Nordic delights: The Scandinavian diet is among the healthiest and most delicious in the world
The smell of roasted coffee and freshly baked rye bread pours out of the Scandinavian Kitchen on Great Titchfield Street in the heart of London's West End. The familiar scent is enough to make an ex-pat Scandinavian like myself feel a rare pinch of homesickness.
The small deli looks typically Scandinavian with its white walls and sleek wooden tables and chairs. It is packed with Nordic delicacies such as rosehip soup, sourmilk, crisp bread (more than 30 varieties), pickled herring (more than 20 varieties), mackerel, gravlax, black pudding, cloudberry jam, and countless rows of sweets – including the classic fruit pastille called "spunk".
Although many of the labels are incomprehensible to British people, they make up the vast majority of the shop's clientele. "We see ourselves as a small Scandinavian tourist board doing our bit to spread the word about how good our food is. There are more than 150,000 Scandinavians in London alone, but 85 per cent of our customers are British. They like the value for money and the quality," said Bronte Blomhoj, the 33-year-old Danish co-founder of Scandinavian Kitchen.
One of those stacking up on Nordic treats is Theresa Boden from London: "The food is very healthy, and it tastes great, too. I eat a lot of rye bread, partly because I am wheat intolerant, but also because it tastes really nice and it keeps you full for a very long time. I love the fish, especially the mackerel and herring. It's extremely good for you and it's really cheap."
Recent research confirms something that we Scandinavians have long suspected, that our diet of fatty fish, cabbage, root vegetables and rye bread is among the healthiest in the world. You only need to look at the figures (both numerical and physical) to see the effects of a healthy diet – in Sweden obesity levels are as low as 10 per cent with the other Scandinavian countries showing similar figures. In Britain, 25 per cent of people are considered obese.
"There are many reasons why Scandinavians are not fat, and our diet is one of the main ones," said Trina Hahnemann, 44, a Danish chef and author of The Scandinavian Cookbook, which depicts a lighter and modern version of traditional Nordic cuisine.
"Our food is simple and we tend to cook from scratch. There is not a big fast-food culture and no ready meals. We also tend to sit down with our families to eat our meals, an important point which shouldn't be underestimated. Good food culture is taught at home and there is no more important place than the dinner table," she said.
The Nordic diet has long been overshadowed by the great success of the Mediterranean diet, but it is now being touted as a healthier, more convenient and equally as tasty alternative by scientists and foodies alike.
According to new research, northern Europeans find it difficult to stick to the Mediterranean diet – which consists of fruit, vegetables, olive oil, nuts and cereals, low amounts of red meat and dairy products – because it's not compatible with the traditional diet and ingredients produced in northern Europe. It's also very easy to overeat on the less healthy items of the diet such as pasta.
"There is simply no way that you could over-eat in the Nordic diet because your body would not be able to deal with too much grains and oats," said Bronte Blomhoj. The Nordic diet is based on food that's easily grown and produced in colder climates – making it cheaper as well as more environmentally friendly to produce and consume for people in northern Europe.
The world's leading expert on obesity and head of the department of human nutrition at Copenhagen University, Professor Arne Astrup, has just launched a £12.2m project to develop a "new Nordic diet", which he hopes will help battle the increasing problem of obesity. "The plan is to develop a counterpart to the Mediterranean diet that is superior in terms of health effects and palatability," said Professor Astrup.
Nordic food is very much about simplicity, where the main ingredients (the type of fish or meat) flavour the dish. "Because the food is very pure, the quality of the ingredients need to be of a good standard. It's never cheap to eat well, but because the dishes are simple it's not expensive. Nordic food is still very much what the Vikings ate, healthy everyday food for the common man," said Charlotte Madsen, 31, the founder of Madsen, a recently opened Scandinavian restaurant in South Kensington, London.
For those thinking that Nordic food sounds bland, think again. The most popular spices and herbs include chives, thyme, cardamom, juniper berries, parsley and fennel. It's dill, however, which is the "garlic of the North" and is used in everything from pickled fish to crisps.
