The Nordic Food Lab fuses the finest gastronomic traditions with cutting edge science to thrilling effect, writes Craig Sams
You have to hand it to the Danes. They took over Britain in 1066 and have ruled it with a firm hand ever since. Now Nordic Food is where it’s at with food technology. This isn’t the food technology that destroyed the health of a couple of generations when, back in the 60s hired liars in white coats assured us that hydrogenated fat, DDT residues and carcinogenic flavourings and colourings were good for you and that sugar was a vital source of energy. This is food technology that takes the best of past tradition and combines it with cutting edge science. The heart of this progressive movement is the Nordic Food Lab, sited atop the Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen.
Voted World’s Best Restaurant year after year, Noma is the only restaurant in the world to have 2 Michelin stars despite not having tablecloths (OMG!). I chose the vegetarian options but with egg and dairy and paired juices. Then the fun began. I sipped a thyme-y herbed apple juice as we awaited the first of 20 courses. Highlights of the petite starters included rye flatbread with rose petals, crispy deep fried cabbage leaves sandwiching a filling of chopped samphire held together with a watercress puree, reindeer moss with ceps, smoked pickled quail’s egg, a boulet of blackcurrant and roses and a lovely baked onion in walnut oil. My accompanying juices included: cucumber with yogurt whey; apple with Douglas fir pine needle; celery and seaweed; nasturtium; salted grape and lingonberry; each pairing perfectly balancing the course it accompanied.
The ‘mains’ were also superb, I haven’t eaten beechnuts in years because they’re such a fiddle, but they were perfect with butternut squash and kelp ribbons. The roasted and braised lettuce root was a revelation, served with St. John’s wort – opiates and tranquilisers in one dish. Puddings included aronia berries with an ice cream centre. Oh, did I mention the ants? Wood ants, of course, served on a charcoal roasted green bean. I mentioned to our waitress Cat that I’d shove my hand into wood ants’ nests in Burnham Beeches (where I used to forage for beech nuts) just to enjoy the unique physical pleasure of ‘formication,’ where hundreds of ants’ feet run up and down your arm (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). She responded that was how their forager harvested them.
After a four-hour gastro-journey, a Geordie called Stu took us into the front kitchen where we saw how the person who served your food also took the final steps of preparation. Then we visited Lars, the enzymologist who makes fermented sauces out of almost anything and has bred cultures from Japanese koji that perform miracles when added to fermentable carbohydrates. We bonded when I told him about how I started using enzymes at Ceres Bakery back in 1972 – they are the key to making good sourdough breads. We also looked at his garums, savoury sauces historically made by Romans from anchovies, but his included beef and other protein sources. We went upstairs and met Rene Redzepi, the creative force behind Noma. We chatted about Slow Food, school meals, how kids can be raised on good food at home and then be corrupted on the first day at school, cooking with burdock root and eating biochar. I’ll send him some of my biochar oatcakes
To enlist science in the interests of human health, local integrity, artisanal quality, organic production and, above all, total and unalloyed deliciousness is a dream we’ve all dared to imagine from time to time. At the Nordic Food Lab I have seen the future, and it’s wild, wholesome, fermented, smoked, cooked, raw and yummy. It is reinventing food culture and marking a path that anyone anywhere can follow. You don’t have to be Danish to do it. Noma is a university that is turning out chefs and artisan food biotechnologists who are going to change the way all of us eat. The Nordic approach will work anywhere – it’s about building gastronomy on a foundation of local geography and protecting your natural environment by eating it.
I asked Stu if some of the people who worked there had ambitions to open their own restaurant or food business. He replied “All of them, if they don’t then they shouldn’t be working here.”
• The Nordic Organic Food Fair, the leading organic food event for the Scandinavian region, takes place in Malmo, Sweden, on 26-27 October 2014.