Less than 10 months after the opening of our restaurant “noma” November 2003, head chef, manager & partner Rene Redzepi and I took the initiative to organize “The Nordic Cuisine Symposium”. The day before the symposium September 2004, at an 18 hour long workshop, some of the greatest chefs in our region formulated the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto. The Nordic Cuisine Movement was born!
In 2005 the Nordic Council of Ministers adopted the manifesto as the ideology of the New Nordic Food programme which is supported by extended national development programmes. Today the manifesto is a guiding light, not just for visionary chefs, but also for an increasing number of small and large food companies, who have found a new way of communicating with ambitious consumers.
The Nordic Cuisine movement - informal, open and democratic - is widely considered the strongest and most important culinary revolution ever in the Nordic region.
In the end of the 19th century Danish farmers succeeded in transforming a ruined grain export into an agricultural export adventure of almost unbelievable impact: Our butter and bacon won the battle in the global market place. Danish agro business delivered what was asked for - perfect bacteriological standards, uniform quality and competitive prices.
In the last century the big agro companies further increased the series, and successfully sought for cost efficiencies in all areas of the production cycle. Farms were turned into factories; animals were considered as mere production equipment. The average milk output from a cow doubled in the period from 1945 – 1990. Chickens gained their final weight at half the time and with half the fodder. The usage of fertilizers and pesticides exploded. Small uncompetitive companies were swallowed and closed.
The unambitious home market demand was mainly the result of a 300 year long evil partnership formed by ascetic doctors and puritan priest. In together they have led an antihedonistic crusade against the pleasure giving qualities of food and against sensuality as such. The idea of organizing beautiful meals with great food has been considered a sin. The philosophy they so successfully communicated was that if you just ate something of inferior taste and did it in a hurry instead of enjoying too much you would get a long healthy life and end up in heaven.
Things have changed since. However when in 2003 we opened noma, we would never have guessed that less than 4 years later, after record steep climbing, we would have won 2 Michelin Stars and be nominated no 15 in the world according to Restaurant Magazine – and especially not with a Nordic restaurant concept.
Though the concept, the restaurant and our partnership was my idea, I can not claim much credit for the Michelin Stars. I am much more simple in my cooking. Nomas success is first and foremost due to Rene’s talent. On the other hand, he would never had gone that far so rapidly if I had not invited him into to this particular culinary journey where it was no longer allowed to lean on French foie gras, Spanish ham and Italian olive oil.
In the beginning everybody doubted that we could create a great restaurant relying entirely on local produce. Some even made fun of us and called us names. How should we attract customers in wintertime? We on the other hand were very inspired and rather confident. In our first menu we wrote, that we would redefine the Nordic cuisine so that it embraces the arctic area and brightens the world by virtue of its taste and unique character. A few months after the opening of noma we invited the gastro-intelligentsia to a Nordic Kitchen Symposium which is today considered a milestone in this culinary movement. The most outstanding chefs of our region formulated a manifesto that has later been entirely adopted by the Nordic council of ministers.
The basic idea was to unite chefs and farmers in all countries, small and big companies, politicians and private people around a common idea: to define the contours of at new Nordic cuisine - something to strive for, a vision that could be a guiding light to us all in our daily work in our farms, food companies and restaurants.
It was rather controversial that we also invited CEO's from what by some foodies were considered “evil monopolistic empires”. But we believed in a heliotropic approach that if you share the idea in public with them, they have the capacity and therefore also the obligation to do something beautiful and make the greatest possible products.
We never wished the new Nordic Kitchen to be an elitist, introvert, gastro-fetishist movement, it should be open, democratic and accessible to everyone and we wanted the values from the manifesto to live in our everyday lives and in our hearts.
In the Nordic region we are few people but we have lots of nature and we possess – even in excess - what may be called: unexplored territory. When we gather fungi, beech leaves, birch juice, ram son, chick weed, wild berries or plants. When we catch slow growing cold water fish and shellfish or when we milk cows grazing in pastures or on commons, we deal with primary produce which has been exposed to very little cultural influence. An old and well balanced eco-system is the perfect expression of the terroir in question as it has evolved gradually over centuries. Whatever we find out there is unique for our region.
When it comes to the cultivated landscape, we benefit from at huge diversity and furthermore the seedling is being conserved in the Nordic genebanks which represent a treasure of genetic resources. We have registered 700 apple varieties, 200 horseradish species, 110 sorts rhubarb and I could continue like that.
We have got Mosc ox, reindeer, juice turnip from the arctic area, king crab, slow growing Limefiord oysters, Greenlandic ice water flounder, grouse – the one bird in the world than in the most intimate way communicates the flavours of its territory, ancient local cow, pork and lamb varieties, more than 50 species of wild berries from the forests; broke berries, cloudberries, artic bramble, cowberries… Berries that have only been sampled and tasted by few people outside the Nordic region.
Maybe the most important feature is the rather unique Nordic territory - our soil and climatic conditions. If we are going to talk about Nordic cuisine as more than just a modern manmade creation, what is it then that makes the Nordic countryside and the Nordic cultural landscape so unique? Shortly the influx of light, the long cool growing period and the high temperature variations particularly during spring and autumn.
Nowhere on earth do we find a temperate climate so far from equator. There are two reasons for this: firstly, the Nordic region essentially has a coastal climate, with mild winters and damp summers, and secondly, the sea currents contribute to the favourable growing conditions. The Gulf Stream ensures that the most northern part of the sea around Norway is free from ice, and the Irminger Current, a branch of the Gulf Stream, breaks off south of Iceland. It flows south of Greenland and up along the west coast of keeping this coastal stretch ice-free throughout the year as far north as the Arctic Circle on the 67° N parallel.
Due to the northern location of our region, the light conditions are quite unusual. Our long dark winter is followed by a summer with wonderful days that are much longer than those of our southern neighbours. Light is energy. It is used by the plants to make phenols, proteins, oils and other interesting compounds. When we have plenty of light we also have plenty of potential for taste.
The Nordic terroir has been blessed with other beneficial factors. Temperature variations especially in spring an autumn but even in summertime where the hot days are often followed by cool nights create a very unique environment for plant growth. When the climate changes the plant has to keep up; it has to adjust to survive. For obvious reasons it cannot simply move…. so it has to change its structure and its biochemical make up. During the long period of maturation it forms complex aromatic compounds, particularly bitter substances and acid components, which it would not form anywhere else in the world.
The turning point for the revitalization of Spanish cuisine was innovation in restaurant cooking.
The New Nordic Cuisine, on the other hand is very much about the quality of primary produce.
These years more and more Nordic farmers and food producers are trying to make unique primary produce refined products with a clear Nordic identity. Even huge companies such as Carlsberg, Arla and V&S Distillers explore the new ideas. Carlsberg for instance built a micro brewing facility that coasted more than 11 million euros. And more and more consumers and chefs value food that derives from the many thousand year old ecosystems which are almost untouched by mankind and which may give us the impression of eating from Gods hand.
A part from the impact on the quality of our lives it is beyond doubt that such a more ambitious form of producing and consuming food will have a favourable effect on the future fertility of the soil, the amenity value of the cultivated countryside and on the preservation of our agrarian history.
This new kitchen ideology is not at declaration of war against Thai food, Mexican mole or sushi. It is not at crusade against pizza. We don’t feel any affinity with nationalistic ideas.
We just think that food from our region deserves to have a voice in the choir of the worlds other great cuisines.
Forgive me if it sounds too much like a fairytale.