countries and that might have been involved here?
14HN: Another such area outside the Nordic region comprises the northernmost parts of the British Isles, particularly the Shetland and Orkney islands, but also the parts a bit further south. In this area there is naturally a long connection with the Nordic world, a result of the many centuries old settlement which began with colonisation during the Viking era. On these British islands we can find examples of dry, flat bread which is baked with oats and barley. In some parts they still don’t even use the word barley, they call it bigg (which closely resembles the norwegian bygg). The breads are baked on stone slabs just like our flatbread (flatbrød) and thin bread (tunnbrød). Nowadays they most often include some sort of yeast, but originally these breads were unleavened. A traveler from the 17th century would have been likely to find a piece of bread to be crisp and thin as paper, about the same description Olaus Magnus gives for the Nordic flatbread.
15On Shetland there are different dishes made of fish liver (fiskelever) and mixed with flour, completely analogous to the historic dishes documented in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.
16In the northernmost region of Great Britain there are also many traces of a milk culture reminiscent of the Nordic countries. To touch on a few linguistic examples, they call kjernemelk, the liquid left over when making bread, “kirnmilk” and not “buttermilk” as elsewhere in Great Britain. There is also a drink made of buttermilk or whey mixed with water, and often fermented, which goes by the name of “bland,” which is the Nordic blanna or bleng, which has been the typical, everyday drink for many centuries.
17VA: The Northern part of Europe is traditionally described as “milk/ butter” culture in opposition to ”oil” cultures in the south. Is there any remarkable difference, within Nordic countries or regions in milk production and consumption? Any different or similar types of products?
18HN: When we talk about this milk region, we are particularly speaking of the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. These are areas with more livestock than grain. I have found the memoirs of a Norwegian woman which provide a good example of the difference between these regions such as it was about a hundred years ago. She visited Denmark as a young girl in the beginning of the 19th century. There she was served øllebrød (a dish made of bread, sugar, and beer with a low alcohol content) for the morning meal, a very common Danish dish for beginning the day. But she didn’t like this øllebrød and asked if she could make the Norwegian øllebrød to which she was accustomed. The fact that there actually exists such a difference is confirmed by the recipes in the widely read cookbook from around 1900 by the domestic science teacher Ingeborg Suhr. So what is the difference between the two dishes? Well, the difference between the Norwegian and Danish øllebrød was that Danes cooked the bread cubes in beer with possibly a little cream and sugar on it. The Norwegian øllebrød consisted of beer cooked with milk, often more milk than beer, and then perhaps some bread cubes or a bit of sugar on top. This dish, which without a doubt came to Norway from the corn country of Denmark, was transformed and adapted to conditions of the “dairy country” in Norway.
19It was characteristic for dairy pasture areas to be a sæter or støl as we say in Norwegian, faböd in Swedish. These could be translated as a mountain farm, summer mountain pasture, where the dairy production took place during summer. One of the characteristics of these farms in Norway and the north of Sweden was the effective use of whey myse in Norwegian, vassla or mesa in Swedish) the sugary liquid which is left over after cheese production. In Iceland, where there was little access to salt, whey was often used as a preservative for meat. It is still used this way for example to store the acidic sauetestikkelposteien.
20In northern Sweden and Norway they cooked whey into whey butter (myssmør), or whey cheese (mysost), messmør, or mesost in Swedish. Milk was seldom or never consumed sweet or fresh, it was almost always sour. Sour milk was primarily served together with porridge, a behavior which was also common in Denmark, at least in the summer months. A special sour milk variation known from Sweden and Norway is tettmelk or tätmjölk, named after the dense grass herb tettegress or täturt, pinguicula vulgaris. According to popular tradition there are combinations of this herb which trigger the acidulating process (syrningsprosessen) but this has not been scientifically proven. Also, many of the cheeses in this area were made of sour milk, which was boiled until it coagulated, and was made into gammelost and pultost, both kinds of cheeses.
