Dried Marigolds, Nettle Soup and Reindeer Prosciutto
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Here are three new books for those interested in eating closer to nature, from recipes using seasonal foods and locally produced ingredients, or finding (and cooking) friendly, edible weeds, to the anthropology of cooking.
Fäviken by Magnus Nilsson
Celebrity chef René Redzepi, whose world renowned restaurant, Noma, is known for its foraging philosophy, recently announced that he would close his Copenhagen restaurant which will re-open as an urban farm connected to a new restaurant. Like many chefs, having access to a trusted supply of locally produced ingredients will give him ultimate control. Known as the father of the new Nordic food movement, Redzepi realized the importance of moving towards seasonal foods and keeping dishes and ingredients as fresh and interesting as possible.
Magnus Nilsson, probably now known as the son of the new Nordic food movement and one the world’s most daring chefs, has been following the seasons and foraging close to home since he opened Fäviken Magasinet, his restaurant and hotel in rural norther Sweden in 2008. Nilsson’s Fäviken (the book) is a visual, humor-filled delight and more of a glimpse into the mind of the chef rather than a cookbook, in which he shares the story of Fäviken.
It seems that Nilsson wants to tempt you to drive seven hour drive north of Copenhagen to his restaurant, rather than cook the food yourself. Recipes that feature dried marigolds, fermented fennel and new season lichens sound unusual and are. If you can find some of these ingredients in your nearby field or forest, you may be able to replicate some of the recipes in Fäviken. But this is much more than a mere recipe book, this is a tale of food philosophy, foraging, and a bit of fun.
Despite being located in a remote area in the heart of northwest Sweden’s forested wilderness, Fäviken Magasinet is renowned for its eccentric and original style of cooking and is now top of the list for global culinary pilgrims. Fäviken is the kind of place we long to be – somewhere close to the land and earth, with fire, ice and stars - an authentic experience. Luckily, Fäviken takes us there.
Fäviken’s unique and often unique offerings come from a strict regime of locally hunted, foraged, fished, farmed and preserved ingredients. Nilsson, who was born in the area, has put his knowledge to sourcing the best local produce and animals and then using them in the most efficient ways possible.
This wonderfully produced text includes many of his own images of the region, where he walks and forages (he has exhibited his photographic work), giving a sense of the seemingly barren land from which he succeeds in extracting miracles. The otherworldliness of the location of the restaurant is part of what makes it so incredibly special.
Nilsson has been pushing the boundaries of hunter-gatherer cooking since opening the restaurant in 2008, quietly paving his own path as a ‘foraging’ chef, evolving and refining his recipes and seasonal menus along the way. In order to achieve some of his extraordinary dishes, Nilsson and staff are active all year round, foraging, drying and pickling, preparing for the winter months. Many of the dishes incorporate subtle elements of local tradition of Nordic cooking. One might even call it Arctic cooking.
Butchering takes place in a barn on the estate as does the drying and curing of meats. Nilsson recounts the lengths he goes to in order to source the best treated cows in the area and then goes full measure to use most parts of the animal. Tiny portions of dried meats are incorporated into dishes such as a very surprising meat pie of reindeer prosciutto. While the vegetable garden is abundant in the short summer, cloudberries and marigolds are carefully preserved and served on a beautiful breakfast porridge in winter.
The triumph of his cookbook is not so much the recipes (most are difficult to replicate unless you grow or forage lichen and moss) but rather, the story of how the restaurant works and Nilsson's journey as a chef. He shares his philosophy around the importance of ritual and the theatre of the presentation of the food at each course in order to interact with patrons.
Nilsson is generous with the various techniques he uses in his cooking: the use of fire, how he chooses livestock, his preferences on butchering, or how to make bone broth. Details on fermenting, making vinegar in a tree and cellaring vegetables are also shared as processes rather than recipe.
One can almost taste the seasons in the photos, where bits of produce are plated in minimal fashion, but then there is also something rather contrived in Nilsson’s intellectual and sometimes humorous approach. Nilsson has achieved success by creating a most unpretentious yet refined story, while amusing himself, his patrons and voyeurs at the same time.
Fäviken, the book and the restaurant, reconnects to the earth in a way that pulls the heartstrings of many visitors to restaurant but if you can’t get there the cookbook is almost good enough. Of course, tasting the food would enhance the experience beyond expectations.
by Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland
Getting in touch with your hunter-gatherer roots couldn't be easier than looking around you in your urban or suburban landscape. Foraging for weeds in cracks in the sidewalk or in a field down the street or even in your local cemetery will reveal a landscape abundant with friendly, edible weeds, according to The Forager’s Handbook. Authors Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland have become students of weeds, their nutrition and many beneficial uses and are advocating we all take more notice of these sorely neglected plants.
There are many celebrity chefs espousing foraging but The Forager’s Handbook gives insight into more wild and obscure greens that haven’t always been so popular on the celebrity restaurant menus. Wild eating takes a different turn when you consider you might find lunch along the footpath or in a back alley.
The authors are exuberant weed supporters, noting that if we look at the landscape in a different light, green pockets around us everywhere will reveal free and edible foods. Whether walking to the train station or out to milk the cows, you might begin to see the abundance of weeds that historically have been seen as ‘out of place’ or undesirable.
Weeds like the iconic dandelion and sow thistle are abundant in many places around the world, not just in Australia. Purslane is another common, edible and nutritious weed, found globally. The book points out nutrition facts such as: purslane has more nutrition than spinach, is high in iron and omega 3 fatty acids.
