Does Finland have the worst food in Europe? Jacques Chirac seems to think so. The former French president caused a diplomatic kerfuffle in 2005 when he claimed that Finnish cuisine was even worse than Britain's. While this mainly demonstrates how terribly closed-minded the French can be on matters culinary (and why politicians need speech writers), it is indeed fair to say that Finland and its Scandinavian neighbours hardly boast the most glowing of reputations for fine dining. The stereotypical image of the Scandinavian diet as consisting of herring, boiled reindeer and potatoes still hasn't shifted for some, and those who rave about the delights of the Nordic kitchen are still more likely to be talking about stripped pine cabinets than anything edible.
Not for much longer, however. Over the past decade the Nordic countries have been enjoying a gastronomic renaissance, dragging traditional foods out of the cellar of unfashionability and developing a vibrant dining culture that has attracted the attention of a world ever hungry for new tastes and foods. With Scandinavia now vying with Spain for the title of Europe's hottest food region, Jacques jibes are starting to look hopelessly out of date.
This level of foodie activity is especially impressive when you reflect that, despite its wild beauty and wide open spaces, nordic Europe's tough conditions mean it's never going to be mistaken for the Garden of Eden in a hurry. Cooks in cool, damp Scandinavia have until very recently worked against limitations as to what they could put together from local resources that are unimaginable in warmer, more southerly areas like Provence and Tuscany. Many familiar fruits do not grow well in the region, while even wheat only really flourishes in more clement regions like Denmark and southern Sweden. And although each Scandinavian country boasts a substantial coastline, their excellent and varied fish stocks were not always available year round, as winter ice in the Baltic and fierce storms in the Atlantic generally restricted the fishing season in the past.
These limitations sound daunting, but the ways that Scandinavians have tried to get around them are ingenious and often delicious, while the produce that is available is often more varied and charming than appears at first glance. And while there is of course a good deal of regional diversity in Scandinavia's food - Danish food, for example, shares dishes with northern Germany, while Russia's cooking is a notable influence in Finland - there is nonetheless a distinct continuity between many of the region's specialities and favourite ingredients. The region boasts a wealth of forest fruit such as lingonberries, cloudberries, and wild strawberries and raspberries, and like all berries, these are especially rich in vitamins and minerals. The same forests where these fruits are found also produce plenty of reindeer and wildfowl, which have long been popular choices for special occasions and are found far more frequently than in more populous southern climes. And while wheat was not widespread in the past, rye and barley flourished, giving rise to the many distinctive Scandinavian flatbreads (suitable for these low-gluten grains) which are now eaten the world over.
Difficult winter conditions and the short growing season mean that Scandinavians have long been adept in myriad ways of preserving food. Salting, smoking, pickling and drying are traditional techniques in the region, intensifying the flavours of meat and fish as they extend their shelf life. Some of the many products of these processes may seem a little challenging to outsiders. Foods like lutefisk - cod preserved in lye solution - scare the wits out of some diners with its strong smell and jellylike consistency (and is far more commonly eaten on the American prairies nowadays than in its native Norway). But other treats such as delicate, delicious gravadlax - salmon briefly cured with salt, sugar and dill - are increasingly popular the world over, especially now that sushi's worldwide popularity has largely soothed squeamishness about uncooked sea creatures.
The great success of Scandinavia's new wave cooking has been in taking these traditional techniques and ingredients and adapting them to modern tastes, making them lighter, more bracingly seasoned and not being afraid to mix in the occasional non-Scandinavian ingredient if it's going to improve flavour. The most shining example of this new approach is to be found at Copenhagen's Noma, the restaurant at the vanguard of Nordic cooking's newfound modishness. With the sort of reputation the average chef would be prepared to murder or go vegetarian for, this understated establishment on Copenhagen's regenerated quayside has become one of Europe's most powerful magnets for restaurant groupies. It was ranked as the world's tenth best restaurant by Restaurant Magazine this year (Sweden and Finland also boast entries on the list). The chef René Redzepi's simple, innovative menu stands out in a sector of the dining scene still dominated by French haute cuisine. It may be hard for us mortals to imagine, but aficionados of elite fine dining can often find themselves getting jaded when confronted with yet more foie gras or white truffle, or any of the other types of culinary ambrosia that are a mainstay of the world's top rank restaurants. Redzepi's food avoids such tried and tested staples of high gastronomy, opting instead for a bold but still delicate re-think of formerly underrated traditional Scandinavian cooking. With immaculate ingredients - seafood shipped daily from the Faroe Islands, exquisitely herby lamb from Greenland - Noma's kitchen enlivens its cooking with homely wild-gathered northern plants such as bull rush, woodruff, cowslip and wood sorrel. While this makes some dishes sound like a bit of a witches' brew, it all tastes delicious, and works wonders in bringing a hint of the region's forest meadows to downtown Copenhagen. And just as the ingredients are somewhat novel to non-Scandinavians, so are many of the cooking techniques. Employing many methods developed in the region to get around the long crop-less winter, decidedly un-restaurant-like processes such as smoking and pickling are mainstays of Redzepi's kitchen.
Noma, however, is just one of many proponents of a new lighter Nordic cuisine that's been making waves the world over. Manhattan's long-standing seafood hot spot Aquavit has proved so successful that it's now in the perverse position of importing its own take on Swedish food back to Sweden itself, with a recently opened Stockholm branch doing a roaring trade. With another branch opening in Tokyo this autumn, Aquavit is perhaps in danger of bringing coals to Newcastle, given that the Swedish diet's preponderance of fresh fish and pickles bears more than a passing resemblance to traditional Japanese food.
Back in Europe, several of London's better restaurant kitchens - notably Texture, Skylon and Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor - are now headed by Scandinavian chefs, all putting out their own version of delicate, seasonal Nordic-inspired cooking. And the trend has even reached Istanbul: Turkish celebrity chef Mehmet Gurs has been raising appreciative eyebrows at his panoramic restaurant Mikla with a bizarre-sounding but surprisingly effective fusion of Turkish and Scandinavian food.
The current enthusiasm for Nordic edibles isn't confined to restaurants alone. The popular American cookery series New Scandinavian Cooking has broken into its fifth year, providing an international soapbox upon which a bevy of Scandinavian celebrity chefs have promoted their countries food traditions. Meanwhile, everyday home cooks in the Nordic countries have been returning to foods that were previously neglected as being criminally unhip or fustily old fashioned. Old specialities like pine bark bread (formerly just a famine food) are making a tentative comeback in Finland, whose government has revolutionized the diet of its previously fruit-starved, somewhat lard-laden populace over the past decades by pumping investment into local berry cultivation. Icelandic cooking was also once the butt of jokes in the region (not without reason), as creating culinary greatness on a windswept volcano just below the Arctic Circle was always an uphill struggle. But it too has begun to bounce back. Its super-healthy and exclusively Icelandic milk product Skyr - a fat-free preparation half way between yoghurt and cheese - is in vogue all over the peninsula and is now exported widely as a health food to the US through the massive Wholefoods chain. While this may not have quite as much international appeal as Scandinavians' general flair with game, seafood and wild berries, it's still heartening evidence of people rediscovering their environment and history via their kitchens.