What Would the Vikings Eat?
René Redzepi's NOMA cookbook, distilled.
Baking meat in hay is an old technique, but hay is a major motif in Redzepi's world—a symbol of both traditional agriculture and summertime. At NOMA (and perhaps at a striving eatery near you one day) you'll see hay-infused cream- and oil-based sauces, torched hay reduced to ashes and used as a sooty garnish for leeks, and a gently pickled quail egg brought to the table in a smoking nest of hay.
In winter, Redzepi frosts his food with icy garnishes. He coats frozen potato crisps curled like pencil shavings with a milky yogurt glaze and surrounds little toasted meringues with cold crumbles of herbal tea granita. And because even the most driven chef can't resist the occasional bit of tongue-in-cheek kitsch, he offers a snowmanlike sorbet tower dusted with yogurt snow, complete with a tiny carrot nose.
Normal people discard the slippery skin that forms over heated milk; NOMA chefs harvest it and serve it as a sort of dairy-only crêpe alongside musk ox, say, or local truffles and salsify, or grass, flowers, and herbs. As artist Olafur Eliasson writes in his forward to the cookbook: "The garnish had come from the field where the cow that had supplied the milk had walked, grazed, and defecated. There was no doubt about it: my mouth was exploring every area of the field."
If NOMA's palate is pretty severe in the winter months, Redzepi goes all out when summertime finally brings intense color to the Scandinavian landscape. A dish called "Red Nuances of Lobster" hits crimson in all forms: lobster tail, rose petals, currants, radicchio, red currants, seaweed, and beets. Another dish, "Grilled Lamb Shank and Ramsons Leaves, Yellow Beetroot, and Elderflowers," examines yellow with the same dogged intensity.
Because of his dedication to native ingredients, Redzepi uses mead, red currant wine, birch wine, and beer where one might usually expect to see grape wine. Though he still employs grape wine from time to time, its relative scarcity is a reminder that long before the expansion of viniculture, Nordic people had derived their own ingenious means to tap alcohol's unruly pleasures.
Redzepi takes locavorism, which Americans typically associate with Alice Waters-style rusticity, to the next degree, marrying a lyric survivalism with a high-tech aesthetic. It's hard to say which of his innovations will find a foothold in the United States, but here's hoping Redzepi's imitators don't imitate too literally. If next-generation chefs find inspiration in the ancient heritage of their own territories and start crafting elegant food with wild, woodsy ingredients, that's good for Redzepi as a trend-setter and good for curious eaters. If they import musk ox and reindeer from Scandinavia or put on dinner-theater productions of The Vikings, we may need to eat in for a while.