A WHISTLE-STOP food tour to Denmark, Norway and Sweden leaves Karen Bowerman wanting more
For the guy who’s the equivalent of Gordon Ramsay in the Danish version of Hell’s Kitchen, chef Wassim Hallal seems a surprisingly agreeable chap. He arrives at his new deli, sporting a flat cap and the broadest of grins, and welcomes us, wholeheartedly, to Denmark.
Maybe my delight in his smørrebrød (Danish open sandwiches) has something to do with this, but even when my foodie companion, Bill, begins drilling him on sarnie specifics (“Is there onion in the remoulade?” “How, exactly, do you make the chicken skin so crispy?”) he’s still patient and polite.
Bill and I are on a whistle-stop Scandi food tour. We’ve got three days to visit three cities in three countries: Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
“Scandinavia is more than meatballs, pickled herring and Carlsberg,” Bill says, defensively. He’s already a bit of a fan.
We meet Hallal in Aarhus, on the country’s east coast. His deli, F-Hoj, has a classy cosiness.
Our open sandwiches are heaped with toppings: smoked salmon with avocado purée, smoked cheese and fresh horseradish; potato and pear with mustard and honey; and eggs and crayfish with grapes and salsify.
“I think texture is as important as taste,” Hallal tells us. “I aim for crispy, creamy, salty and sweet, all in one mouthful.”
Focusing on fresh, seasonal produce is at the heart of new Nordic cuisine. It’s led to a renaissance of Scandinavian classics, including smørrebrød, which is now being seen, and served, in a new light.
Using organic, regional ingredients is also the aim of Nordisk Spisehus, where Bill and I have dinner. The restaurant serves signature dishes from various Michelin-starred establishments.
“We get the thumbs up before we copy their menus,” a waitress reassures me.
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The restaurant manager and sommelier, Ditte Susgaard, clarifies: “We don’t just copy; we try to turn every dish into a tribute to the chef who created it.”
I find the concept a little bewildering (shouldn’t a restaurant be defined by its own menu?) but it seems chef David Johansen, from Copenhagen’s one-starred Kokkeriet, is pleased. Nordisk serves his pigeon breast with truffle.
Our eight-course dinner (DKK899; £90) with wine pairing (DKK749; £75) features dishes from five Copenhagen restaurants.
Among them is Clou’s salt and sugar cured scallop, topped with tiny discs of crispy rye bread and dried seaweed, and Kadeau’s squid in shrimp emulsion – the creaminess of the shrimp contrasting with a crunchy, almost palate-cleansing swede salad.
Pudding is Nordisk’s own: salty hazelnut ice-cream with crystallised white chocolate. It’s outrageously rich and insanely indulgent. “How many calories are here?” I ask. “Too many,” the waitress replies.
The next morning Bill and I catch a ferry to Sweden’s west coast city of Gothenburg. It’s known for its coffee culture (try da Matteo’s, which roasts its own beans) but we’re heading to the “Fish Church”.
It’s actually a 19th century fish market called Feskekörka in a building inspired by Norway’s wooden stave churches that were built without pillars.
The “aisle” is laden with fresh lobster, shrimp and salmon. But it’s the pickled herring that catches my eye. Choices include oregano and pink peppercorn, carrot and juniper and onion and bay leaves.
It’s quality again at the city’s new Koka restaurant, the latest venture from Michelin-starred chef Bjorn Persson. For 14 years he ran the multi-award winning Kock & Vin. Then, listening to customers’ requests for more affordable fine dining, he closed it down and opened Koka in the same premises, winning a best restaurant in Sweden award last year.
The restaurant is minimalist, its customers well-heeled. Our five course dinner (SEK680; £54) with wine pairing (SEK600; £48) includes Swedish crab on a mound of leek purée, and pork belly with Brussels sprouts and grated walnut.
The pork is served with a 2005 San Guglielmo. Bill beams – it’s what he calls a “classy wine”. Its acidity cuts through the fat of the pork and there’s a hint of spice and black cherries.
By the time we reach Tromsø, in Norway, we’re glad of a “lighter” supper. We have “just three” courses from the à la carte menu at Fiskekompaniet, a restaurant overlooking the harbour, but then get carried away with the wine.
On our final day, we forego fine dining for fishing. At Ersfjordbotn, a hamlet 15km west of Tromsø, we meet Trond Lorentzen, whose family runs a fish processing plant at nearby Brensholmen.
We clamber onto his boat and chug through the fjord. Gulls bob on the water; shoals of herring dart beneath. We drop a line and almost immediately I’m pulling it up again – along with a 7kg cod.
“It’s a fish I’ll never tire of,” Trond says, as we catch several more.
In a small flat above the fish processing plant, Trond’s wife is peeling potatoes. We sit down to the freshest cod I’ve ever tasted.
As the day grows dark, talk turns to our foodie adventure.
“It’s been so much better than meatballs,” I joke, as Bill and I help ourselves to more.