It’s Time you Saw the (Northern) Light and Discovered this Haute Cuisine
Scandinavia, sitting pretty like three elongated fingers and a thumb (talking to you, Denmark), is sometimes overlooked by travelers heading to Europe. Known for the Aurora Borealis, home of Santa and his (delicious) reindeer, minimalist asthete and more recently, an author who penned a titillating trilogy, the region has millennia of history, culture and cuisine.
These are the lands of gorgeous, and according to many surveys, extremely happy people. Even when day to turns to night for months at a time. What’s their secret? For starters, a full belly of delicious food, which goes beyond bland potatoes and herring.
A certain blue and yellow colored store containing products with distinctively difficult product names is the closest most of us get to Scandinavian design. The simplicity of form is carried from furniture and into food. The sustenence on the plate may date back to the Vikings, but today’s chefs are plating dishes with a modern twist on history.
Dine Like a Viking
There’s something poetic about eating as the Vikings did a thousand years ago. Culling their cuisine from the cold North Sea, they loved oysters and mussels, cured salmon and whale. Today, families revere the esoteric tastes of the past. Denmark prepares the salmon with sugar, salt, white pepper and dill for an updated, more palatable version of this Scandinavian classic called gravlax. In Norway, a whale steak properly marinated and seasoned can taste as good as beef. Recipes have been passed down for generations, like folk legends that get better with age.
A Smörgåsbord of Scandinavia
The word “smorgasbord” comes from Sweden, and is commonly found at American weddings and parties. It was first brought to the States at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, at the Swedish Pavilion’s “Three Crowns Restaurant.” This celebratory meal allows guests to help themselves to a range of dishes, served buffet style. In Norway it’s called koldtbord, and in Denmark, det kolde bord.
What’s on the menu? An abundance of fresh seafood, including salmon, shrimp, cod and Baltic herring. But not all is from the sea: lamb, chicken and pork, reindeer and meatballs, likely smothered in lingonberry sauce. And then there are the potatoes, cooked in a dozen ways. What did you expect? Only boiled? Just another misconception of Scandinavian food.
A Shot During Dinner
Wash it all down with the local favorite akvavit. Created since the 15th century, this distinct liquor is flavored with spices and herbs, the main ingredient being caraway or dill.
The drink is an important part of Scandinavian culture, often drunk during a formal procedure called “drinking snaps.” In Denmark and Sweden, a small shot of a strong alcoholic beverage is taken during the course of a meal. In Norway, akvavit is matured in oak casks and served at room temperature in tulip shaped glasses.
Typically, this tradition is held during Christmas and mid-summer when the lights dim for days.
Open Faced Sandwiches
In Denmark, a 300-year-old tradition of open-faced sandwiches survives. If looking for a lunch on the cheap, head to a smørrebrød take-out shop. These tasty sandwiches are a typical Danish lunch, and come pre-wrapped and ready to eat on a park bench or the train. Tradition calls for three sandwich courses: herring first, then meat, then cheese. If on a budget but want a true taste of where you ARE, bypass the American chains that have sprung up in Copenhagen.
The Sweet Side Of Scandinavia
For a region that has a love affair with the sea, Scandinavia is also filled with bakeries, or konditori. In Denmark, you’ll find a golden pretzel sign hanging over the door or on a window. Thanks to the Viennese who brought the art of pastry making to Denmark, you’ll enjoy wienerbrød, or “Vienna Bread.” A mid-afternoon pastry stop is the perfect anecdote for a tired traveler.
The most popular ingredients are marzipan, almonds, hazelnuts, chocolate and fresh-from the-field berries, bridging the gap between earth and table. We’ve all eaten those sweet, buttery Danish cookies out of round tins filled with different shapes. (I love the little pretzel with sugar on top.) In Norway, locals eat krumkaker, delicate cone-shaped cookies. In Sweden, choklad biskvier are almond cookies topped with a chocolate butter cream and iced with dark chocolate. For something with a kick, taste pepperkakor, a crispy, thin ginger snap.
Lutefisk – If You Dare
Lutefisk, Norway’s traditional inedible has a bad reputation. Like Scotland’s haggis or eating beating cobra heart in the Mekong Delta, Lutefisk is not for the faint of heart. To preserve cod back before refrigeration, the fish was air-dried and cured to preserve for the winter months. When it was time to eat, lye was added to pull the salt out, then rinsed. The preparation? Poached and served with boiled potatoes, white sauce, peas and fried bacon. How does it look? Horrific.
Today, fresh cod is available year-round, but eaten mostly around Christmastime to connect to the past.
No matter what country’s cuisine you dare to taste, each forkful contains a bite of history, a story told. In Scandinavia, dig in to the era of Vikings and of frigid winters, where preservation of food meant preservation of people.
After thousands of years, it’s clear Scandinavians have done something right.