It’s always a problem when you visit a country whose language you don’t understand. Denmark was one of those places, where I felt both on the margins of society and completely free.
In such an environment, misunderstandings are commonplace. I had just settled down in my hotel and was flicking through the tv channels (a fascinating barometre of any country or society) when I spotted a queen speaking to her subjects in a mystifying language.
As I was in the state of Denmark (which is not as rotten, as they say), I assumed She was the Danish Queen, unfamiliar as I am with the world of aristocracy. What a disastrous mistake! For it was Queen Beatrix (of the Netherlands) who has just stepped down from the throne in favour of her son…
Well, anyway, I’m not here to report on the goings-on inside Denmark’s high society. By the way, I am not in Copenhagen but in Aarhus. Three planes to get here, but it is Denmark’s second city, and the stage of an upcoming edition of Terra Viva on Nordic cuisine… a cuisine that seeks its inspiration in nature, the seasons and local produce. Nothing new, you might say. Indeed, for a few decades now, chefs like Michel Bras have been harvesting in their own backyards, in search of sustainable development before the term was even coined.
But in Scandinavia, this new generation of chefs has been pulling all the stops, and, more importantly, they are not weighed down by a great but cumbersome gastronomic tradition. Which means Copenhagen’s Noma, run by Nordic cuisine wunderkind René Redzepi, has won the title of Best Restaurant in the World for the third year running. And a whole generation of young chefs are following suit.
We are here to meet one of the members of this new generation: Thorsten Schmidt. As a young chef, he wanted to find out why France enjoyed such a great culinary reputation. So he travelled the country on his days off (he worked in various restaurants across France). He found the answer he was looking for very quickly: “le terroir”, that is to say knowledge of the ground, of course, but also of the people, the producers.
This being said, I wondered what exactly we would find in a Jutland forest on a cold January morning. There was still snow on the beach (Aarhus lies by the North Sea, where the horizon is never clearly visible at this time of year). The more we talked, driving along in Thorsten’s car, the more the nature around us seemed frozen and quiet. Then we reached a forest of fir trees taller than cathedrals, which still seemed haunted by the spirits of the Vikings. And it was in this wonderful setting that the chef bent down, got out his scissors and cut a few strands of what looked like a rare kind of herb. It was, in fact, wild sorrel.
Less than half an hour later, there we were with our sorrel in the kitchen which lies at the heart of his restaurant “Malling & Schmidt”. Malling is the name of his wife, Rikke, with whom he has embarked on this great adventure. His senses still full of nature and forest, Thorsten stirred up an earthy-looking mixture of blood sausage in just a few minutes. He added some Jerusalem artichokes (what else? they are a kind of root, after all), some smoked oil and a couple of secret ingredients… sustainable, and absolutely delicious food.
Even more attractive is our host’s concept of the word “sustainable”:
“You always hear about sustainable products, but never about sustainable chefs. I don’t want to reach the age of 60 after three divorces,” he tells us.
So he measures his pace, takes his time. One Saturday a month he creates a new and original menu. And if one day he gets tired of it all, he will hang up his apron and do what he loves most: “spend time in the garden”.
Nordic cuisine is definitely to my taste.