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Snapshots and portraits Part 2

Organized ferocity / The organized wilderness
Instantanés et portraits, deuxième partie - Férocité organisée / La Nature sauvage organisée
Anders Holst Markussen

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The stories of new Nordic flavours, live reptiles at the famous Restaurant Noma, and culinary memories from one’s own childhood are all never-ending sources of seduction for the big city gourmet1

  • 1 The interview with René Redzepi took place in Noma, March 2012, and a part of the text was original (...)

1The journey from Copenhagen’s centre to Restaurant Noma, situated in the historic shipyards where Danes once prepared for battle against Swedes, feels like a pilgrimage. The midday light pours onto the quayside, reflecting off the restaurant’s dark windows. It is said that the dishes served up inside are portals to the mythical North, to landscapes overflowing with sensuality. The majority of Noma’s clients, like those of the now semi-defunct El Bulli, are readers, not eaters. Newspaper columns, trying to forget the financial crisis, all promote appetising escapism with the same story: in hip Scandinavia the superstar of the gastronomic forager movement poses alone on the beach, gathering herbs.

Wild nature on the plate

2Nature is persistently thematised in Noma’s kitchen. Sometimes it’s a microcosm of wild nature. Other times it’s the nature of childhood, with the diner playing the child sitting in the grass stuffing everything into its mouth. In 2005 headchef and co-owner René Redzepi created the child-friendly ‘flowerpot with roots in potting compost’ – green mayonnaise covered with a ‘soil’ made of malt flour roasted with nuts. Later, the game became more sophisticated: quail egg was served with hay and smoke, all hidden in a large porcelain egg. Sometimes nature is there in the visual presentation, such as green leaves in a compact stack – there’s no cutlery provided so you have to dive in with your fingers. Wood sorrel covers steak tartare with horseradish, juniper berries, and rye bread croutons accompanied by a swipe of tarragon puree. In the mouth it’s a clever combination of finely-balanced, complementary – but also violently clashing – flavours. The foliage contributes a sour and bitter freshness. While some courses show a particularly visual representation of nature, others evoke it with intense flavours. Creamy and sweet tastes make way for bitter and ethereal aromas like those from unripe berries. These flavours invoke associations with the very taste of the wild. Is it possible to be affected in the same way by a piece of foie gras?

The early years

3I can still remember my first backstage visit to Noma. René was in the kitchen handing out tasters on a spoon. Half-raw Faroese langoustines sautéed in rosemary on one side, meat fried with more rosemary and a stout sauce, vegetable desserts, a chlorophyll-green garden sorrel granité, milk skin ‘condom’ and øllebrød (beer and rye bread) cooked in cream. That was some seven or eight years ago. Since then, Noma’s kitchen has been improved and streamlined in line with its increased renown. And since last year it has been led by Matt Orlando, previously of Per Se Restaurant in New York. Matt has undertaken a logistical reorganisation of Noma, which at the moment employs 40 chefs, 18 of whom are stagiaires. The function room on the first floor has been supplanted by a production kitchen, test kitchen, herb garden, and open-plan offices. The spaces are exquisitely integrated into the old building and are the showpiece of this well-oiled machine.

4Where is René in all this? When he’s not travelling he’s at the computer, occasionally in the test kitchen, working the service and “at least once a week” out in the wild. Speaking of the new phase the kitchen finds itself in, René says:

“The first five years at Noma, everything was so simple. Every day we tried new ingredients. The first time you taste ground elder, it’s completely new. It’s so easy to season with ground elder, chop it up and sprinkle it over fish. The first time you taste cloudberries, it’s a revolution in your mouth. I was so enthusiastic. For example, we would replace raspberries with cloudberries in classic raspberry desserts. We worked with pre-existing recipes, merely substituting some ingredients for local ones. These were existing tastes, techniques and formats. Without exception! Now nearly nine years have passed and of course we no longer discover a wealth of new ingredients. We find ourselves in a new phase, where we have achieved a much greater understanding of what the ingredients are capable of.”

Longings for the wild

5How far can Redzepi go in trying to transport his clientele into the wild?

“That’s the big question. One possibility is to serve something living. This winter we’ve been serving live Baltic prawns. Boiled Baltic prawns have always seemed so boring to me but then I tasted them raw, straight from the boat: the light salty coating, the wonderfully soft, warm juices from the head and the creamy, raw flesh from the tail. It was fantastic. You can begin to follow how the prawn’s taste changes depending on the place of its capture, if there was a lot of wind, and so forth. Every night we have guests who react with disgust to the live prawns, but there are fewer and fewer of them. That type of story spreads quickly, ha!”

Do your guests long for the wild, for real nature?

“I don’t think they long for it. They are just people who are used to eating out. The guests come to Noma to experience nature and to broaden their horizons.”

6TorstenVildgaard is a creative souschef and René’s business partner. He has worked at Noma for several years. His job is to assess ingredients and, with René, to transform their ideas into finished dishes. In contrast to René, Torsten draws explicitly on his own childhood landscapes:

“City people like us might recall a particular moment of nature from childhood. I thought about how I remembered ants. The dish that resulted from this inspiration became an edible bouquet, a little bridal garland with salad leaves, flowers and deep-fried kale. On the side, a dollop of crème fraîche, on top of which live black ants were thrown.”

