The book uncovering Europe’s great hidden cuisine
Nordic cuisine is a huge, under-examined aspect of European culture - Magnus Nilsson plans to change that
You are no doubt aware of the rise of Northern Europe. Nordic start-ups such as Spotify and King have changed modern consumer computing; the triumph of Nordic Noir crime fiction, both on the page and the screen, is well known, as is the success of Nordic clothing brands like H&M, Acne and Cos. And of course there are the chefs, such as Noma’s René Redzepi, and Magnus Nilsson, the man behind the Fäviken Magasinet restaurant, currently ranked 25th on the 50 Best Restaurants List, and author of The Nordic Cookbook.
Yet could you cook, order, or even describe Nordic meal, in the same way as one might prepare an Italian, French or American lunch or supper?
Nilsson, a Swede, understood well the rise of his region, but also knew that certain cultural components had been left behind. The culinary traditions and practices of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden remained a lacuna within popular cookery.
Some difficulty lies in the place itself. “I don’t consider myself Nordic,” Nilsson explains in his introduction. “I am in fact Swedish, or possibly Jämtlandian. I think most other people living in the Nordic region feel the same way.”
Yet Nilsson also saw that, by limiting his ambitions to a simple Swedish book, he was slighting a region that, despite its borders, retained a cultural and culinary homogeneity. And the more Magnus looked into the subject, the more he realized there was a genuine need for a geographically far wider ranging book.
Nilsson, a renowned perfectionist, read all of the 400 or so titles on the market on cooking, baking and entertaining in the Nordic region. Of these, he found the English language publications were often worst, giving readers only vague glosses on the area’s culinary habits.
There was an exception, a Time-Life publication, yet this was published in 1968, and could hardly be expected to reflect today’s cookery trends. Local-language guides fared better, offering a faithful description of the food cooked in the region. Yet they tended to assume a level of familial knowledge, passed down from parent to child, which meant that, even if a general reader could overcome the language barrier, they would still be prevented from gaining a true understanding of the food.
So Nilsson began would what turn out to be a two-year research process, travelling across the entire region, exchanging emails, clipping newspaper articles, making annotations, conducting polls, carrying out interviews, collating lists of tips, and discussing techniques with anyone and everyone including home cooks and foragers, butchers, fishermen and housewives. He shot 8,000 images and took many more notes
“The total number of notes, newspaper cut-outs, search engine printouts, audio recordings, transcribed interviews, recipes from old and new books, scribbles on napkins, email conversations and data from the polls when I put an end to the research came to just over 11,000 articles,” he tells Phaidon.
But how could he ever marshal this into a cogent book? In the spirit of his topic, Nilsson enrolled a little family help, from his aunt Brigitta, and some professional assistance, from Professor Richard Tellström of the Örebro University in Sweden.
They both assisted Nilsson in shaping the raw knowledge he'd collated into a palatable volume. In the new book you will not only come across recipes for Nordic dishes known throughout the world, such as gravlax, meatballs and Christmas gingerbread, but also hundreds of more esoteric dishes, including Finnish cabbage soup, sprats in sandalwood, and puffin stuffed with cake.
There are recent additions to the dinner table, such as Nordic versions of pizzas and tacos, and dishes that, to an outsider, might seem more at home on the backstage rider for a Nordic death metal act rather than a cookbook – blood pancakes, anyone?
Just as importantly, The Nordic Cookbook records and contextualizes a hitherto underreported side of European culture. The book covers the sweep of the region’s history, from the Vikings up until the present day. There are notes on Royal hunting rights, the influence of minority Sami and Roma peoples, as well as the culinary changes brought by the arrival of potatoes, sugar, kerosene lamps, and modern refrigeration.
Read this and you’ll recognize the kind of simple, geothermic ovens Icelanders use to cook their traditional rye bread, and appreciate how one might collect Guillemot eggs, with the help of friends, a length of rope and a pick-up truck.
The book serves to complement Nilsson’s wonderful Fäviken book, and sheds light on the kind of cookery featured in our Noma title. From a cultural point of view, it sits well alongside The Silver Spoon, India, Mexico, Tacopedia and Thailand The Cookbook.
This handsome, 768-page hardback also reproduces the best of Nilsson’s landscape and documentary photographs, as well as some exquisite images by the esteemed food photographer Erik Olsson, which are worth the cover price alone. Yet it is the depth of cultural understanding that truly sets this book apart.
As such, The Nordic Cookbook’s usefulness isn’t just limited to the kitchen. As professor Tellström says in his preface, a recipe is sometimes the best way of describing a tiny aspect of a culture, “which is what a dish always is.” So culturally as well as gastronomically, there’s a lot to explore here. You can order The Nordic Cookbook here, and check back soon for more from this exciting, important title.