WEST NEWTON — Nordic food is suddenly very, very in.
Visitors milling about the great front lawn of the Scandinavian Cultural Center are tasting salmon, Danish pastries, and fish stew at the first Smorgasbord Nordic Food Festival. This isn’t the trendy Nordic fare emerging from Copenhagen, but more familiar delicacies, plus a Norwegian seafood cook-off, all accompanied by accordion music.
The neo-Nordic food movement is a trendy, high-concept cooking style, made famous by Claus Meyer and Rene Redzepi, cofounders of Noma in Copenhagen, now sweeping Scandinavian restaurants. Much like farm-to-table fanaticism, the new Nordic principles stem from using seasonal ingredients native to the region. Yet unlike other rustic cooking philosophies, neo-Nordic focuses on often-overlooked ingredients presented in unusual ways, with a sly nod to the environment in which they were found. A broth redolent with the woodiness of pickled mushrooms and loamy chanterelles, for instance, might appear in front of you, then it will be warmed by a blow torch. Cooking styles are playfully scientific but also deeply evocative of the past, usually involving new-fangled takes on old-worldly techniques.
Yet while some post-modern techniques are indeed better left to industry professionals (looking at you, edible soil populated with ants), many neo-Nordic principles can be incorporated into everyday cooking. Sami Tallberg, Finland’s renowned wild food expert and chef, and a guest speaker at the Smorgasbord festival, encourages Bostonians to get out and forage. Foods like beach plums, autumn olives, barberries, shagbark hickory nuts, and black walnuts are growing wild anywhere from city roadsides to nature preserves. Tallberg recommends going to a wildlife identification website first, (www.naturegate.net) to verify that what you’ve foraged is safe to eat. He also says that this area is home to an abundance of wild mushrooms. For novices, however, it’s safest to find those with an experienced forager.
There are other ways to adopt neo-Nordic cooking principles at home. “Replace imported vinegars with berry juices, or wine with local beer,” Tallberg says, “and instead of imported nuts, use local seeds. The flavor will really surprise you, it’s that much more vibrant.”
“The idea of foraging really stems from the decision — or more often, the need — to use everything you have,” says Alexander Crabb, chef of Asta in the Back Bay. “Right now, we’re gathering sumac, probably to have it with pork belly and coriander soon.”
The new Nordic ideology works well in New England, where a rich sense of culinary nostalgia lends itself to the spirit of modern renovation and exploration in restaurant kitchens. Local chefs like Crabb and Jason Bond of Bondir in Cambridge and Bondir Concord are incorporating the movement into environmentally conscious menus made interesting by clever avant-gardism. Half serious and half tongue-in-cheek, this style manifests itself through the creation of miniature flavor tableaus, where every bite tells a story.
Case in point, Crabb’s seasonal tasting menu recently featured striped bass with “beach flavors,” a concoction of fried seaweed, pine salt, pickled rose petals, and potato chips. “Potato chips have to be included,” says Crabb, laughing, “because in my memories of being at the beach, we always ate them. The idea is for each bite to encompass a whole scene, to make you feel like you’re right there in that moment.”
Bond has been wielding some Old World-style magic in a pistachio steam cake with poached figs, pistachio crema, and porcini gelato. At Bondir, dishes punctuated with bursts of fresh herbs are often whimsically plated on a flat rock or salt block, and if a dab of local blackberry mostarda or a sprinkling of edible hyssop graces the plate, so much the better.
At the Smorgasbord festival, old Scandinavian cuisine is present too, representing the colorful spectrum of the region’s classic foods. Crumbly kringle, an almond pastry with gooey marzipan and a scandalously delicious amount of butter, are here, and the heady scent of juicy polse and prinskorv sausages drifts across the lawn. There is a considerable line at the Swedish meatball stand, where a heavenly creamy gravy cloaks each morsel.
Norwegian fish was chosen as the competition medium largely because the Norwegian Seafood Council was the event’s major sponsor. Most chefs have opted for salmon, and competing entries are more neo-Nordic than the fare offered at other tasting stations, with a focus on multiple components, whimsical pairings, and edible garnishes.
The contest winner is Peter Hansen, chef of The Cottage in Wellesley and Chestnut Hill, with an entry of Norwegian salmon two ways, one hot-smoked with pickled beets and mustard glaze, the other a piece of belly cured in juniper and peppercorns on a potato pancake with horseradish cream and caramelized apples.
High-brow fare for sure, but on a paper-plate. No insects involved.
Jessie Hazard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.