Seaweed and bog myrtle? Yes please

IT is a bright spring day in the gentrified area of Christiana in Copenhagen, and the houseboat that is the Nordic Food Lab – or the ministry of bonkers food as it should be known, is a hive of activity. Birch twigs are being slowly cooked “sous-vide”, to be turned into tea. Buttermilk is being infused with sugar kelp and rennet to become a soft cheese, and bacon is being boiled down to produce an alternative to one’s morning cup of earl grey. Leathery bundles of seaweed sit there pickled, dried, and give off a faint whiff of wet dog. Yet this unlikely setting is also the slightly mad epicentre of the Nordic food revolution: one of the biggest gastronomic events since Heston Blumenthal decided to turn his breakfast into a rather delicious ice-cream.

Set up by chef Rene Redzepi – whose Noma restaurant, which stands just opposite the boat – won the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World award for the second time this year, its purpose is to explore and promote nordic cuisine through research and develop recipes.

Some of these recipes find their way onto the legendary Noma menu, such as seaweed crisps, or the bacon broth over fresh cheese; others they are hoping to make commercial, such as a feta cheese with seaweed.

This is all good and well but does seaweed alone maketh this cuisine the best in the world?

This is put to a test later in the day, when NFL’s head chef Lars Williams prepares a four-course meal for us at Copenhagen's catering school, using a variety of different, yes, seaweeds, with surprisingly tasty results. Salmon with beach herbs and red seaweed dust goes down a treat, as does chicken with white asparagus and spruce oil.

It is when dessert comes that I wonder whether we are really at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – ice-cream made from red dulse seaweed is served with a beetroot reduction, and finished off with a fine sprinkling of fish scales. Nil points for taste, ten out of ten for creativity.

Yet pretty soon it becomes apparent that there really is more to Nordic food than seaweed. Passionate about promoting the flora and fauna of their land – including romantic-sounding delights such as bog myrtle, beach coriander, elm seeds and wood sorrel – a group of chefs is creating some of the most original and sumptuous food in the world.

One such chef is Klaus Henrikson, ex-sous-chef at Noma and now at the ethereal and insanely beautiful Dragsholm Castle, an hour’s retreat from the city (and, I am told, where all the great and good of Copenhagen come to conduct their affairs).

The dishes sound – and taste like something from a fairy tale. Poached lammerfjord oysters are served with perfect little pearls of potatoes, dill oil and pickled seaweed. Asparagus appears to be buried in a little pot of earth, which turns out to be malted “earth” with a sorrel emulsion underneath.

One of the tastiest cocktails I have had in years is a hackberry sour – branches from the marzipan-scented hackberry tree are minced and added to sugar and water and left for a few days, then drained and added with lemon and rum. It tastes of sweet almonds and slips down a treat.

We also get the chance to sample some of the more delicious cheese Denmark has to offer. Dairy Arla is producing small lines of artisan cheeses, again with nordic terroir in mind. One made with elm and another with beer is particularly tasty.

It is laudable what they are doing – as Soren Wiuff, who forages and supplies much of the produce to Noma and Dragsholm explains, many of these plants were native but unused and they have been brought back into production.

Mr. Wiuff brings his own bottle to the lunch, in the form of asparagus beer – not bad – and designed to be eaten with the green spears themselves.

It becomes apparent that a few things stick out in endlessly mouthwatering dishes that come our way over the next few days. The ingredients on the menu are almost all gobbeldygook to me but are combined to create some of the best food I have had in my life. And where they save their most esoteric moments are for their desserts, which more often than not sound like starters.

At celebrity chef Bo Bech’s new place, Geist, opposite the opera house, guests are seated around a bar facing the frenetic kitchen. Hair-dos and minuscule frocks suggest it is not just a foodie destination but the hot seat du jour. Or perhaps its the blonde Maitre’ D, with killer cheek bones, who turns out to be Denmark’s most famous ex-porn star, Katja Kean. And the food, such as fjord shrimps with elderberry and smoked milk, and turbot with fennel ravioli of cheese – is excellent. Then there’s those savoury food desserts: there’s vanilla ice-cream with black olives; a soup with beer and bread; and a beetroot creme brulee.

Although the nordic food revolution began ten years ago or so, it is Noma that has really put it on the map. Opened seven years ago by Rene Redzepi, it is passionate about promoting the land’s food, unearthing treats from the earth that have lain forgotten and making sure everything is local (“local” can mean Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands). In the private dining room his culinary quirkiness and capability is revealed.

The display of flowers on the table turns out to be made up of edible crispbreads, that are dipped in juniper cream.

A kilner jar is brought to the table with a live shrimp – a feat of derring-do as we struggle to capture the poor beast as it flies onto the table in a bid for freedom. No crueller than an oyster I tell myself.

Next up, a giant box in the shape of an egg is opened: a haze of smoke curls up from a bed of hay, on which sits a delicately smoked quail’s egg. Some things – such as dried scallop chips on grass barley risotto – are a food revolution too far for me, although everyone else is wolfing it down. However, his giant langoustine, which has been cooked sous-vide and served with seaweed emulsion, is the sweetest I have ever tasted.

When I meet Redzepi backstage after the meal he is holding one of the most revolting creatures I have ever seen: a geoduck (Google for some truly

disturbing images), which his sea forager, Roderick from Scotland, found in the icy depths of Faroe and is now deciding how to turn into a gastronomic masterpiece. If anyone can do it, he’s the man.

Rene has been busy picking and preserving roses, ramson fruits (like garlic) and the like, for the lean months next year – heaven forbid the sugar snap peas are flown over from Kenya when the Nordic ground is frozen.

So here’s the thing: you eat like a king – no guilt about food miles, and taste things that you will never eat anywhere else in the world.

One thing is for sure though, the only way to be part of this Nordic food revolution is to get on a plane and go there yourself, and there are worse places to be a greedy revolutionary than Copenhagen. www.nordicfoodlab.org

WOODRUFF EXTRACT, FERMENTED SPELT... INSIDE THE THE NORDIC FOOD LAB
THE Nordic Food Lab is a hive of intense creativity and pioneering. The group involved is hell-bent on innovating with taste and ingredients, with an emphasis on those straight under their noses. Which is why some of them – certain types of seaweed, plants and grains are not familiar to most Europeans.

The NFL’s activity is divided into several research areas. One is “Forest Under the Sea” – an exploration of five different types of seaweeds (the best results have been with the red, Icelandic seaweed ”søl”). NFL is currently one year into an ageing programme for harvested seaweed.

Another research area is “New Fermentation: Chasing Umami”, an attempt to pin down that hard-to-define sixth taste that is synonemous with “yum” and most present in Asian food. NFL is looking at “how microbiological manipulation techniques like ageing, fermentation [and] the use of bacteria cultures could further the possibilities in a range of products” and is currently fermenting indigenous cereal types such as spelt, emmer, einkorn, yellow peas and barley.

More audaciously, NFL is also trying to make the “best chicken in the world”. The project is based on a wholesome approach to the chicken as a food product, focusing the quality of life, space and living conditions, species, age of slaughter, feed and everything that contributes to flavour and texture of a chicken.

Then there’s the work with the Nordic Gene Bank: mapping the flavours of several original Nordic species in order to resurrect forgotten indigenous foods and to preserve biodiversity. So far, the NFL has mapped the flavour and application value of several types of species like potatoes, turnips, rhubarbs, and peas.

This is the real deal: taste-lovers stirring the pot of creativity, science and sustainability.