The authors are quick to point out sensible warnings such as being aware of high pesticide areas (public, urban lands) and always identifying what you are picking and eating. Excellent images are provided to help identify and differentiate between edible and non-edible weeds. Inedible or poisonous weeds are still good to know about for medicinal purposes. It also gives the history and uses of many weeds, along with medicinal uses.
Recipes such as nettle soup and dandelion salad are two old favorites that we don't think of eating these days. The English have always had a history of foraging and used nettles and elderflower in traditional recipes. Many indigenous cultures have known about and used native plants for centuries (many of which now are considered weeds).
What to cook once you gather your weeds? Purslane yogurt dip looks like a perfect match for falafel, and wild garlic mayonnaise could be a swap for traditional aioli. Other ways to incorporate weeds into a meal are baked eggs with cooked nettles or a salad of wild rocket and sow thistle leaves. Edible flowers such as fennel and nasturtium can make a pretty and tasty addition to salads. Chicory, often found along roads or highways, can be used to make a drink alternative to coffee (along with dandelion) that has benefits for liver function.
Why forage? Foraging for food has the benefit of being free but also connecting us to the landscape around us. Fruits can be found hanging over streets in more places than you previously realised. The joy of foraging for wild foods has always been known, from truffles and mushrooms to wild asparagus. Now weeds are part of the wild hunt for food as well.
Learning about the potential gifts of the ‘weedscape’ may inspire some to create their own small garden revolution at home, realising they can relinquish the battle against weeds and stop pulling and spraying. Increased weeds and less pesticide use will also encourage friendly insects and pollinators, just what every landscape on the planet now needs more of.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation is another book which doesn’t necessarily belong in the cookbook section on the shelf. This book is more of an anthropological study of cooking, offering insights into why we cook and our relationship with food. In his role as professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley, Michael Pollan has had many opportunities to share his ideas and research. He is well known for jump starting the campaign to think about where our food comes from and the results of the corporatization of food.
With Cooked, Pollan repeats and builds on the the message that needs to be heard again: The food industry has undermined the tradition of cooking and our capacity to ensure our nutrition. The Omnivore's Dilemma, along with his other books, In Defense of Food and Food Rules have a similar message as Cooked. Eat unprocessed, fresh, and sustainably produced food. Get back to the kitchen and away from ‘secondary eating’ (eating while preoccupied with other activities). Take back the most human of all institutions - cooking and sharing a meal.
Cooked follows Pollan’s own journey through learning to cook four recipes that become the basis for each of the themes of the book: fire, water, air and earth. Fire takes him to the origins of cooking in the Australian outback with the indigenous people cooking their fresh catch of lizards over open fire. He then turns to a master of great southern American barbecue to experience the slow roasting of a whole animal. On the subject of water, he looks at how cooking in a vessel, boiling and braising transforms food and its flavors. Pollan then moves into the biology of working with grains and yeast during his exploration of air. Learning to bake bread takes him back to something that every household used to do. Earth explores bacteria and yeast through fermenting, cheesemaking and brewing.
Critics have called Pollan and his books elitist. How can the average person (globally) source their food for its sustainability, freshness and nutrition? But, he claims, Cooked is his own journey to find answers for himself, how he learned to cook a few basics for his own health and share those with his family and friends. He also points out that cooking is something we all do, just like eating. All peoples everywhere find ways of cooking, however concerns are growing as many are struggling to retain their traditional dishes and ways of cooking. Certainly in the US, people have lost the ability to source fresh food and cook it themselves.
The relationship between a diet of processed foods, high in sugar, fat and additives to chronic disease has been well documented but Pollan points out the most current research in this area. He shares specifics about diseases and the effects of eating some foods that many readers will find helpful.
For younger generations today, learning to cook is probably the most important thing they can do to ensure and improve their own health and well-being. Pollan argues that the ordinary person, young and old, needs to be more self-sufficient in looking after their own diet rather than letting the food corporations do so.
The beauty of Cooked is how Pollan connects the reader with the natural world. Starting with our digestion, going through why we want to eat, how we want to share food and how we prepare it, he looks at the basics of the importance of food. His research highlights the relationship of man to food for energy but also how cooking processes transform food to benefit digestion, gut health and brain growth.
We are now entering a post-industrial world of food preparation where movements like slow cooking, kitchen gardens at schools and foraging are becoming more commonplace. Pollen’s goal with Cooked is to further enlighten us about good eating habits, through a series of human stories that we can all relate to. At the end of the book he completes his four recipes and creates a dinner party to share the food he has created. This, he claims, is the height of any meal in most cultures; sharing with others. Certainly breaking bread with friends and community is one of the oldest traditions in many cultures.
Cooked is a powerful reminder that a meal is an institution, something that often evokes memories or even emotions. We have lost touch with how food gets onto our plate but also with some of the traditions and love that were an integral part of what and how we ate.
Michael Pollan is out to change people’s perspective and their household’s behaviour with Cooked. Without preaching, he presents a powerful argument for returning to the kitchen and finding time to enjoy simple, home cooked meals that are meant to be shared.
The potential for transforming not only food, but ourselves by grilling, fermenting, braising and baking is enormous. Pollan proves that cooking is one of the most important things we can be doing, not for our health but also for our community and family.