Everything you ever wanted to know about Nordic food in one book. And we mean everything.
I’ve not eaten at Fäviken. I’ve not even dared dream of it, so elusive and faraway are tables at Magnus Nilsson’s 12-seat Michelin-starred barn house restaurant in remote northern Sweden. But for all accounts (thank you, Internet), the brining/preserving/foraging/native ingredient-loving chef was just the right guy to write an honest, definitive account of Scandinavian culinary traditions. And in The Nordic Cookbook, he’s done just that.
Like Italy’s The Silver Spoon and Spain’s 1080 Recipes, The Nordic Cookbook is a comprehensive collection of traditional recipes. But in breadth, depth and historical detail, Magnus’ to me is more like the Larousse Gastronomique.
In between the demands of his restaurant, the chef dedicated close to five years to research, involving travel to the region’s harsh and far-flung corners, constant communication with local food experts and even polls with regular citizens for their take on eating traditions. Apparently, Magnus would have kept going had the publisher not said, ‘enough’s enough buddy; we need a manuscript’ (or words to that effect). His time and passion is not lost on the reader – you can feel it, physically, when you pick up the hefty, near 800-page hardback. And you can feel it, in words on paper, in every meticulous account, from the downright simple (how to fry an egg receives almost 300 words) to the nitty gritty required to make a traditional Sami (Laplander) stew of shaved frozen reindeer meat.
What I like most about this book is its integrity. What we have here is Nordic food as it truly stands in homes today, with no attempt to glamorise it into the world’s vision of all fresh, light, foraged, beautiful Scandi fare.
This plays out in the design and food photography; while there are picturesque Nordic scenes shot by Magnus on his travels, you can forget styled recipe images a la Donna Hay. The look is pretty bare-boned actually, with food simply scooped into standard bowls – like most people serve food at home, and that’s the point. It’s also manifested in the recipe selection. Even Magnus concedes that dishes such as chilli creamed chicken and banana casserole, or taco quiche, aren’t Nordic in the purest sense, but these recent additions and global appropriations are now a common sight on tables and therefore indicative of the region’s food today. Basic recipes for browning broccoli, as well as ultra-challenging or obscure dishes, such as baked cow’s colustrum pudding, boiled pilot whale with blubber and potatoes, and Icelandic moss soup, are also testament to the book’s keen authenticity.
Nordic is not a cuisine; it’s a region with distinct traditions, much like South East Asia.
The design and recipes make for an authoritative reference, but does it make for a want-to-cook-from book? Well…
For the people of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, Iceland and The Faroe Islands, on whose food the book is based, I’d hazard a categorical yes. The Nordic Cookbook has all the ingredients and them some to become a regional culinary bible, to endure in homes for decades to come.
For foreigners – or at least me – it’s a slightly different story. Individual dishes don’t jump off the page and grab your attention as they do in today’s mod cookbooks lavished with one recipe and image per double page spread, and without prior experience with this distant cuisine, it’s hard to know where to begin. But, if you take the time to sit down with The Nordic Cookbook – and you should, for it’s a fascinating read – you’ll discover the likes of Jämtland fried trout with a reduced whey sauce, salt pork-stuffed potato and wheat dumplings with sugared lingonberries, ambrosia cake with glazed orange sponge and candied orange peel, and much more (around 650 recipes worth). You also walk away with a sincere understanding of a diverse and oft-misrepresented food culture.
In his introduction, Magnus candidly shares his antipathy for the subject. Nordic is not a cuisine, he argues; it’s a region with distinct traditions, much like South East Asia.
Better him than someone else, he finally decides. Yet through his research, he discovers more binding threads than divisive ones. And that’s why The Nordic Cookbook is so much more than an encyclopedia; it’s full to the brim with Magnus’ heart.
Cook the book
4. Skagen salad
Recipes from The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson, with photography by Erik Olsson (Phaidon, $59.99, hbk).