February is the coldest month, and February in Denmark is about as bleak as it gets—until I reach Finland. Looking at the desolate fields near Lammefjorden outside Copenhagen, at first I don't see much to eat. But Soren Wiuff, a vegetable farmer, is digging up crosnes, tiny curlicue-shaped, artichoke-flavored roots, with his bare hands. A Danish TV crew is taking close-ups of my shoes punching through the frozen mud crust. It's hard to say which they find more entertaining: the idea that someone would visit a root-vegetable farm in Prada heels or that anyone would travel to the Nordic region in search of haute cuisine.
Let's face it, the gastronomic reputation of the far North is as dim as the winter sun. Sure, beets and pickled herring have been somewhat rehabilitated by ambassadors like Marcus Samuelsson of New York City's Aquavit and TV chef Andreas Viestad, Norway's answer to Jamie Oliver. But the Nordic countries are still far better known internationally for progressive living and modern design than for innovative haute cuisine.
That's about to change. Word is getting out that there is something wild and delicious stirring in this frostbitten soil, waiting to be discovered. Chefs who have long looked to France, Italy and Spain for inspiration and ingredients are now literally combing their backyards for the raw materials to create a cool new Nordic cuisine. Instead of the borrowed prestige of imported foie gras and truffles, the new taste of the North is foraged chickweed, Arctic brambles and livestock breeds that date back to the Vikings.
Leading the expedition for native flavors is Noma, a visionary modern restaurant in a 250-year-old Copenhagen shipping warehouse. Chef René Redzepi is half Macedonian but 200% Dane, and he's on a mission to put the unique tastes of the North Atlantic on the map.
At Noma, you won't find sun-dried tomatoes or year-round strawberries, nor will you find your Scandinavian grandmother's pork and cabbage warmed over for modern tastebuds. What you will find is a sophisticated Arctic-musk-ox tartare with wild wood sorrel that you eat with atavistic pleasure with your fingers, or maybe phenomenal giant langoustines from the Faroe Islands. Instead of olive oil, there's skyr, a virtually fat-free cultured-milk product from Iceland, and homemade elderflower vinegars and pickled sweet cicely. The dishes are executed with such aesthetic refinement that they take on a quality of something between memory and dream. There might be a whole garden of potatoes in a medley of temperatures and textures, dusted with crunchy malt "soil" and served on a hot stone from the potato field rather than a plate.
But behind the cerebral abstraction of Noma's edible landscapes is the land itself. When I see heirloom curly sheep cropping the grass under the snow on Niels Stokholm's biodynamic dairy farm a short drive from Copenhagen, I suddenly understand that I am looking at last night's dessert, a minimalist "cannelloni" of frothy sheep's-milk mousse with a frozen granita made from sweet herbs and grass straight from the pasture. The connection between terroir and table just reached a whole new level. Forget caviar and Kobe beef and ruined designer shoes. Real luxury is being able to walk among 50 red Danish dairy cows on a farm that boasts a prehistoric altar to the Norse god Thor.
Small, high-quality producers and foraged native foods are also the driving passion of Finnish chef Markus Maulavirta of Restaurant Ilmatar in the stylish Klaus K hotel in Helsinki. He even owns a patch of Arctic swamp to pick his own cloudberries and joins an annual wild-reindeer roundup in Lapland. For his 50th birthday, the chef spent 12 days biking the entire length of Finland, savoring every mile of the journey. His menu is an ode to the land, its traditions and its caretakers, featuring items like bread made from birch-bark flour, and sauna-cured ham from pigs raised for flavor rather than volume. "I try to show people—both Finns and foreigners—that Finnish food is very good food," says Maulavirta. "We need to support small producers and stay close to nature."
Foraging wild foods is very much at the heart of Finnishness, where everyone has the right to pick wild berries and mushrooms even on private property. Yet there is a surprisingly big disconnect between the field and the plate. Commercial Spanish strawberries, bred for long shipping, are far easier to find on Helsinki menus than the wild Finnish strawberry exploding with the flavor of 20 hours of sunshine a day. And although Finns have figured out how to safely prepare korvasieni, a poisonous false-morel mushroom, by boiling it three times, porcini were long considered reindeer fodder.
There is admittedly a certain irony in redefining as luxury items ingredients formerly associated with subsistence eating or animal feed. It wasn't all that long ago, before the days of Nordic affluence and takeout pizza, that eating tree bark and foraging for edible lawn clippings were reserved for dire necessity or particularly hard times. "For a long time," says Danish restaurant critic and former Slow Food president Bent Christensen, "all we had were pigs, coal, potatoes and the cold. We were not proud of our own kitchen. Not anymore. We want to discover our own good things. Nordic cuisine is our values and our gift to the world. It's pureness, freshness, enjoyment and happiness."
These days, there is a resurgence of regional pride and cultural identity across national lines as a reaction to globalization. Mathias Dahlgren closed his acclaimed Spanish restaurant Bon Lloc and has opened a "new Swedish identity" restaurant, Mathias Dahlgren, in Stockholm's Grand Hotel. Significantly, Nordic chefs are looking not only in their own backyards but also to one another for inspiration and to their governments for support. The Nordic Council of Ministers, recognizing the marketing tool that gastronomy can be, enthusiastically promotes the interests of new Nordic food as official policy. Pekka Terava of Helsinki's Olo restaurant points out that while each Nordic country is small, the region has a combined population of almost 25 million people. When it comes to cultural influence, there is strength in numbers. Noma's Redzepi sees all that open space as uncharted culinary territory. Did you know there are more than 130 different kinds of horseradish registered in the Nordic gene bank? "We've only just begun to scratch the surface of flavors to discover."