The fine art of Nordic cooking

Melissa York
Follow Melissa
The haunting Swedish landscape, from where many of the ingredients in this book are sourced

Chef Magnus Nilsson has compiled the definitive guide to the subtle art of Nordic cooking. The Nordic Cook Book combines a series of stunning photographs of his epic culinary journey through Scandinavia – from the grandiosity of the frozen fjords to simple strips of mutton hanging to age in a Faroese warehouse – with recipes and diagrams on how to prepare this minimalist cuisine.

The tome also incorporates food photographer Erik Olsson’s simple aerial shots to showcase dishes like smoked salmon and lingonberry jam and less familiar aspects of Nordic cuisine that were unearthed along the way, such as pork roasted with prunes and juniper and honey beer. And yet this book nearly didn’t happen at all...

When a publisher approached Nilsson with the idea, he thought it was “impossible.” Besides, he said, he considered himself to be Swedish, not part of a vague, Scandinavian collective. “To write a book on Nordic home cooking in general is about as stupid as to write one on European cooking, lumping Estonia, France and Portugal together into one work that will never be deep enough to explain anything,” he says.

But the more Nilsson thought about it, the more it seemed he had to do it because he was the only one who could. He’d already published an influential book on the subject, Faviken, which is also the name of his fine dining restaurant. Set in a remote part of northern Sweden on a 20,000 acre hunting estate, it remains an exclusive gourmet hideaway that currently occupies number 25 in San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. He’s also spreading the art of Nordic cooking throughout the US on the Emmy award-winning TV show, The Mind of the Chef, and the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table.

Although he was starting from a place of expertise, Nilsson thought the best way to tackle this daunting task was to buy up every second-hand book he could find on the subject online. He riffled through 400, dating from 1755 to the present day, and found that the majority of them “really suck.”

“Most of the time the food in them is a vague reflection of something that is a bit restauranty and central European in style, but with lingonberries added to it. I am perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but it was almost that bad.” The main point they’d missed though was the opportunity to put these recipes for pickled herring and meatballs into context: why did Nordic people eat them and why had they endured as staple dishes for centuries specifically in that part of the world?

Nilsson decided this would be his way in and the only way to really present an accurate picture of modern Nordic cuisine would be to take a collaborative approach. He travelled over 1.3m square miles, studying regional variations in Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the Faroe Islands. Nilsson also set up an online questionnaire where contributors could submit recipes of their own.

After two years of research, publisher Phaidon – which has previously published similarly hefty tomes on Mexican and Thai cuisine – came knocking and Nilsson found he had enough material for 11,000 articles. The result is a 770-page paean to the Nordic way of life as much as it is an artistic depiction of its cuisine. Historical essays sit comfortably alongside the stark beauty of the desolate landscape, which in turn are interspersed with humble plates and saucepans filled with hearty stews and delicate pickled vegetables.

“This book is not about me and my work as a chef,” says Nilsson. “I merely documented what was there already, what was created by others. It tells the story of a big and diverse universe of food filtered through my way of looking at things and my way of telling you about them.”

The Nordic Cook Book by Magnus Nilsson, Phaidon, £29.95

Related articles