When the epicentre of international gastronomy shifted north, introducing the world to new Nordic cuisine, the assembled technocrats of Molecular Gastronomy from Spain to Chicago were left blinking in the dust. One of the key driving forces behind this movement is the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen. Founded in 2008 by Noma head chef René Redzepi and entrepreneur Claus Meyer, the non profit, self governed organisation explores the building blocks of Nordic cuisine through research into traditional and modern food production and preparation.
Housed in an unassuming houseboat anchored on a canal opposite Noma, this is where chemists, chefs, scientists, anthropologists and academics work together to push the boundaries of new Nordic cuisine and share their findings with the world through various platforms.
We met Michael Bom Frøst, the laboratory’s director and associate professor of Sensory Science at the University of Copenhagen; Josh Evans, correspondent of the Yale Sustainable Food Project; and Ben Reade, who has accepted the mantle of Head of Culinary Research and Development this past summer from Lars Williams, who now heads up the Noma test kitchen.
Inside the lab, it’s bright and open, and the large industrial kitchen kitted out with gadgets. Prints of various roots and vegetables complete with their Latin names grace the walls, and sticky yellow notes litter the windows. Rows and rows of glass jars and plastic containers are filled with samples, some of them in various stages of fermentation. We arrive on the same day as a delivery of plums destined to help Ben create his own version of umeboshi.
BR: OK, try this …
CEREAL: [looks doubtful] What is it?
BR: It’s a seaweed called dulse [palmaria palmata]. It’s really interesting because it’s rich both in umami and sweet tasting amino acids.
MF: We’ve discovered that to overcome barriers to new foods, there has to be a balance between novelty and familiarity. Ice cream is the perfect gateway food because it’s so comforting, even with a novel flavour like seaweed.
BR: Ask someone ‘do you want ice cream’, the answer is almost invariably ‘yes’! It’s like a reflex. Do you want ice cream?
JE: We tried this with kids. Some refuse, some wait until other kids try it first, others jump straight in. Those that
do try it usually love it. The first taste is the hardest … after that it gets easier.
CEREAL: Why is seaweed so interesting?
BR: In Wales, they make bread with it, in Northern Ireland, they eat it as a snack, but for us it’s a revival. Taste this … it’s similar to dashi, super salty and very rich in umami. Even though it’s so similar to the Japanese version, the kelp species is totally different. The world is hugely biodiverse but we don’t take advantage of it. There’s a lot of space in the ocean. We should explore that. Sustainability comes up repeatedly in our findings, but it’s actually unintentional. We put deliciousness first.
CEREAL: Isn’t ‘deliciousness’ too subjective to pinpoint on a global scale?
MF: I think there are basic rules that each culture applies differently. Some things travel very well, like tomatoes, but if certain more challenging foodstuffs are to be widely accepted – like some strange fermented food or insects, for example – then the balance between familiarity and novelty has to be addressed.
CEREAL: Will people ever happily eat insects?
MF: The majority of the world eats them already, but those that don’t fear them hugely. It’s not insurmountable – if you see people enjoying something, over time, you’ll end up trying it, like tourists trying silk worm larvae in Seoul. If we want to introduce insects to Europe, we should use those that are most similar to what we already eat.
JE: Like sandhoppers – they taste like shrimp and have a wonderful crunchy texture. You see them by the beach.
MF: Alternatively, we give people insects in a form that’s not recognisable to overcome barriers.
BR: Alongside formic acid which is very sour, ants produce chemical compounds that are similar to the compounds found in herbs. Flavour chemist Arielle Johnson looked into this for us and found compounds in ants identical to lemongrass. These were the type of ants served at the Noma pop-up in London. She also found licorice and coffee flavours – there is so much to discover. Other areas, like fermentation, are more or less totally unexplored. While science recognises around 240,000 species of plants with about another 40,000 or so yet to discover, they’ve already described a million and a half species of bacteria – but they think that’s only around 0.5 percent of the total!
JE: Microorganisms can evolve so fast that classical taxonomies don’t make sense any more. The implications are enormous. It’s only in the last decade that we’ve been able to describe the entire genome of a species relatively easily. Before that, testing was very approximate.
CEREAL: It sounds fascinating!
BR: There are various ongoing fascinations! I’ve just finalised a paper for the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery on bog butter. People buried butter in peat bogs for 3,000 years but the last time anyone tried to make it was in an 1894 experiment. I replicated it to discover how Iron Age men in Scotland ate and to see if it tastes good to modern palates. An old Irish rhyme says, ‘butter to eat with the hog is buried seven years in the bog’, so I’ve got ten kilos of it sitting underground somewhere for seven years to see what happens!
CEREAL: What does it taste like?
BR: Very mossy. And it smells like the forest. It could have interesting applications with game dishes.
CEREAL: It’s part of your mission to share all these findings, right?
MF: Yes. We travel a lot – symposiums, events, conferences – last weekend, we talked to chefs at a Dutch university. Next weekend we’re at a slow food event in Turin. We take every opportunity we can to meet people and increase our networks. We also write a lot of papers.
CEREAL: Where do you find your inspiration?
MF: It’s everywhere. We look closely at the world that surrounds us and examine everything edible – beach plants, insects, mammal life … any chef can do that, wherever they are. ■