A happy gatherer

7When the food on the plate is served like some kind of extract of nature, perhaps to be eaten with your fingers or even ‘killed’ before you eat it, then you yourself become the happy gatherer. The original hunter-gatherer’s existence was, after all, about survival. Such dishes ‘merely’ strive for a modern, civilised version of nature. Wild nature unnaturally placed. Anachronistic.Idolising nature in this way has innumerable precedents. There are parallels in horticultural art. Food presented at the Bocuse d’Or has a symmetry and perspective that brings to mind the baroque gardens of the 1600s, where monarchs demonstrated their power over nature. The romantic English gardens of the 1700s were a wilder version – a reaction to a population increasingly alienated from nature. Not so far removed from the food at Noma. The fact that live ants and prawns are served at a gourmet restaurant, of all places, can only be seen as a good thing: the sense of boundaries being crossed is only heightened. In serving up living things, a food taboo is challenged.

8Historically, insects have rarely been eaten in the Western world. However, the EU is currently financing projects to promote their consumption. The idea is that eating insects could help to ease the global food crisis. People living around the Amazon know that black ants taste of ginger and lemongrass. The Brazilian gourmet chef Alex Atala has already worked with ants. They have a natural flavour. At Nordic Food Lab, various insects are being fed with, among other things, pine and verbena as an experiment to give flavour to their otherwise nearly tasteless flesh. The goal is to find flavourful arguments for eating insects.

Saint Redzepi

9He nearly spits these last words out. René purging his mind to keep himself open to new possibilities. He is constantly surrounded by people: his staff, journalists and family, but in interviews René is most often posing alone, surrounded by nature. Traditionally critical media like The NewYorker, the New York Times, and Time magazine write plaudits to him, accompanied by photographs of René alone on a beach, with windswept hair and a beard, collecting bitter herbs, wearing the same signature knitted sweater. Only such a solitary masculinity can recreate original, feminine, and unspoiled nature. While many chefs like to have their name embroidered on their fresh-pressed whites, René stands in the same simple, short-sleeved chef ’s jacket as his staff. There’s something monk-like about him. Yet one can hardly imagine another chef with a profile equal to, or higher than, that of René the Creator. But he’s not the hallucinating prophet speaking in tongues, he is more the self-controlled rationalist trusting his intuition, his oratory abilities, his band of chefs. René laughs at my characterisation of him as some kind of monk, but admits a certain asceticism.

10René’s acolytes also endure a certain sacrifice. For the predominately young male employees, Noma is characterised by long working days. Total dedication is demanded. They pledge a vow of silence so that internal matters are not revealed to the outside world. As in a monastery, Noma’s visiting guests must also submit themselves to a series of rituals. The dogma of using locally-sourced ingredients regulates what may and may not be eaten. During set eating times the Creator’s work is enjoyed in devout solemnity, a kind of communion. The kitchen has written its own gospel, built on fragile moments of nature, or ‘distilled moments’, as René calls them. “It is important that we have made our mark and have done something that won’t just disappear.

11René turns away from the darkness of the room, so that the afternoon light reflected from Copenhagen’s harbour catches his widening pupils, an acknowledging light on the face of the monk. Of René’s many faces, it is the monk who has become the iconic face of Nordic gastronomy, the authentic Local-Nordic cuisine, or whatever one prefers to call it.

Paradoxes in Nordic gastronomy

12But to what extent does a Nordic cuisine even exist? Outside the region, Nordic food is still associated with banal products such as Lurpak butter, Danish bacon, and Ikea’s Swedish meatballs. Even foodie-tourists can at times be led to the same conclusion, when after making the pilgrimage to Copenhagen they have difficulty finding restaurants with modern Local-Nordic characteristics. Instead, they find interminable Danish-South European restaurants. Noma has stood alone for some time. There is a gap between what is talked about as the new big thing and what people actually eat in the Nordic countries.

13I was involved in writing the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto of 2004. It was the chefs themselves who introduced the three words “simplicity, purity and freshness” to the manifesto. However, the majority of the text was prepared in advance by people with connections to Copenhagen Business School and the political scene. Perhaps that is why we have seen companies and politicians make use of the manifesto as a pretext for marketing their own ventures as ‘New Nordic’.

14That Denmark, of all places, should become associated with nature and the wild is paradoxical, given the country’s sparse wilderness. This flat country is dominated by modern, intensive landuse. In contrast to the other Nordic countries, there is no right to commercially forage in Denmark. Perhaps that is why city people, far from the deep woods, rugged rocky coastlines, and glaciersharbour a deeper longing for the wild? With the current concern over pollution and dwindling food supplies phenomena such as unspoiled nature and people living in a sustainable pact with their surroundings are themes that can both fascinate and challenge the big city gourmet.

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Notes

1 The interview with René Redzepi took place in Noma, March 2012, and a part of the text was originally printed in the Magazine Fool 2012.

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References

Electronic reference

Anders Holst Markussen, « Snapshots and portraits Part 2  », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 14 January 2013, connection on 24 April 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/7309

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About the author

Anders Holst Markussen

Freelance journalist and food writer with a focus on Nordic gastronomy, Anders Holst Markussen has a MA in Nordic Literature from the University of Copenhagen; his thesis examined and challenged the norms of culinary reviews. He is now about to complete a book on the Nordic kitchens; e-mail: anhoma@gmail.com

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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