noma (Denmark, Copenhagen) – eating with the earth
Once upon a time, before all of the fancy food blogs, I stumbled upon verygoodfood and one of Trine’s many lunches at noma. It was just a one-star Michelin restaurant then but Trine’s captivating posts made it quite clear that this restaurant was worth more. With each successive post, noma bubbled further up my “to do” list. The timing never worked but I was fortunate enough to eat Redzepi’s food at Manresa last year – an experience that only solidified the need to travel to Denmark. This year’s early Summer vacation was Copenhagen or bust and I was quite fortunate to have Trine as my host1 for this special noma lunch.
Smoked quail egg
Noma’s star has risen quite high over the past two years with its naturalistic take on fine dining. The restaurant’s influence has spread rapidly – mixing El Bulli’s modern, and under-appreciated democratic, principles with Michel Bras’s “one with nature” approach. Redzepi has taken the L’Arpege “I’ll grow my own vegetables” philosophy a few steps further by sending out on a team of foragers to comb the Nordic countrysides for ingredients.2 It is a model that will prove influential but not necessarily imitated – there aren’t many (populated) places on Earth that can still yield an abundance of wild and foraged ingredients (though I suspect what populated areas might yield would surprise me.)
Question: Can you just give us a flavour of the type of ingredients you are using?
Rene Redzepi: …. We have a landmass here with only about 25 million people living in it, so there’s a lot of wilderness and it’s virtually untouched. There are a lot of wild plants – 50 to 60 common wild herbs, flowers and leaves, and about 60 types of wild berries – so we try to experiment with using them.
Not only is anything edible a potential ingredient, an ingredient’s ingredients are also fair game – oils, saps, leaves, and flowers. It is this exploration into largely overlooked by-products, flavors, and textures that link restaurants like noma, Manresa, The Sportsman, and Ubuntu together into conceptual cousins.3 This naturalist approach can be challenging to our notions of both “food”and “fine dining.” Industrial food production has limited the concept of edible food to a handful of plants, meats, and liquids while fancy restaurants have focused on a small subset of “luxury” ingredients. The dishes and ingredients served at noma will find limited overlap with either; but the skill employed to learn, coax, and balance such flavors in these restaurants is unquestionably haute.
This was a weekday lunch that Trine at verygoodfood was gracious enough to set up. She is (obviously) a frequent visitor to noma so she is quite friendly with the staff. This meal lasted six hours, enough time for the sunny weather to turn into a dramatic downpour. The lighting was great for picture-taking but note-taking was turned off – not every dish will have a detailed description. To say it was one of the greatest restaurant experiences would be an understatement – the staff at noma are very proud of what they are doing – and that enthusiasm and dedication might be the ultimate secret ingredient in the food.
Rye bread, chicken skin, lump fish roe and smoked cheese
Radish, soil and herbs
An introduction to the philosophy of the restaurant – eat nature, all of it – the “soil”, root, stems, & greens. With one dish, the restaurant’s vision and philosophy is simply stated.
Toast, herbs, turbot roe and vinegar
Squid and green strawberry, cream and dill
The squid, surprisingly tender for being raw, was cut into small cubes and drizzled with the cream. This was a delicate pairing that showcased the power of a simple herb, while the sweet cream luxuriously seeped into each bite. The acidity of the green strawberry, a flavor profile Redzepi must be particularly fond of, served as a foil but its strength was a challenge to my sense of balance. The elegance of the squid/cream/dill pairing was among the hallmarks of this trip.
Bread with lard
Shrimp, seaweed, rhubarb, and herbs
A tempered version of the squid dish – the Danish shrimp were sweeter and the rhubarb less abrasive – the ingredients sang together in harmony – herbaceous, acidic, and sweet. If you look closely, you can see the outline of a small shrimp under the seaweed, just behind the first cube of rhubarb.
Tartar and wood sorrel, juniper, tarragon
The iconic noma dish – a masterful balance of flavors. The wood sorrel, with its lemony brightness, is a perfect foil for the beef. Interestingly, this was served at the end of the Manresa dinner when a 48-day aged ox was used. This beef had a far milder taste, as it probably was not aged as long. Eating the dish with one’s hand, while a simple and common practice, helps further connect one with the food and the environment. This recipe is quite the hit in Denmark as I had a larger version for lunch the next day – at a different restaurant.
