Scandinavia has become the world's hottest dining destination. Ute Junker finds out how they did it.
Here's the first thing to know about Nordic dining. You don't actually have to have been to Scandinavia to have tried it. The food trends coming out of the deep north have become so ubiquitous that any regular restaurant-goer will have been exposed to at least some of them.
Ever read a menu that lists the local farmers supplying the produce, been served a dish decorated with twigs and edible flowers, or eaten in a restaurant where hemp napkins decorate a blond wood dining table? Yes? Then you have had a touch of the Nordic experience.
The second thing you need to know about Nordic dining is the man who launched this juggernaut onto the world: Danish chef Rene Redzepi. The quietly-spoken chef – who helmed his Noma (noma.dk) restaurant to the top of the world rankings in 2010 and went on to feature on the cover of Time magazine – is famous for his intensely local, seasonal cuisine. Think a plate of moss dusted with mushroom powder, or monkfish liver with caramelised milk.
It is not just his unusual ingredients that define Redzepi, however. It is the entire dining experience, a degustation menu of more than 20 courses that eschews old-school formality, matched with local, organic wines. Chefs deliver the carefully-arranged plates themselves, talking guests through the farms where the produce was grown or the forests where ingredients were foraged. It is less a meal than an experience, one that has found plenty of takers despite the steep price tag (currently DKK1,900, or about AUDS375 per person, just for the food).
Noma has inspired a new breed of restaurant, and nowhere does it better than Scandinavia. Although Noma is closing its doors at the end of this year, to be reinvented as an urban farm, you can still experience the full Nordic phenomenon at one of these other Scandi stars.
Geranium, Copenhagen, Denmark
Redzepi's hottest competition in the chef pin-up stakes, Rasmus Kofoed, has already beaten the Noma chef on one key indicator: he has received the Michelin Guide's highest accolade of three stars, one more than Noma.
So what can you expect from Geranium (geranium.dk), oddly perched on the eighth floor of the national soccer stadium? The Universe menu (upwards of 20 courses) delivers delicately arranged dishes featuring seasonal ingredients and playful touches, such as razor clam shells that are actually made of dough coloured with squid ink, designed to be eaten whole.
One more thing: If the idea of a matching wine for each course seems somewhat overwhelming, opt for the juice matching, which features combinations such as blueberry and pine or blackberry and beech wood.
Fäviken, Järpen, Sweden
It's not every chef who offers you a bed for the night, but that's the way chef Magnus Nilsson rolls. Then again, most of his diners will need somewhere to sleep, given that Järpen is around 600km north-west of Stockholm. Nilsson's rooms for rent are not overly luxurious – the bathrooms are shared – but diners do get the chance to relax with a pre-dinner sauna.
What you are really here for, of course, is Nilsson's food. Apart from some seafood from Norway, all the produce is sourced from the hunting estate that surrounds the restaurant, often transformed using traditional techniques such as salting, pickling and jellying. What's on the menu? Anything from deep fried pigs head to "bog butter", buried in peat to add an earthy flavour.
One more thing: If dinner at Fäviken (faviken.com) doesn't fit your itinerary, try Nilsson's other, more democratic outlet: the Korvkiosk hotdog outlet in Stockholm.
Maaemo, Oslo, Norway
When chef Esben Holmboe Bang opened this eight-table restaurant back in 2010, he made his intentions very clear. The name Maaemo (maaemo.no), or "Mother Earth", declares Bang's dedication to all things natural and organic.
Maaemo's multi-course menu starts with a series of amuse bouches such as a cornette filled with chicken liver and elderflower jam, and a raw oyster emulsion with a mussels and dill sauce. Bang has a penchant for unusual ingredients - your bread may be made of emmer, one of the first cultivated grains – and loves a touch of drama. Just look at the langoustine tail nestled on a bed of spruce needles. As it is served, pickled spruce concentrate is poured over dry ice to release a blast of pure forest air.
One more thing: Maeemo won two Michelin stars just 15 months after opening, an extraordinary achievement.