x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Northern bites

A food festival in Denmark aims to showcase Nordic fare in its purest form.

Proving that raw ingredients can be as aesthetically presented as anything out of the oven.
Proving that raw ingredients can be as aesthetically presented as anything out of the oven.
The clouds hang like barely cooked meringues in an azure-blue sky. The late afternoon sun sends its beams bouncing off the calm crystal sea, and a gentle breeze ruffles the coarse long grass all the way up the coast. "Look," comes an excited voice on the wind, "beach mustard!" Crouched behind a clump of green next to a wicker basket laden with a jumble of muddied notes and assorted vegetation is René Redzepi, the head chef and co-owner of Noma restaurant. Clasped between his fingers is a delicate sprig. I taste it, and the sharp, fresh flavour fills my head along with the sea air.

We're at a stretch of fertile coastland called Lammefjorden on the Odsherred peninsula in Denmark, about an hour's drive from Copenhagen. Just moments ago, I, along with a group of food writers and some of the best chefs in the world, had been foraging for wild herbs in the woods next to Dragsholm Slot, a fortification dating back to the 12th century. This is no chance meeting in the undergrowth, however. We're here for a special event and celebration of new Nordic cuisine called Cook It Raw.

Food festivals seem to be 10 a penny these days, with Michelin-star chef line-ups, trade exhibitions and live cooking demonstrations springing up across the globe. But the ideas behind Cook It Raw are far from half-baked. It's an event with an agenda, a distinct set of goals and a clear message about a new way of cooking in an era of ecological enlightenment. Our itinerary includes a field trip to find some of Denmark's best natural produce, its wild herbs and its unique seasonal vegetables. The next day we would eat them in recipes created by esteemed chefs such as Redzepi, Dave Chang of Momofuku in New York and Claude Bosi of Hibiscus in London, prepared using a bare minimum of gas or electric energy in Noma's kitchen.

Noma is a two-star Michelin restaurant occupying an old converted warehouse in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen. It was opened in 2003 with backing from Claus Meyer, a Danish gastronomic entrepreneur and TV personality, who approached the young chef Redzepi with an ambitious idea. Since the rest of the warehouse - renamed Nordatlantens Brygge, or North Atlantic House - was now devoted to the cultural promotion of Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, the food at this restaurant needed to reflect the natural produce of those countries, while also drawing from the ingredients of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

They drew up a manifesto for this new Nordic cuisine, and set about revolutionising the gourmet food scene in Copenhagen and beyond. The premise was pure, fresh and simple food sourced locally and prepared with the natural environment in mind. Despite plenty of gentle derision from chefs and critics in the early days, the plan is working. Noma was voted the third best restaurant in the world at the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants awards earlier this year. And Cook It Raw is the latest step. So what is the event all about?

"It's about a lot of things," says Redzepi as he flicks his long brown fringe out of his eyes. "It's about making all these chefs and journalists aware that something exists in Denmark and the Nordic region, that products exist here. I wanted to get them here to spark a bit of curiosity in them to see what else is around. It's also a manifesto on how we think about using our energy to cook. And when you have to cook something raw you are extraordinarily dependent on the raw material. If you make a conventional tomato soup, you can add a touch of sugar to enhance the flavour, but in this case it's very different because it's raw food. The ingredients on the plate have to be top quality."

After the beach, we are taken to sample some more top-quality produce in the fields of a local farmer, Søren Wiuff. We gather at the edge of a crop of leeks, where Wiuff explains why the land here is special. "Just 150 years ago this soil was underneath the sea. It was reclaimed as agricultural land. As you can see, it has a sandy surface covered with sea shells, which is calcium-rich. Then there's good dark soil underneath that's full of nutrients."

We trudge across the heavily furrowed land to the next field, where Wiuff's prized green asparagus spears jut invitingly skywards from the soil. He snaps one from the ground and holds it up for all to see. "René once called me up in the middle of the night," he recalls with a smile. "He said: 'You must come and try this - I've made a new dish with your asparagus!'" I taste one of the moist, luscious spears, with its immediately fresh, grassy flavour and realise what all the fuss is about. Across the field, I notice that Redzepi is crouching down once again. What has he found this time - some wood sorrel, chickweed or wild pea shoots, perhaps? No, he's doing up his shoelaces - indeed, this foraging can be a rugged business.

The good weather continues the next day, and as the sun casts its brightness over the quiet harbour at Nordatlantens Brygge, all the chefs are indoors at Noma. I enter the restaurant to discover a hive of frenetic activity. The open kitchen is crammed with figures in chef whites, some bent over bowls and plates, others shouting instructions, waving arms, pointing fingers. Among the melee, I can see Massimo Bottura of La Francescana in Modena, Italy; Albert Adrià, the former El Bulli chef and brother of Ferran; the Basque chef Iñaki Aizpitarte of Le Chateaubriand in Paris; and Davide Scabin of Combal.Zero in Turin. There are journalists milling about the place, delivery men, waiters and restaurant staff. In the middle of it all is Redzepi, desperately trying to hold everything together.