Razor clams and parsley, dill and mussel juice, horseradish snow
Aka the giant slug stuck in the sewage pipe. The clams, like the squid and shrimp before it, were of extraordinary quality but this dish employed a few molecular gastronomy techniques I dislike – unnatural agar agar textures and snow. The texture of the parsley jelly was a bit too congealed and disrupted the clam’s texture. The snow was too cold and obstructed the full taste of the clam. The clam in the mussel juice, with some horseradish incorporated sans snow, would have been an excellent continuation of the seafood motif – the concept was strong and its presentation resonated with the natural influences of the restaurant.
Fresh cheese, Axel berry shoots, watercress
The axel berry shoots exemplifies the noma ‘everything should be considered as an ingredient’ approach and the rewards that come from such risks. What probably does not even make it to most kitchens was one of the most amazing things I have tasted in my life. The leaves, when bitten, secreted an almond-like oil that covered the mouth, much like olive oil. It was a sensational effect that unfortunately over-shadowed my concern for the rest of the dish.
Langostine and söl
As good as many dishes were, this langostine, a perfect specimen if there ever was one, stole the noma show. Barely cooked, plump and sweet, born and bred just for me, this langostine could only be eaten by itself – it was too perfect. The presentation was equally beautiful, harkening back to more primitive times. (One is supposed to pick up the langostine with one’s fingers and wipe it across the stone and into the oyster sauce.)
Asparagus and woodruff, Shoots of fiddlehead, hops and bull rush
A great egg, from a chicken eating whatever they please, particularly during Spring, has many herb-like undertones. The greens in this dish, by themselves, were quite strong and high strung but the herbaceous egg yolk calmed and unified them. This is one of those “you can eat that?” dishes, resembling a forest floor more than haute cuisine.
Ashes and leeks, Mussels and king crab
Turbot and vegetable stems, pickled elderflower berries
Lobster and saladroot, hip rose and currant wine
Marrow and pickled vegetables
A nice respite from the never-ending food parade – a great way to cleanse the palate and pep up. The marrow obviously provided counterpoint, although there were some quite large pieces hiding in there. I have become addicted to pickled vegetables since my Kyoto visit and this dish makes me wonder how wonderful noma might be during the Winter.
Musk ox and milk skin, new young garlic and ramson onion
Birch juice and birch syrup, spanish chervil and honey
Beet and garden sorrel, crème fraiche and pickled hip roses
Walnut powder and ice cream, dried cream and dried berries
It is a restaurant that can be enjoyed with a single visit but it will, assuming Redzepi continues his development, reward the frequent visitor even more as the seasons speak. Different seasons are sure to bring a wide variety of tastes – it is a cuisine connected directly to the whims, fancies, and randomness of the Earth. Then consider that winter will bring a variety of preservation techniques (smoked, dried, pickled.) It is a restaurant whose excitement is hard to contain – from the enthusiastic staff and their obvious delight and commitment to the restaurant’s ideals to the endless possibilities with the philosophy they’ve chosen. It may require one to re-calibrate their conception of fine dining but the potential exists for the meal to change paradigms around those same concepts.
The totality of Redzepi’s cuisine could be ten years down the line as he fully exploits the bounty of his land. When one considers the diversity of ingredients to choose from, and explore over time, the sheer potential for range and nuance of flavor is staggering. And considering that it is already highly influential within its own region,4 the potential for the region’s restaurants to deliver innovative cuisine over many years makes Denmark a food destination whose stock may only rise. Spain revolutionized fine dining but its innovations can be applied anywhere; whereas, the unique ingredients that noma cooks with can only be found in Denmark.
I would like to go back – tomorrow.
1 – One of the great benefits to running a cult fine dining blog includes making friends with fellow bloggers.
2 – This could very well be Marc Veyrat from the pictures I’ve seen but, having never eaten there, I am not certain.
3 – Yes, there are certainly others but I do not know if I’ve eaten at them.
4 – It is a classic case of Schumpeter’s creative destructionism – rather than improving on the status quo, completely reinvent the market. Here, Rene Redzepi eschewed olive oil, heavy cream-based dishes, and foie gras for local foraged products; and turned his philosophy into a source of regional pride. Creative economics students with an interest in food could write a very interesting case study, or thesis, on noma. There could also be an interesting project in exploring the Nordic food cluster using Michael Porter’s theories on clusters – get some funding and report!