21The northern regions of the Nordic countries were especially characterised by what we call a “storage economy.” Because of the harsh winters, where there was either snow on the ground or a lack of grass for grazing, it was necessary to ensure that food was preserved, such that it could last through the winter months. In many ways one can easily say that the dry, flat bread and knekkebrød crackers are a part of the storage economy. This kind of bread lasts a long time, “If not from a child’s birth to his wedding,” as Olaus Magnus claimed. We can also see the production of cheese and butter as a part of the storage economy. Even though both butter and cheese eventually had other functions, partly culinary and partly economic, the production of these two dairy products was one way of preserving milk. But it was meat and fish in particular that was preserved through drying, salting, smoking, curing, and fermenting, or most often a combination of the different methods. This is no longer something restricted to the aforementioned region. The storage economy was naturally a part of many regions of Europe, at least in those areas where there were mountains. The popularity Italian Parma ham and Spanish Serrano have reached today shows this well. The storage economy predominated in other parts of the Nordic region as well, even though it wasn’t practiced in Denmark as much as in northern Scandinavia. In Denmark, smoking played an important role, as did salting. In fact, salted food dishes always pop up in old descriptions of food.
22VA: Your description shows an incredible and constant mix of people, food, methods, know-how, and culture in the Nordic countries. Geographical similarities or differences make it difficult to speak about one Nordic food culture... but what about social classes, or social distinctions, or differences between rural and urban areas?
23HN : What I have said thus far about Nordic food culture concerns primarily the peasant/ farming population (bondebefolkningen) in the countryside, which up until the 1800s represented the great majority of the people in the Nordic countries.
24Culture is never a static entity, not even a food culture. It is constantly evolving and transforming, partly due to outside influences. In the 17th and 18th centuries, these changes were primarily connected to the elite in the manors and in the cities, and were more pronounced in some countries than in others. The large population groups, however, held onto the old traditions all the way up to the 19th century during which time, over the course of the century, they witnessed a clear change in diet. This was in part due to the potato’s revolutionary meaning, which created new meal patterns for all levels of society. However, amongst the common people, particularly the farmers (bondealmuen) there was also talk of a transition from the old storage system to a modern form of food culture. There was gradually more sweet milk than sour milk, in part through new forms of preservation, such as pasteurizing, and new methods of distribution. There was a transition from salted, dried, and smoked meat to more fresh meat, partly via new preservation methods such as canning, but also through cooking and frying of fresh meat. There was also an increased consumption of fruit and vegetables, which in the past had been eaten in very small quantities by the farmers. There was also a transition towards the use of Dutch and Swiss cheese types. In Denmark, there was Dutch production of cheese in the so-called hollenderier already in the 18th century, while the Swiss cheese experts came in hundreds to Norwegian farms in the 19th century and gave the name to a new type of specialised farmworkers, sveiserne (dairymen).
25What happened with the common people (almuen) can be described in many ways as a transition towards a food culture which was already established amongst the elite and the urban middle classes. In many presentations of traditional food culture, the attention has been directed exclusively on farmers’ food, while the food of the elite and urban population has been viewed as imported culture and therefore has not had the same nation-building interest.
26When it comes to the elite, Sweden and Denmark occupied a special position, historically, with both a court and an aristocracy. These were the circles which always followed the fashions, and therefore did not eat so differently from their peers in other European countries. That is, they prioritized soups, wild game, fresh meat and fish, exclusive goods such as asparagus, preparations of fruit with sugar, and so on. It is thus characteristic that the Nordic cookbooks edited before 1700 were all translations or adaptations of German and French works.
27VA : Sweden and Denmark were then different from the other Nordic countries, with an aristocracy , who was strongly influenced by Germany and France. What about Norway, Iceland and Finland?
28HN : Norway did not have an aristocracy. Rather, from 1660 with the establishment of absolute monarchy in the kingdom, there were around 2000 officials in Norway who were either Danish or educated in Denmark. Some of them lived in the cities, but quite a few lived on farms in rural areas. They were like little oases of urban and elite culture in a big sea of farmers with contrasting financial ability. Iceland was in a similar situation with a number of strongly influential Danish civil servants while for a few centuries, Finland’s elite were strongly characterized by Swedish influence.
29VA : So were the Nordic elite a core group with a restricted number of people, obviously living in the cities? Did this have any direct impact on food culture?
