Friday, 22 January 2010

The Vikings are coming!

Hagar the Horrible and his merry band of Vikings (photo courtesy of King Features Syndicate)

Having seen Henning Mankell - author of the popular detective series Wallander - speak last night about his novels and his Swedish detective hero Kurt Wallander I was intrigued by the question someone in the audience posed about the 'gloomy' nature of Scandinavians. Musing on this question over my morning porridge today I asked myself how gloomy are we Scandis really? Yes, the suicide rate is famously high in Nordic countries (no doubt higher in Iceland since those banking cowboys bankrupted the country) but when I think of the fifteen years I lived in Norway my lasting impression of Norwegians and other Scandis is not one of gloom.

The weather can be gloomy, yes. And Scandinavians can seem reserved, austere and frankly a bit odd. My aunts in Norway certainly evince some demented behaviour but that's because they're vain ageing models and can't accept they are now wrinkly. I don't think it's a coincidence that said aunts have been on numerous diets for the past thirty years, and certainly the exclusion of butter from their lives is a likely cause of their lunacy. But I shall save that for my next blog post on the virtues of butter ;)

There's no doubt Scandinavians and our Nordic brethren the Finns and Icelanders are peculiar. Eccentric even. I suspect, as many do, it has something to do with the lack of daylight in winter and then an overdose of it in the summer. Leads to some imbalances in the system.

Seriously though, we Northern Europeans - along with the Japanese - have the longest lifespans on the planet, the highest standard of living and are top of the countries donating aid to help developing countries. And yet other than a vague image of gloom and doom and the idea that Scandinavians are quite virtuous citizens, most Brits I know haven't got the foggiest what goes on in Scandinavia, or for that matter, what the food is like.

So it was with some excitement this time last year when I discovered Danish chef and food writer Trina Hahnemann had published The Scandinavian Cookbook (Quadrille). Finally, a book that transported me back to Scandinavia through beautiful, evocative photography and unfussy recipes using seasonal produce, game and a LOT of fish, my favourite food. Trina's cinnamon bun recipe has been tried and tested a dozen times in the past year and she is a very very good recipe writer, an accolade true cooks will appreciate.

But perhaps before I go on I should confess my aversion to diet books. Between the crazy dieting aunts and the fact that I can still wear the same clothes as I did back in the '90's (yes snort away, I accept this is unfair!) I've never been too bothered with my weight. I walk a lot, go skiing when I can, swim in the summer and generally keep quite active throughout the year. In fact there have been phases when I've been less active and it shows - my mood becomes unpredictable, I become listless and grumpy and no amount of prozac will lift me from my oxygen-deprived slump. The cure is always fresh air and gentle exercise. Scandinavians are famous for our love of the outdoors and I reckon that has an effect on our health. Who needs the gym? So I choose to ignore fad diets, taking the long view that it's more important to enjoy your food and avoid excess as much as possible whilst getting outdoors as much as possible. Yes, that makes me quite dull. And yes I own a thermos. Hardly the spirit of the vikings I grant you! For that you'll have to meet Papa Johansen.

Anyway. Having enjoyed Trina Hahnemann's The Scandinavian Cookbook so much over the past year I was curious to see if her follow-up The Nordic Diet would match its predecessor for tasty dishes and evocative photos. And of course, dispel my snottiness about the word 'diet'.

(Quadrille 2010)

Thankfully Trina isn't the hectoring kind. There is no counting of calories in the Nordic Diet and as a concept it's more about adopting the habits of healthy eating, eating as much fresh fish, game, fruit and veg as possible, avoiding processed and refined food and balancing meals so you have a variety of health-boosting ingredients throughout the day. Cut down your sugar intake. That is a major health imperative, one which I sometimes forget. Refined sugar is the source of more chronic health problems such as diabetes, obesity and even cancer than we realise.

Recipes in the Nordic Diet are pared-back and easy to follow, in keeping with a distinctly modern Scandinavian ethos that regards too much fuss or embellishment as a vice.

I like this book, despite my initial scepticism about the 'diet' word in the title ;)

Arguably the most important point Trina makes in her introduction to the Nordic diet - aside from the key point that our food choices have ecological consequences - is that eating meals together, whether with family, friends or strangers is essential to a good quality of life. My Mother insisted on this when I was growing up and it was one of the reasons she never sent her errant daughter to a boarding school. Sitting down to eat a meal together every night was non-negotiable, and my parents included me from a young age in their dinner parties. This probably explains my middle-aged sensibilities!

Commensality is essential to social bonding, you don't need a food anthropologist telling you that, and I hope Trina's message that sitting down regularly with family and/or friends to eat together, discussing what's going on in each other's lives and the state of the world, laughing, crying, commiserating, arguing and telling stories together. If a reader of the Nordic Diet who thinks she or he doesn't have the time to cook and sit down for a proper meal anymore is convinced of the merits of cooking a meal from scratch and enjoying good Nordic food then that's a Very Good Thing.

