My knife plunged into the beef with an audible crunch, pop, and sizzle.
I looked up at my sister as we both laughed in surprise, and continued smiling as I finished cutting my first bite. The unique outer crispiness of the meat gave way to a perfectly juicy interior, resulting in a sound more similar to slicing into a calzone than a ground beef patty.
We were sitting in Copenhagen’s oldest pub, which felt more like a casual bistro than a bar, and I was about to try the dish recommended by our waitress/bar tender/proprietor?
“The Paris Beef, it’s very good,” she had said. “It’s not from France… it’s very Danish.”
Sign me up!
“Very good” turned out to be an understatement. The beef was juicy and tender, with just the right amount of crunch adding a surprisingly enjoyable texture. The plate was surrounded with seasonal vegetables, horseradish root (a first for me), and raw egg yolk to pour on top of the beef. Paired with a traditional Danish beer (“The best we serve” according to the waitress), and this was local, seasonal fare at its finest.
Did I get on a plane and land in real food heaven?
Now For Some Context
I recently spent four days in Copenhagen, where I was visiting my sister who’d been studying there for the semester. A break to clear my head and relax was long overdo, and touring a beautiful European city with 16 hours of springtime daylight was the perfect way to do it.
But (surprise, surprise) it was the food that really blew me away.
Really though, there’s something special going on in Scandinavia, and I had no idea before my trip. With my sister’s local expertise (thanks Eileen!) I was exposed to a Danish culinary scene I hadn’t seen during my first visit as a college student in 2008. We ate traditional meals that were surprisingly delicious, consciously prepared with seasonal ingredients, and full of flavor and freshness found in food that could only be locally sourced.
Meals like the one described in the opening to this post were the norm, not the exception. The food seemed fresh, local, and organic, without having to use buzz words to say so.
Everywhere we ate there was beef that tasted like actual beef, fresh fruits and veggies, and real herbal tea. Even the traditional rye bread popular in Denmark was obviously less processed than what we see in America, and was often topped with pepitas or some other healthy seed.
I left every meal nodding my head thinking these Danes really get it. From what I saw, the country seemed to have somehow resisted the grip of “Food Inc.” and boasted an amazingly authentic culinary culture.
The food seemed clean, local, and seasonal, and was served with a tangible sense of pride.
But it turns out this wasn’t always the case. I was amazed to hear it took a conscious, formalized effort to change the way a country views its food.
From Principles To Practice
It apparently started with Danish food entrepreneur Claus Meyer opening his now-acclaimed restaurant Noma in November 2003 with established chef Rene Redzepi. Noma has since won two Michelin stars, and been named No. 1 at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards four out of the past five years. Meyer’s vision was to showcase what Nordic cuisine could be to the world, and I’d say he’s succeeded.
(Side Note: I went to Noma’s website before my trip, and saw they only allow reservations three months out from the current month. Unsurprisingly, they were all booked while I would be in Copenhagen. Bummer, but at least my wallet’s happy :-P)
But Noma was only the start. Meyer made an arguably greater impact shortly after opening the restaurant when he organized a symposium on “New Nordic Cuisine.” It sounds super vague on its own, but in preparation for the event Meyer worked with 12 chefs from the region to author what became the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto. Meant to define principles for the future of Nordic food, the chefs hoped the Manifesto would inject pride into the region’s food culture, giving it equal footing with the world’s great cuisines. (Think Italian, French, Japanese)
Unlike some other food movements, the Manifesto was meant to be egalitarian from the start. Says Meyer,
“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.” (source)
This approach likely helped the the chef’s principles win allies in the Danish government, as the Nordic Council of Ministers adopted the Manifesto as the official ideology of the New Nordic Food programme in 2005. (source) According to its website, the program aims to encourage positive food practices throughout the country through a combination of public outreach initiatives and controlled research studies. Since Meyer’s principles appear to speak for the people rather than at them, the program can take a broad approach – it ranges from helping to strengthen children’s food culture, to encouraging the use of food when promoting the region for tourism.
Expanding on this “for the people” approach the Manifesto was also inclusive rather than exclusive, helping to spread the message among the masses in a positive way. Rather than shun or attack other cultures, cuisines, or lifestyles, it used local and regional identity to drum up a sense of pride around the principles. According to Meyer,
“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.”
Since the message was inclusive, relevant to the region, and aspirational from the start, the Manifesto seems to have avoided the class warfare clash that often occurs with most “real food” movements. It spoke to high-end chefs as equally as a family of four.
And rather than look elsewhere for what “food culture” should represent, Meyer encouraged his people to look inward – to their land, their climate, their culture – to discover what Nordic eating means to them. Add in Noma’s success, and he was able to prove the ideals he preached were also attainable.
This created a rallying cry that was less us vs. them, and more why not us?
If a Country Can Do It…
I have no idea if my meal in the Danish pub was actually local, organic, and humanely raised. Nor do I know how many restaurants I went to actually subscribe to the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto. But I saw enough to know this – the menus were seasonal, the veggies fresh, and the meat tasted real. Meals were served with pride, and were meant to be eaten slowly.
If nothing else, I’m completely sold on Danish food culture. It was refreshing to eat without thinking about macronutrients and portion sizes. I trusted what was on the plate because I was surrounded by the positive vibes of their food culture. The food was traditional and authentic. It came from the local land and sea, and generally aligned with the season.
And to think this was the result of a conscious effort to document what eating should mean, and spread it to the masses. It makes me wonder why similar efforts haven’t been as widely adopted here in the U.S. And why we have so much trouble creating similar principles on a personal level.
Real question: If an entire country can dig deep within themselves to formalize and act on a set of food principles and practices, what’s stopping us from doing the same as individuals?