30HN : When it comes to urban food culture, it must be immediately stressed that no cities in the Nordic countries had a middle class urban food culture on par with Paris and similar cities. Copenhagen and Stockholm had restaurants. Bergen, as a result of the Hansa connections, had a feel for the food culture of the large, Northern European commercial cities. Yet, in the Nordic countries there is little of the sophistication that characterizes France, compared to the majority of Europe. Nonetheless it was clear that the food in the cities had another feel about it than in the countryside, and the strong urbanisation in the 19th century meant that continually larger groups came in direct contact with urban culture. Urbanisation also meant that fewer people were directly connected to agriculture and the food culture which was based on the farm or village’s own products. Increased transport and distribution patterns allowed increased access to the so-called ‘‘colonial goods”. The industrialisation which characterised this period, translated into new and cheaper technical engineering such as meat grinders and cast iron stoves.
31At the end of the 18th century and especially throughout the 19th century Norway experienced increased nationalism with an emphasis on cultural traditions in literature and music, and one would expect a similar search for old culinary traditions. Yet, the first Icelandic and Norwegian cookbooks had recipes taken directly from Danish cookbooks. As for the first Finnish cookbook, it was fairly simple, a translation from Swedish, where the translator was none other than Elias Lonnrot, who was particularly concerned with Finnish identity.
32The new types of dishes were further dispensed through the development of the education sector, particularly through the household management schools (husmorskoler) and school kitchens. They were further synchronised in the Nordic countries through a new kind of nutrition and diet thinking which was essential for both schools and healthcare.
33VA : Could we then speak of an institutionalisation of food culture, both through financial and educational support, and through a sort of standardisation of the main nutritional values? Or because of the welfare states, would it hence be more or less difficult to see the differences between Nordic countries?
34HN: It is not difficult to see the differences in the food culture when one travels around the Nordic countries. Yet it is also easy to see a number of similarities. We see these similarities in the supermarket’s selection of ingredients, immigrant shops, roadside and fast food options, exotic restaurants, and in recent years also in the finer restaurants. The Nordic countries have developed highly refined dining with cooks who have won international awards. But what is obvious is that their cooking resembles more the French cuisine than the traditional, national cooking. It is the fundamental concept in French cuisine which characterises all renewals of cuisine, whether it be Mexican food in a café in Santa Fe or Chinese-Japanese food at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The same holds for the Nordic countries.
35VA : This point, underlining a ”traditional national cuisine” on the one hand, and a ”French culinary grammar” on the other hand, is very interesting... It seems that we find this distinction in several definitions of “national” cuisines, perhaps because they all are in competition at the European, or world, level?
36HN : ....What is most interesting for us is possibly the highly successful concept that goes by the name of Mediterranean cuisine, or the Mediterranean diet. This began with a survey conducted by American nutrition researchers in the 1950s throughout Europe. The researchers looked at eating habits in seven regions of Europe and found that in many of them a high consumption of animal fat coincided with a high frequency of heart disease. In a few regions in the Mediterranean, Greece and Southern Italy, they found that heart diseases were rare. They linked this to what is defined as the Mediterranean diet and consisted of low consumption of animal fat, lots of fresh fish, olive oil, bread and pasta, and vegetables. The Mediterranean cuisine soon became a commercial success, and has now been adopted by both the tourist industry and many producers of raw materials. Yet, even though it is true that this combination can be good for one’s health, particularly for the heart, it is not certain that there is a correct term for the many different culinary traditions around the Mediterranean. A large, serious work of history published in Italy a few years ago covered what they called the myth of the Mediterranean cuisine. This work showed that the poor in Italy did not eat as had been believed, they lived of potatoes, corn, lard, and legumes. The so-called Mediterranean triangle - wheat, olive oil and wine - is something that only exists on the rich man’s table and in the poor man’s dreams, wrote an author of this work. He called the whole Mediterranean diet a post-modern design.
37And this is may well be something what we can learn from. We do not have a shared historic Nordic food culture which we can sell to others, but we can create a new Nordic food culture built on the products we know which hold their own in a contest and the preparations of which Nordic chefs have shown the value. What is important is not that it is historically correct, but that there is a high culinary quality.
Virginie Amilien, « Nordic food culture – A historical perspective », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 10 January 2013, connection on 23 March 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/7014Top of page
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