So the fundamentals of the Nordic Diet include:

* Balanced meals with an emphasis on whole grains and seasonal vegetables
* Home-cooking with fresh ingredients, including home-baked bread
* Eating less
* Eating fish twice a week at least
* Eating game, chicken or meat only 3 times a week at most
* Taking time to eat with friends and family on a daily basis

(my italics)

If you still need persuading that Nordic food is the way to go then let me assure you Trina's recipes are packed with punchy, robust flavours. There is nothing bland about this book, the flavours work and you won't get bored eating food such as:

* rye and beer porridge
* spelt pancakes with blueberries
* mussel soup with potatoes and leek
* smørrebrød with salmon tartare
* beetroot burgers with barley salad
* monkfish cheeks, fennel and mash with dill and spring onion
* mackerel with baked rhubarb and cabbage
* goose breast with apples and celeriac salad
* venison meatballs with baked root veg
* elderberry soup with rye bread croutons
* spelt bread with rhubarb and strawberry jam

You get my point - Trina's recipes rock, they are nutritious and delicious and won't leave you feeling deprived or reaching for a cheap chocolate and yo-yo-ing in your weight. I've long been convinced of the virtues of spelt and rye, two grains Trina bakes a lot with. If you can, start switching from plain wheat flour to spelt, rye, oats and barley - you'll be doing your digestive system and overall health a huge favour.

I'd say the only thing I would have liked to have seen more of in this book is recipes for cured and smoked meats and fish, a staple in the traditional Nordic diet. Perhaps these would have been too intimidating for most British home cooks? If you're interested in making your own gravadlax though, Trina provides a reliable recipe in the Scandinavian Cookbook. As a final caveat to my otherwise two thumbs up for the Nordic Diet is Trina's assertion that one should use low-fat yoghurt or skimmed milk in her recipes but I'll get to that in my next blog post, they don't call me the full-fat dairy queen for nothing...

Overall, at £12.00 (and currently a bargainous £6.49 on Amazon) The Nordic Diet is a great investment. Nothing gloomy about this diet I'd say ;)

On that note, I'm looking forward to seeing Trina again tonight at a dinner she is co-hosting with the good people of Madsen. As we say in the Northerm climes, velbekomme!

With thanks to Quadrille for sending a review copy of the Nordic Diet


fran39 said...

Bought this week (it's cheap at Waitrose too) so this is a very timely review. And glad you liked it!

Signe said...

Thanks Fran! I spotted it in Waitrose recently, and hope you like the book. There are some cracking recipes in there :)

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

great review, Sig - v interested to read your thoughts on it, and on Scandi living more generally. Am pleased to see that Trina advocates eating together. Couldn't agree more, and Prue Leith is of the same opinion:

paul said...

V interesting wide ranging post! I used to travel extensively in Scandinavia on business and have nearly always found Scandinavians to be excellent company (particularly the mad Icelanders).

You're correct in that we know virtually nothing of your food - something hopefully that The Scandinavian cookbook will put right!

Signe said...

@aforkfulofspaghetti thanks Helen, I had spotted that link about Prue Leith, shall go read it now :) looking forward to catching up over Scandi fare next week!

@paul finally a Brit who doesn't think we're gloomy! The Scandinavian Cookbook and Nordic Diet are both excellent investments if you're interested in Scandi food. I have yet to try making Jansson's frestelse that you blogged about some time ago. And I have the anchovies too...
thanks for your comment :)

goodshoeday said...

I like the look of the recipes, I've already got her other book and think there is some great stuff in it. Is it worth having this in addition?
The basic tenets don't seem specifically Nordic though aren't they simply what anyone who believes in a balanced diet, good and food and good company would list regardless of their heritage?
Good review :)

Cheeky Spouse said...

I enjoyed reading your post and I have to agree on the many points you made on what makes food good.
Indeed, it is often not only the food itself that makes it healthy, but how it is eaten. Meal times should be beneficial to the soul as well as the body.
I too, am usually put off by the word 'diet' and hate all those preachy books that have us living off celery and wheatgrass juice, but Trina's new book looks utterly inspiring, so it's on my wish list. Plus I love Scandinavian food.
I think that Nordic cuisine is going to be (dare I say it) the trend now, although, personally, I would hope that it is more than just a fad, as it does deserve to be up there with the rest.

Signe said...

@goodshoeday I agree the basic tenets of the Nordic Diet aren't a radical departure from good common-sense nutritional advice. The difference perhaps is Trina's focus on using game and unusual fish, plus her focus on spelt, rye etc. You're welcome to borrow my copy if you're not sure you want to acquire yet another cookbook to go alongside the 500 or so you already have ;)

@cheeky spouse thanks for your feedback - am pleased to read you're a fan of eating for the soul (a great way of putting it) as well as feeding the body. I hope Scandinavian food gets the recognition it deserves, of course I'm biased but I think it's long overdue ;)