If you want to be on top of this year's new food trends, look north.
That is the New Year message from upmarket British supermarket Waitrose, at least. Scandinavian food is set to be one of the chain's big concepts for 2011, with new Nordic edibles given a special spotlight in their flagship branches. In a bid to open up customers' minds to novel flavours, the supermarket is touting such products as lingonberry jam and Vasterbotten cheese, with quality Scandinavian brands such as Leksand crispbreads and Scan Swedish Kitchen meatballs also being given a promotional push.
Trend-wise, Waitrose has certainly chosen the right moment - Scandinavian cuisine has been rocking the upper end of the restaurant world for a few years now, and the supermarket is not alone in pushing its products. The naming of Copenhagen's experimental Nordic-focused restaurant Noma as the world's best by Restaurant Magazine last year catapulted Scandinavian cooking to a new level of kudos and respectability, making this year a good time for Nordic food to cross over from restaurants to home kitchens. But what can the novice consumer expect from the frozen north's food? And is it ever likely to be easily available - or even desirable - for people living in the heat of the Gulf?
At its best, Scandinavia's food is impressively fresh and delicate, dealing brilliantly with the limitations imposed by its cold winters and brief summers. With long coastlines, fish is a central speciality - often lightly cured (as in gravadlax, or dill-and-salt-cured salmon) or pickled, as is common with herring - with downing huge feasts of crayfish or langoustines a popular way of celebrating midsummer.
Smoked food is also popular - delicious smoked reindeer may be hard to come by, but smoked eel, mackerel and cod are far easier to source and just as good.
Fruit and vegetables aren't a particular strong point for the region, but berries, often gathered wild, are very common, eaten fresh in the summer and made into tart jams for the rest of the year. As only Scandinavia's southern reaches are suitable for growing wheat, thin, brittle crispbreads made from quicker-ripening barley and rye have traditionally taken the place of yeast-risen wheat breads in many regions, while healthy and currently fashionable cultured milk products such as buttermilk or Icelandic Skyr have also long been a staple.
Traditional Scandinavian cooking isn't especially spicy - and it must be admitted that in its most basic form of meat, gravy and potatoes, its less impressive dishes can be about as light and subtle as a wounded moose. But with typical flavourings such as dill, juniper berries, wild mushrooms, caraway seeds and cardamom to liven things up, the best of the region's cooking often has a herby tang that can make it interesting and even mildly exotic to outsiders.
All this pickling, preserving and smoking means that Scandinavian foods travel well. Pickled herring - far better than it sounds - is perhaps the most easily found example of this tradition, packed with omega-rich fish oil and boasting a surprisingly delicate flavour locked in by its marinade of vinegar, onions and juniper. Other easy-to-find products are unleavened, long-lasting crispbreads. While Ryvita is the best-known brand internationally, local brands such as Leksand or Vasa (which can be bought online) are often rather better, with a more traditional thinness, a brittle, more-ish texture and a nutty toast-like flavour.
Other key Scandinavian products may prove harder to find in the Gulf, but among the new Waitrose range that could well end up in their Dubai store is Vasterbottensost, a hard cheese with a firm, springy texture like cheddar, but with a stronger flavour that is closer to parmesan. Another is jam made from lingonberries, a sharp-tasting fruit that grows close to the ground and which is often served as a relish with savoury dishes.
All this northern produce might seem highly suitable for consumers in Scandinavia's scarcely less-wintry North Sea neighbour, Britain, but is it ever likely to catch on here? Some Nordic dishes can seem rather stodgy to people trying to ward off heat rather than cold, so the region might prove a hard sell. Luckily, there's plenty of Scandinavian food that works well far away from its home region. In their almost Japanese love of fresh or lightly cured fish, their use of smoking and pickling as much for flavour as necessity, and their interesting mix of sweet, sharp and sour flavours, Nordic food traditions have a lot to offer.