The first Aarhus FOOD Festival was a joyous affair. The inhabitants of Denmark’s second-largest city jumped on their bicycles and flocked down to the waterside on the outskirts of town to attend a cross between a country fair and a Slow Food event celebrating Nordic chefs, Danish artisan food producers and local growers.
Aarhus was a strategic 7th-century Viking port. It sits on a wide bay in the Jutland peninsula, about three hours northwest of Copenhagen by train. The festival took place in and around a cluster of tents pitched by a beach lined with small fishing boats. The food on offer went from traditional open sandwiches to cutting-edge Nordic cuisine prepared by a host of young chefs from the surrounding countries.
With backing from the Danish government, the event was created by FOOD — the Food Organisation of Denmark — whose role is to sustain and promote Nordic food culture, old and new. Denmark was at the epicentre of the Nordic food revolution that began a decade ago. Thorsten Schmidt, a talented chef from Aarhus, was one of the originators of the movement. He recounts how he became an advocate for new Nordic cooking.
“I was with chef René Redzepi at his Copenhagen restaurant Noma just after he opened it, when a middle-aged Dane strode into the restaurant. He said: ‘Is this the place that’s serving Nordic food? Then I’ll have an aquavit and some herring.’ René and I looked at each other and shook our heads. ‘We have to do something,’ we agreed.” That was nine years ago. Schmidt settled in Aarhus and opened his own Nordic restaurants, including the successful Malling and Schmidt.
“We had to regain our identity and free ourselves from the French domination that had overridden our own food history, and that held that fried Camembert and cream sauces were superior to anything we could cook ourselves,” Schmidt says. “We also had to move beyond herring and gherkins.”
How the Nordic way evolved
By turning their attention toward the natural foods, both wild and cultivated, that could be found in Nordic land and waters, they developed a new alphabet that spoke of a different kind of food culture.
This lexicon focused on simple, well-flavoured and locally produced ingredients: humble root vegetables, asparagus grown in the salty sands of the fjords, sweet langoustines and blue mussels, native lamb and beef, fish from both fresh and salt waters. More innovatively, it also explored the abundance of wild foods available in the forests, meadows and beaches of Scandinavian topography. Foraging became the new keyword, with all the attendant study necessary to separate what’s safe to put in our mouths from what isn’t.
As the highest circles of the world’s foodies ate and debated new palettes in which birch-bark sorbets, reindeer lichen and cucumber-skin ash were de rigueur, the main body of Nordic folk woke up more gradually to being at the centre of a global food trend.
“Our festival is also aimed at helping people here widen their horizons,” says Kasper Fogh Hansen of FOOD as we tour a tent in which locals are encouraged to cook with vegetables. “Most Danish men have a fairly limited experience of vegetables and we give them the chance to try them out.” I watch as a family tastes its way enthusiastically through chunks of yellow, orange and purple carrot.
The new FOOD view from the beach
Down on the beach another tent focuses on seaweed, long scorned by most Danes as inedible but one of the staple ingredients of the new Nordic larder. I sample several varieties, cooked and raw, and am taken out into the bay in a speedy boat by the Aarhus SeaRangers to watch as seaweed is harvested from the shallow waters; all it takes is a weighted hook and line. I’m even treated to the sight of a porpoise’s finned back as it cavorts a few metres away.
Back on the beach, I watch as an elderly couple from the island of Læsø, which is situated off the northeastern coast of Denmark and features in Norse mythology, thatch a small demonstration house using sea grass. This thin seaweed looks like dark, shredded paper, and blows into balls along the world’s beaches. “We use it because it’s warm, free and fireproof so our house insurance is cheaper,” explains the woman, as she bundles the grass into long ropes and winds them onto the house’s beams. Done properly, the seaweed roof can last for hundreds of years.
Læsø has also revived a medieval method of extracting salt from seawater using pits dug in the island’s blue clay. It’s become a favourite ingredient of Nordic chefs and shows how the new food trends are helping people in isolated communities remain on the land. Denmark is full of stories like this: In just 10 years, the number of the country’s microbreweries has gone from 18 to 180 as the passion for artisan beer has grown. Andreas Harder, of Nordhavn Vinegar Brewery, now specializes in making really fine fruit vinegars from his large orchard. There’s interest and pride in these products, and an ever-growing market willing to pay for them.
Aarhus festival’s open sandwiches
The festival’s restaurant options include a stand dedicated to smørresbrødet, as the Danes call it. In the centre of a table, a raised board the length of a sleeping Viking is dressed with colourful open sandwiches.
“The linchpin for smørresbrødet is the rye bread and butter the other ingredients are piled onto. We’ve been eating them for 400 years. After that, it’s up to your imagination,” says Ole Troelsø, who is publishing a book on the subject. “The sandwiches are now often made in three versions: traditional, low-fat and free-style.” All three taste delicious.
In one of the largest tents, equipped with colorful Electrolux refrigerators and state-of-the-art stoves, a serious chef’s competition, the Nordic Challenge, is played out before an international jury. The competition — to cook a three-course meal from locally sourced ingredients — is held annually between chefs from the five Nordic countries. It’s Denmark’s moment: They scoop up the first prize. Then, in a sign of unity and good will, they all sit down together at a wonderful dinner cooked for us by some of the rising Nordic stars.
Top photo: An Icelandic starter from the Nordic Challenge cooking competition. Credit: Carla Capalbo