Food & Drink

On Nordic Cooking

by Alex Redgrave May 31, 2018
ReadOn Nordic Cooking

It takes vision and guts to run a restaurant located 470 miles north of Stockholm and serve only locally sourced fare. With the exception of salt, sugar and a few otheressentials, chef Magnus Nilsson looks to his immediate surroundings to create the menu at Fäviken, catching fish in a nearby pond, foraging for wild juniper branches to make a rustic seafood smoker, and preserving lots of food in the cellar to last the winter. The 16-seat outpost has quickly become a pilgrimage for many leading chefs and was named one of the top 10 restaurants in the world in 2013.

What is perhaps even more ambitious is Nilsson’s latest endeavor: The Nordic Cookbook (Phaidon), a compendium of the recipes and cooking traditions of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and the Faroe Islands. Nilsson travelled to each country, meeting and photographing experts and home cooks over a two-year period. The result is a culinary travelogue that will take pride of place on our bookshelf. We recently spoke with Nilsson about his tips for food preservation, why spontaneity is the key ingredient to travel and how to make his favorite drink for the holidays.

A theme that carries through the book is preservation—of ingredients but also of cultures, almost like you were an anthropologist.
Yes, I kind of always feel like that with my work. It was very important for me to show all the background as a way to relate back to why we eat the way we do in the Nordic regions today, but without making the book overly nostalgic, so there’s more recent culinary history that developed in the last 30 years. For example, there’s a recipe for a gooey chocolate cake called kladdkaka that only started appearing in Sweden in the 1970s. Now it’s one of the most popular desserts in the country. You can actually follow the recipe’s progress through different cooking publications over time. The cake is very flat and sticky, almost half raw, without the use of any baking soda or baking powder. It’s probably not a stretch to assume the dessert came about when someone made a typical chocolate cake but forgot to add the baking powder or baking soda. The “failed” sweet was left on the table and someone tried a bite and thought it was delicious. In earlier versions of the recipe there is soft butter, which you need to make a fluffier cake. Now the butter is melted and cooled to create a denser dessert. People started developing this “mistake” collectively, unknowingly… There are loads of examples like that in the book.

The recipes are so wonderfully rooted in place and the reader is completely transported. How do you envision people in, say, Mexico, recreating the dishes?
That’s the most interesting part of publishing cookbooks internationally. I tested out the recipes—which we whittled down to about 800 in the book from a mass of material I had accumulated. I also got help from experts in each Nordic country. Then a random selection of recipes was sent to several testers around the world to see how the dishes would turn out in the different places. The idea of a perfect recipe is fundamentally flawed from the beginning, I think. Food is a living material that changes and varies. The only thing a recipe can do is to point you in the right direction. Use it as guidance for making a dish while being aware that it might not turn out exactly as it looks in the photo. That doesn’t matter anyway as long as the dish is tasty!

Do you have any favorite cooking traditions or tips to share?
For something like pickling, I like to make one big batch since it doesn’t take that much longer and you have to clean half your kitchen either way. I prepare 40 jars that will last the whole winter instead of two jars that will be eaten in two weeks. Plus, your pickle will always be better than a store-bought pickle and much more satisfying because you made it yourself.

In the book you visit home kitchens rather than only record recipes from chefs in the region. There’s a very naturalistic approach to the photos and texts. How did you find these stories?
That was the smallest problem. If you go out into the world looking to experience things in an unbiased way, it’s amazing how much people want to show you. The most successful research trips I did for the book—and I took many over two years—were when I went somewhere with a specific subject to cover, and then had extra days to hang around. If you allow yourself that window of time and you’re curious and open, you get invited into people’s homes. That’s how much of the book happened: purely by coincidence. I met so many people I wouldn’t have found if I had been looking for them.

According to Nilsson, “If you go into a Swedish home anytime after the first week of December, there will be glögg.” The Nordic version of warm mulled wine is best accompanied by a spicy sweet, like a crisp ginger snap. 

preparation and cooking time: 30 minutes
macerating time: at least a week
makes: 4 ½ cups

750 ml young red wine
1 knob fresh ginger
1 vanilla bean
5 cardamom pods
20 cloves
2 cassia cinnamon sticks
10 black peppercorns
1 orange, sliced (rind and all)
1 lemon, sliced (rind and all)
100 ml sweet Madeira
150 g sugar
a dash of Cognac or Calvados
3 tablespoons honey, or to taste

note: Choose red wine and brandy that are young and not too oaky. Often the simpler and less expensive brands are the best for this kind of drink.

1. Combine all of the ingredients, except the honey, in a sterilized lidded glass jar. Seal tightly and leave to macerate for at least a week. Agitate the jar from time to time so that the sugar doesn’t just sit at the bottom but dissolves into the wine.

2. When you are ready to drink the wine, strain it through a fine-mesh sieve straight into a pot. You don’t have to use it all at once; you can strain just the amount you need and leave the rest to continue macerating. If the spices become too strong, then add a splash more red wine as you heat it, and perhaps some extra sugar.

3. Heat the wine gently, adding honey until you think it is sweet enough.

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