I grab him for a few moments and we retreat to a somewhat quieter part of the restaurant. He looks more excited than stressed as I ask him about that evening's feast. "I think this menu is very much driven by the intuition of all the chefs," he tells me. "Usually you have a long list of equipment needed, but in this case we have a long list of ingredients needed. "Everybody has been on my back all the time - 'I need it fresh, it has to be perfect, come on, if it's not fresh I can't use it', you know. Everybody knows that this is one of the biggest food critic ensembles we have ever experienced, so people want to do good; they know that when they do something wrong it'll be noticed. They have to do something good so it has to be top quality."

I cast an eye towards the jostling kitchen, and wonder if the tension is building to boiling point among the 11 master chefs. Redzepi smiles. "No, there's a good ambience, a good feeling. When we were out there, they saw the products, they tasted them and they feel good about it. At first they thought, what is this? But then they tasted and smelled the ingredients, so they feel more comfortable because they know that the quality is there. It's a little bit inspired, I can feel it."

So what about that old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I venture? Redzepi smiles again. "The guys are not only selected by the quality of their cooking and their way of thinking, but also as people who can work with each other. Perhaps these chefs have met before, but they are not all close friends. It's just people who have some type of connection cuisine-wise. Some of us are a little more abstract, but we're all related in a way."

Of all the challenges presented to the chefs, perhaps the greatest test lies in creating recipes using raw ingredients. I ask Redzepi how strictly the raw food rule is enforced. "It's very abstract to ask a lot of the chefs to use no energy whatsoever," he says, shaking his head slowly. "If we were to stick to that 100 per cent it would not be as successful as I hope it will be. There is a little use of energy, like some people use a blender or a hand mixer, but it's extremely minimal.

"Everybody is so eco-friendly, suddenly," he continues. "Obama just said that by 2050 we're going to cut emissions by so much. What does that mean for restaurants and restaurateurs? It means that you have to start sourcing ingredients locally, and you have to get back in touch with your society, your farmers, make them deliver, build up a network of producers and purveyors. Noma has been doing this for six years, so we have an upper hand."

I leave the clatter of Noma and return later that evening to find a completely different vibe. The journalists have spruced themselves up, the light is softer and more welcoming, and the mood is noticeably more serene. A strange calm has descended over the kitchen. Yet that is soon shot to pieces by Redzepi's starters. First comes Noma's signature dish of raw baby radish, carrot and asparagus in a "soil" made from malt and crushed hazelnut. Then we are handed huge green bullrushes taken from the waters around Dragsholm, which we are advised to nibble at one end. But it isn't until a rather innocuous-looking polystyrene box is placed on our table that we realise our next course isn't just raw - it's alive.

The lid comes off and out jumps a shrimp. This makes all the diners jump too, followed by more acrobatic shrimps. Redzepi stands over the seething haul of crustaceans with a huge grin on his face. "Pull the heads off or eat them whole," he implores. "Bon apetit!" I mercilessly decapitate a lively shrimp, dab its still-twitching body in a powder of dried herbs and swallow it after a cursory chew. After the "fjordshrimps natural" experience, the courses become a little more palatable, yet no less inventive. From Uma, London's renowned Kyoto-style restaurant, the chef Ichiro Kobuta presents us with a dish of (thankfully dead) shrimps with kinome pepper and broad bean mousse; turbot with five spice, venison sauce and yuzu pepper, and an obese oyster with a tangy ponzu dressing. Another dish with an Asian zing is Chang's Hawthorne valley buttermilk in a shallow puddle of crisp apple dashi, scattered with Dragsholm herbs.

Perhaps one of the most fitting and memorable dishes on the menu was Bottura's provocatively named "Pollution - 20:30, Modena". Inspired by Bottura's childhood memories of the sea, and created as a warning of the polluted oceans of the future, it consisted of monkfish liver, oysters, squid, clams and beach herbs in a deep green sauce full of heavy iodine flavours. There follow more inspired courses from the likes of Daniel Patterson, Pascal Barbot and Joaquim Wissler, before a little rule-breaking from who else but Albert Adria (his sponge biscuit with pine nut oil and wild flower sorbet was finished off in the microwave, albeit for 40 seconds).

At the end of the dinner, and indeed the event, the sense of relief and delight among the chefs is palpable. Rounds of applause and enthusiastic congratulations echo around Noma's roughly rendered walls. There is even talk of Redzepi and friends emulating the success and influence of another famous Danish movement that inspired a generation to create: Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme 95 avant-garde cinema manifesto.

Outwardly, however, Redzepi remains modest in his aims. "I hope to create friendships," he announces. "But what I mostly hope is that these chefs will leave my country feeling a bit more comfortable about what type of country we are - our nature, our products - and to respect it in a way that perhaps they would respect more traditional gastronomical countries, like France, Italy, Spain and Belgium."

One thing is certain. Those chefs will have left Copenhagen with a lasting impression of this new Danish gastronomic scene's raw power. Cook It Raw was conceived, developed and implemented by Allesandro Porcelli of Nordic Gourmet Tour. jbrennan@thenational.ae