Rich in protein, omega-3s and antioxidants, the Nordic diet is based on high intakes of cheap but tasty fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon and trout. Meat and fish are nearly always served with boiled potatoes and root vegetables, and the bread is dark brown and full of grains and oats.
According to research from Oslo University, cold-weather veggies such as cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts contain some of the highest antioxidants of any vegetables and are also a great source of vitamin K. Rapeseed oil, the most common cooking oil in Scandinavia, has been found to be a good alternative to olive oil, containing more omega-3 fatty acids and being a good source of vitamin E.
Research also show that native berries from northern Europe such as blueberries, lingonberries and cloudberries contain as much unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids as fish per unit of energy. In many Scandinavian families, including my own, we do a double whammy of serving grilled mackerel with boiled potatoes and my mum's homemade lingonberry jam – enough to keep the doctor away for a long time.
The Nordic diet builds upon the "new Nordic cuisine" movement and the internationally recognised achievements of Nordic restaurants, such as the two-star Michelin restaurant noma in Copenhagen. The co-founder of noma, Claus Meyer, was the instrumental force behind the "Manifesto", a set of dogma-style rules for Nordic chefs set out in 2004. The 10 bullet points in the manifesto emphasise the importance of using locally and sustainably produced ingredients, as well as cooking according to the seasons – some of the themes which are already being advocated by many British chefs.
"In today's world we cannot keep eating products produced thousands of miles away from our own homes," said Trina Hahnemann. "The current political climate is perfect for the Nordic diet to become a success because it is both organic and seasonal. I think that in the next 10 years will see a huge increase in the Nordic diet.
"If you think about it, 10-15 years ago you couldn't buy mozzarella in the shops but now we take it for granted that every supermarket should stock these Mediterranean items, and I see no reason why that same thing couldn't happen to Nordic food."
Meatballs with thyme, summer cabbage and lingonsylt
700g of minced veal and pork
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons of thyme leaves, finely chopped
75g fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons plain wheat flour
100ml sparkling water
salt and pepper
700g new baby potatoes
about 40g butter
1 pointed cabbage, quartered lengthways
For the cowberry compote
1kg fresh or frozen lingon (cowberries) or cranberries
600g caster sugar
Mix the minced meats, onion, thyme and eggs together and beat well. Stir in the breadcrumbs and flour and beat again. Mix in the sparkling water and season. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Cut the potatoes in half lengthways. Put them in an ovenproof dish and mix them with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake for 1 hour.
Shape the meat mixture into small balls. Heat 10g of the butter and olive oil together in a frying pan and cook the meatballs until golden brown. Transfer to an ovenproof dish and put in the oven for 10 minutes. Melt the remaining butter in a frying pan and fry the cabbage for a couple of minutes on each side. Sprinkle with pepper.
To make cowberry compote, combine the fruit and water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 8 minutes. Pour the hot compote into a sterilised preserving jar. As soon as it is cold it is ready to eat, but stored in the refrigerator it will last for up to 3 months.
350g plain wheat flour
100g icing sugar
100g chilled butter, cubed
1 whole egg plus 1 egg yolk
butter, for greasing
125g caster sugar
500ml low-fat crème fraiche, to serve
Sift the flour and the icing sugar together into a bowl. Rub the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg and yolk and stir until the pastry comes together. Knead the pastry lightly on a floured work surface. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and leave to rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Lightly butter a 26cm-diameter tart tin. Roll out the pastry thinly on a lightly floured work surface and use the pastry to line the tin. Trim the edges and leave to rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Cover the pastry with a circle of baking paper and weigh it down with dry beans or rice. Bake for 20 minutes. Take the tart case out of the oven and remove the baking paper and beans. Return the case to the oven for another 10 minutes. Rinse the blueberries and mix them with the sugar. Remove the case from the oven and increase the temperature to 200C/ gas 6. Pour the blueberries into the case and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the tart and let it cool for 10 minutes before serving with crème fraiche.
From 'The Scandinavian Cookbook' by Trina Hahnemann (Quadrille £20)
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