PORTLAND, Maine — Lobsters taste best in the fall. The limp and watery summer soft shells are hard now and filled with sweet, tender meat. Locals here expect to see hard-shell lobsters on menus. They might be steamed whole, tossed with mayonnaise for classic lobster rolls, or heated with butter and cream in a luxurious stew.
But not at Hugo’s, a restaurant in the Old Port, where fall lobsters are combined with foraged lobster mushrooms, poached with local ginger from Freedom Farm in Waldo County, then served in a clear broth made from grilled lobster bodies and the seaweed kombu, harvested up the coast around the Schoodic Peninsula. “It’s light and floral in contrast to what you might expect from lobster,” says Mike Wiley, Hugo’s chef and co-owner. Every element in the dish is from the waters, woods, and fields nearby. “I guess it’s an example of the time and place thing that every chef in the world is striving for,” says Wiley.
If chefs like Wiley have their way, fine dining menus, with their unlimited year-round fresh produce and expensive cuts of meat, will soon be replaced by a cuisine that is a more specific expression of New England’s seasons, landscape, and culture. Chefs are elevating humble ingredients that have always grown here. When our short growing season is over, we may have cold temperatures but we have plenty of light. Cooks find hearty greenhouse greens or stored root vegetables, or they ferment carrots, beets, cabbages, radishes, and other firm produce. In the North Atlantic, fishermen head out for some prized fish that are at their best in the cold months: sea urchins and their roe, Jonah crabs, smelts, monkfish, wolffish.
The latest trend in the “time and place thing” originated in Scandinavia, evolving from the celebrated Copenhagen restaurant Noma, where head chef Rene Redzepi and owner Claus Meyer brought together the best chefs in the region for a symposium in 2004. Together they drafted the “New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto.” The aim was to stop copying Southern Europeans and to figure out what they had in their own region, to reinvent and reinterpret Nordic gastronomy and turn it into one of the great cuisines of the world. They left olive oil, lemon juice, French cheeses, and other staples of Mediterranean cuisine behind and went looking for their own emblematic ingredients.
The result — precious but appealing concoctions such as Dover sole served with green strawberries, beach cabbage, and new potatoes, or quail eggs presented on a bed of smoking hay — made Noma famous outside Denmark. Nine years later, the global foodie culture is totally smitten with new Nordic cuisine, and Redzepi is now an international celebrity widely considered to be the most influential chef in the world.
Soon, some of that acclaim will surely go to Magnus Nilsson, 28, the chef at the 12-seat Faviken Magasinet restaurant on a 20,000-acre farm and hunting preserve in rural northwest Sweden. His newly published “Faviken’’ is a cookbook for foragers, hunters, and fishermen who love to cook (“wild trout roe in a warm crust of dried pigs’ blood” is one dish; “vegetables cooked with autumn leaves,” in which you collect ingredients from the forest floor, is another).
In addition to abiding by all of the familiar ethics of seasonal food, local food, and animal welfare, the nature-worshiping new Nordic chefs emphasize extreme terroir (the taste of the place) and a return to old technology. The cooking favors techniques like fermenting, smoking, and drying over the more physical and chemical transformations of molecular gastronomy (changing foodstuffs with laboratory tools and ingredients, a style of cooking introduced by Spanish chef Ferran Adrià).
The new Norsemen are influential. In 2008 Redzepi and Meyer established the Nordic Food Lab to explore the raw materials and techniques of their cuisine. They share recipes and ideas with the public on their website.
But many New England chefs are too pragmatic to hop on a trend and go chasing a cuisine so particular to another location.
At first glance the menu at Bondir, a tiny restaurant in Cambridge, seems to be the North American answer to the Nordic phenomenon. The menu is full of evocative ingredients: gleanings like dried corn and pumpkin vines; heirloom varieties like Red Norland potatoes, Fairy Tale eggplant, and Potimarron pumpkin. There are foraged foods galore, and earthy twists on familiar classics. Chef and owner Jason Bond, who writes the menu every day, makes pasta with barley flour, smokes a chicken galantine with rye grass, offers savory custard made with washed rind cheese, and pralines of black walnuts. Time and place is obviously considered here, but Bond says that he is “not really influenced by the Scandinavian thing.”
The Wyoming native adds, “I formed my cooking style a long time ago.” He says he learned from his grandmothers and mother to eat seasonal foods in abundance and preserve the rest. Bond does not make a big deal about local ingredients. “I’m not even trying to be a locavore restaurant,” he says. “I’m just trying to find the best ingredients that I can and then use them to make the best dishes that I can.”
On the phone from Sweden, Nilsson says he sees what he is doing at Faviken as being distinctly different from the new Nordic mainstream. “I love Noma, we share a sensibility, but it is an urban restaurant,” he says.“What we are doing here is more intuitive and more spontaneous, less controlled.”
Nilsson serves up dish after dish of time and place, most of it cooked over an open fire. That might be matsutake mushrooms with lamb kidney and pickled marigold; live scallops cooked in their shells over burning juniper branches; and a cake made with pine bark. Nilsson grows food in the summer and puts it away for the long, dark winter. He shoots his own wild game from the mountains and gathers mushrooms from the forests.
“The influence of new Nordic cuisine should not be chefs around the world cooking with ingredients foraged in Norway,” says the chef. “It is for chefs to look at what the heck they have in their surroundings and to do the most out of it.”
Portland chef and cooking instructor David Levi would like to do just that. Levi spent a year working in the kitchens of Noma and Faviken and working for master butchers in Tuscany. Now he is planning his own place in Portland. “Maine’s first 100% local food, zero waste, fine dining restaurant. Coming soon,” reads his website, www.vinland.me.
“I want to use what grows in this bioregion,” says Levi. “If I can’t use lemon, I need to replace that acidic element. Obviously I could use vinegar, but the flavor is so strong, so maybe rhubarb, or green fruit, or whey.” To that end, in his Portland kitchen Levi prepares an example: soup made by pureeing farmers’ market turnips with his own homemade yogurt and garnishing the bowls with lightly fermented carrots and fresh herbs and flowers from his small garden plot.
Chefs at Hugo’s are also trying to make the most out of what they have close at hand. “In Maine we have a variety of seafood, and foraged food, and amazing farms, but we are only just scratching the surface of what is possible here,” says chef and co-owner Andrew Taylor.
Sometimes, says Taylor, you see what you’re looking for in the fishmonger’s scrap pile or in fields when the harvest is over. “I’m asking my fish guys for halibut tail, swordfish belly, and Yellowfin tuna collar,” says the chef. “I’m asking farmers for plants on the vine and plants going to seed. We want all the weird stuff that people used to just throw away. It may not be for the average consumer, but for us it has value. It makes our food better.”
Welcome to the new New England cuisine.
279A Broadway, Cambridge
88 Middle St., Portland, Maine
Nordic Food Lab
David Levi, email@example.com