Thursday, April 23, 2015

Modern Nordic Cuisine - A Hot New Food Trend

Sea Scallops with Vanilla Foam at SPIS Restaurant


    When told that a woman devotee flew all the way from San Francisco to London just to hear Dame Joan Sutherland sing, the opera diva is said to have remarked "more money than brains."
What holds true for opera fans with plenty of cash is probably just as true for A-list gastronomes looking for the latest food experience. Something I found to be worthy a Trans-Atlantic trip (provided you have the wherewithal) is the Modern Nordic culinary creations now trending in Finland, especially in the capital city of Helsinki.
    The epitome of my Nordic culinary adventures took place in SPIS, a small, 18-seat, dare-I-say boutique restaurant, minimal on decor but oh so over-the-top when it comes to a dining experience where the food gets the spotlight.
Located on Kasarmikatu 26 in Hesinki, SPIS prepares small plates that are both visual works of art and culinary masterpieces using fresh Nordic ingredients. From my seat I was able to glimpse two chefs diligently at work in the kitchen carefully arranging each plate with the care of an artist working behind an easel.
SPIS’ menu is vegetable-based but it always includes at least one seafood and meat selection. An amuse bouche made of lovage cream and roasted veal, sea scallops prepared sous vide with vanilla foam and smoked salsify puree, salted whitefish with dill cream paired up with salmon marinated in aquavit and accompanied by herbroot cream and sea buckthorn are only fond memories now but eye-and-taste openers when they arrive fresh from the kitchen. To end my meal, an equally unforgettable cloudberry parfait with caramel and organic yogurt mousse proved quite the finale.
    Equally impressive with the dishes I tried were the artisan wines, such as a Blaufrankish red and a Welshriesling, both from  Austria, the manager selected as accompaniments.
SPIS - Interior View

Recently, SPIS was named Restaurant of the Year 2015 by the Finnish Gastronomic Society. "SPIS shows why Nordic cuisine is now such a hot topic around the world and is an excellent bearer of the flag of this trend," said Tiina Lähteenoja-Niemelä, Society chairman. "Its creative and flavorsome cooking features Nordic flavors in attractive and very imaginative combinations. Choosing the Restaurant of the Year
becomes harder year by year, which is a strong sign of Finland climbing higher on the
international list of culinary destinations."
 
    A word of explanation. Nordic is the term used to describe the nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland Denmark, Iceland and Greenland, which share a similar but not identical culture, history and social structure. It’s not to be confused with Scandinavian, which refers to all of the former but does not include Finland, which has a separate language heritage. (All of the languages of the Scandinavian countries are mutually intelligible, though not identical).
    Now that you’re genuinely confused, let’s get back to Nordic food, especially that from Finland of which I’m most familiar. In late July, the focus is on crayfish, when the longed for season officially opens and Finns head out to island or rooftop restaurants or stage crayfish parties. One popular restaurant during crayfish season, Saaristo, sits alone on Klippan Island like some Art Nouveau beauty. To get to this imposing villa with a wonderful view of the harbor take the shuttle boat that leaves the pier every 20 minutes.

Boat to Saaristo (green roofed building in background)
     If crayfish isn’t to your liking, you might try other Saaristo Nordic options like Arctic char smoked with Pihlajavesi alder, fennel and North Sea lobster sauce, Elk Sirloin and a wonderful sorbet made from sea-buckthorn, a shrub that produces orange-colored berries.
    One of Helsinki’s culinary pioneers, chef  Sami Tallberg, is a wild foods buff and cookbook author who’s worked in acclaimed restaurants around the world and gathered knowledge on wild plants. Each May, he searches for wild edibles such as orpine (which is said to taste like fresh asparagus), red sorrel, nettles, ground elder, wood sorrel, ground ivy spruce shoots, black currant and birch leaves and bittercress. In Helsinki, restaurants that use some of these wild edibles include SPIS, Chef & Sommelier, Olo and Luomo, Kuurna and Ateljé Finne.
    Located on the Baltic and with numerous inland lakes, seafood is another specialty. Salmon, herring, eel are now getting new and inspired preparations in restaurants all over Finland. To the East, the town of Savonlinna lies close to the Russian border and prides itself on its summer opera festival held within the walls of St. Olaf’s Castle, a huge stone fortress that dates back to 1475.
    The festival attracts around 60,000 patrons each year, many of whom make a point of having lunch on the Roof Terrace of the Sokos Hotel, known for its preparation of a local whitefish, Muikku (vendace), traditionally served on a wooden platter with salad and baked potato.
Muikku (vendace) at Roof Terrace at Sokos Hotel in Savonlinna

    For more discoveries of Finland’s culinary riches, step into the delicatessen at Stockmann’s Department Store in Downtown Helsinki. Stockmann’s boasts a wide array of domestic cheeses, meats, seafood, honeys, jams, breads and pastries.
    At one of many food boutique in the center of town, I spotted interesting delicacies from small producers across Finland. These include wild reindeer (poro), salmon, artisan cheeses, berry jams, fish roe, hand-crafted beer and cider, mushrooms, rye bread, smoked specialties, kyyttö forest cow (an original Finnish breed of livestock), artisan chocolates, rhubarb concentrate (just add water for a refreshing beverage) and bottled birch sap (said to be good for one’s health).
    Recently, the New Nordic Kitchen’s received a fair share of ink in the international media and has become a new taste sensation for those who appreciate foods from unique cultures. Renowned restaurants from far-flung places that put the emphasis on Nordic cuisine include Finds (Hong Kong), Aquavit (New York), Routa (Barcelona), Bistro Stockholm (Stockholm). Olo (Helsinki) and Noma (Copenhagen). It’s probably only a matter of time until this unique gastronomy makes further inroads in the culinary consciousness around the globe.
SPIS Version of Carrot Cake


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