Recently I staggered home from Cardiff City Library with their copy of NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi, head chef of NOMA in Copenhagen (“The Best Restaurant in the World™”). I should make it clear I borrowed the book on my library card. If you do likewise, I suggest leaving a wheelbarrow outside the library to help you get the volume home (don’t worry – there’s currently a low incidence of wheelbarrow theft in central Cardiff).
There seems to be a competition among alpha-male celebrity chefs (see also: Ferran Adrià, Heston Blumenthal) to produce the biggest, heaviest and most expensive cookbook. I believe Nathan Myhrvold is currently winning with his 2,438 page, 40 lb, £395 r.r.p. book Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (suck on that Redzepi). I like reading these books, despite knowing I’m never likely to eat in the actual restaurants. I did see the outside of NOMA on a recent trip to Copenhagen, en route to a Tivoli snackbar.
NOMA is a fascinating book, which traces the origins of the restaurant. The main challenge, and the main source of interest for me, is this: How do you go about presenting original and seasonal Nordic cuisine year-round to the highest possible restaurant standards. When the idea was first hatched, top-end Danish restaurants served mainly French and Mediterranean cuisine and the idea of NOMA was not taken that seriously (jokes about seal blubber, apparently). Redzepi has certainly proved his critics wrong.
The best-reading section of the book comes early on. It is a diary of Redzepi’s initial research trip through the Nordic region, looking for inspiration and potential suppliers for the restaurant. He takes in Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Finland and northern Scandinavia. Here, the core idea of foraging for wild ingredients takes hold. Among the memorable dairy entries are descriptions of eating raw puffin and whalemeat, and live langoustines: “you can still feel the meat pulsating in the mouth.” He learns that there are 59 types of edible berry growing in the Nordic Region (actually, he probably knew this already being a clever sort of bloke). The diversity of seafood and edible flora gets his mind racing.
The second section is of photographs: Noma dishes, Nordic scenery and food producers. The food is picturesque. Colour is important, with red and yellow dishes a particular feature. Circular swirls of sauce help to unite the components of the dishes, which frequently contain elements representing the wild habitat from where the main ingredient was found.
The final section of the book is the recipes, which refer back to and make sense of the photographs of the dishes (it is sometimes unclear how the dishes relate to their titles). These are not recipes to do at home, unless you have an off-kitchen laboratory (equipped with thermomix, water baths, Pacojet, vacuum bags, refractometer etc.) and several assistants. They are however inspiring, like conceptual art, and give an essential insight into why Noma is so highly regarded.
Unusual ingredients commonly used include hay, for smoking food - with the ash being used for organic effect - and malt (a brewery by-product) that's also used to create ‘soil’ and landscapes on the plate. Milk skin with grass and herbs, and dessert of wild flowers, are signature dishes. Crabs, sea urchins, scallops, squid and other seafood are often combined with foraged seashore herbs or berries. You could be served bulrushes, violets, elderflowers, spruce shoots, juniper or wood sorrel, with fresh cheese or tartare of beef. You get the picture.
So is there anything a cook in Cardiff can learn from NOMA? The main thing is that food is out there for the taking, and foraged food should not be looking down on or regarded as inferior to ingredients sourced from a high-end supplier or deli. Indeed, handling ingredients from picking or harvesting all the way to the plate, Redzepi suggests, gives you a better feel for the food. There are plenty of berries, nuts, fungi, herbs, wild flowers, seaweeds to be foraged, for instance, in the Vale of Glamorgan (most recently blackberries, sloes, haws, mushrooms), and it’s free.
Cardiff’s library copy of NOMA is now safely back on its groaning shelf (I’m currently in training so I can borrow Heston’s Home Cooking). I don’t think they have the Myhrvold in yet.
Copenhagen Food Diary: