It seems that whenever the Nordic countries are mentioned in the news here in the UK it is mostly to draw comparisons; and that never bodes well for us. Whether it be the education system, welfare system, trust in politicians, working hours or broadband speeds, it would appear the Nordic countries (Scandinavian in particular) have the upper hand. So what about gastronomy? Yet again it would seem our Nordic cousins may have the upper hand.
Michael Booth’s latest book ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth Behind the Nordic Miracle’ briefly touches on the UK’s historical links with the Nordic countries, mainly our partially Viking ancestry, what really stood out to me was the mention of a Norwegian language professor at Oslo University who had recently declared English as a Scandinavian Language. Read a little further on the topic and it actually turns out that the UK has far more in common with the Nordic countries than it does with its mainland European neighbours such as France, Spain and Portugal in terms of humour, tolerance, religion, honesty, stoicism, weather and other culture shaping issues.
Other than the South American culinary explosion some would say we are in the infancy of, New Nordic Cuisine has to be one of the most interesting culinary developments of the last decade. For a region that was never on the gastronomic map, its rise to the top has been admirable, especially when you consider the basis upon which this new style of cuisine was founded upon. In November 2004 Nordic chefs, food writers and other food professionals got together with the aim of discussing the development of a new Nordic food culture. The result was a ten point manifesto outlining the principles which they felt embraced the spirit of this new culinary movement. The opening statement explains it best; ‘As Nordic chefs we find that the time has now come for us to create a New Nordic Kitchen, which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favourably with the standard of the greatest kitchens of the world.’
The ten points which follow revolve around a focus and appreciation towards fresh ingredients, seasonality, locality, sustainability and of course promoting local produce and producers. This manifesto and the brochure produced by the New Nordic Food Programme, display how this manifesto could be applied pretty much anywhere in the world, and other than being good for Nordic cuisine it is a good general guide for any national cuisine. So why are we not adopting this manifesto or developing one of our own here in the UK?
At this point some people may be reading this and feel that the UK had beat our Nordic cousins to it a while back with chefs like Gary Rhoads who led the way decades ago in terms of defining a modern British cuisine, which has now established itself with a new generation of chefs such as Simon Rogan at the forefront. This is all true; the UK has indeed come along way over the last few decades, it has also seen some great new restaurants open up all over the UK including Gidleigh Park, Andrew Fairlie and Restaurant Nathan Outlaw. However the UK is still heavily dependent on London as its global culinary representative and that London’s restaurant scene is still heavily dependent on foreign chefs and international cuisines to make up its reputation as being one of the world’s top restaurant cities (as well as one of the most expensive). A quick search on Harden’s or Time Out for ‘Modern British’ yields a list of results which are hardly inspiring, the first page of the Time Out listing includes a Grade-II listed greasy spoon on Bethnal Green Road. Ok so it not that grim; obviously you also have the Ledbury (run by Australian Chef Brett Graham), the Jason Atherton mini empire, Heston’s Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental and of course Simon Rogan’s Fera at Claridges, along with many others all of whom help put London on the gastro-map. Even on a smaller scale; as a team, Kitchen Theory are paying tribute the best of British seasonal produce and foraged ingredients, as part of our New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto inspired series of experimental dinners entitled Náttúra by Kitchen Theory.
Nonetheless it just feels like there is something missing. When you speak to chefs from other parts of the world very few acknowledge Modern British cuisine as holding any real value outside the UK. Unfortunately whatever the chefs of the UK have accomplished over the last two decades doesn’t take away from the fact that Britain is still best known for Sunday roast and fish & chips.
It may be the lack of a shared vision or that the right people have not put their heads together yet, whatever it is; ‘Modern British’ cuisine has a lot more to give and is yet to fulfil its true potential.