How The Danes Eat

Mention fast food to Danes and the idea of eating a burger or pizza is completely foreign to them. Hotdogs from street sellers? Certainly, but be aware that the bread is served separately, and it may come from a local craft bakery rather than a huge multinational.

The big fast food chains like McDonalds and Burger King tried setting up around 20 years ago but interest declined rapidly. Tourists still used them but Danes preferred to cook their meals themselves, particularly from locally sourced pork and potatoes. The threat of junk food was still there though, and back in 2004, a group of top chefs and food critics under a gentleman called Claus Meyer met with the aim of creating a truly Nordic cuisine, based on fresh, seasonable produce, and they agreed to not only create such a cuisine, but also to educate the public in the benefits of eating in this way. The result has been that the Danish food scene has become one of the freshest and most innovative in the world.

An offshoot of this is the Nordic Food Laboratory; this is a non-profit testing ground for different foodstuffs and cooking techniques for a collection of restaurants, many of which have Michellin stars. One of the aims of the lab is to find substitutes for meat; after all rearing cattle is a major cause of methane production and is highly wasteful as more good food is eaten by these animals than they produce in meat. Micro-organisms such as yeasts are being used to transform grains into foodstuffs which are popular in the vegetarian restaurants as well as in the wider community.

Speaking of restaurants, which one is regularly voted the best one in the world? Would you be surprised to know it is Noma, in Refshalevej in Denmark, which was set up by the above mentioned Claus Meyer. Much of the food served there is scavenged from the local fields and shores, such as beach dandelions, sea buckthorn, wild garlic and even nettles! Where farmed food is available it is only that which is within season, and there are no expensive imported delicacies here; all the meat and seafood come from nearby farms, or is bought from small fishermen. Is it popular? Tables can only be booked approximately three months in advance and the waiting list often exceeds a thousand would-be diners.

Noma is however only a small part of the Nordic food revolution which has taken root in Norway. A book on foraging for edible weeds has sold more than 60,000 copies; organic farms can get more visitors than the most popular museums. Restaurants, bakeries and other food manufacturers are waking up to the fact that there are local varieties of food like breads or cheeses that are refreshingly varied and a welcome change from the mass produced, bland products of before.

This was not always the case however. Traditionally food was marketed by small farmers and other food producers locally, which of course resulted in a wide variety of flavours. Unfortunately however this is not a good recipe for export; selling to a mass-market demands more of a consistent quality and taste. At around the time of the birth of the cooperative societies in Britain small food producers in Denmark banded together to create food in bulk for the export market, and their success can be measured by the amount of Danish butter and bacon that is now eaten throughout the world, and particularly in Britain.

There was a downside to this. Food manufacture was becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of just a few producers, and regional variations were disappearing. Some of these large manufacturers however realised that there was a growing market for smaller scale, more regional food production. It was not easy for them to switch to making food like this; large factories are geared to producing, usually, one consistently uniform product; but even some of the largest dairy and bakery businesses began creating foodstuffs that varied from one region to another, and from one season to another. The New Nordic Cuisine movement was well under way.