I've wanted to take on Nordic food for ages, but I've always been a bit worried that I wouldn't find anything here in Manchester that came close to the delicious, rustic freshness of the food in Scandinavia. It turns out I was wrong.
Just for a little context, Scandinavian food is ancient and still harks back to its Medieval and Viking past. The Nordic diet is also said to be one of the best and healthiest in the world.
Why? Because it focuses on local ingredients which are all enormously good for you – oily fish, grains, fermented vegetables and berries. Eat all that three meals a day, and you are living to 100 – guaranteed.
There really isn’t a reason not to love Nordic food- it is delicious and good for you – so I wanted to show my readers how you can get involved in this wonder-diet right here in Manchester. Like my Portuguese guide I did a few months ago, this is a sort of homage to the flavours of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Greenland and everywhere else widely considered to be Nordic.
Bread is one of those things that transcends culture and time, so I always think it is a pretty good place to start. Growing seasons are short in the Nordic countries and so standard grains like wheat and barley are often not plentiful. Nordic bread seems to hark back to ancient times as they are heavy on dark grains, nuts and seeds.
The most typical bread product from Scandinavia is Rye Bread. Dark rye bread was considered a staple throughout the Middle Ages in Nordic countries and indeed the UK because the grain is suited to our temperate climates and is therefore easy to grow. Rye bread is dark, dense and with a distinct, slightly sweet flavour. You can get a delicious loaf of rye from Pollen– I mean, where else?
If you want the full Nordic experience with your rye bread, you could make up some Smørrebrød. This comes specifically from Norway and is basically an open-faced sandwich. Buttered rye (that’s what the name means ( smør og brød– ‘butter and bread’) is topped with a variety of toppings such as cold cuts, prawns, smoked fish, cheese or eggs. They are then topped with sauce, usually mayonnaise, and decorated with a range of things which as just as visually appealing as they are delicious.
The additional toppings are just as important as the main bulk of the sandwich. For example, if you head to Kro Bar on Oxford Road in the University district, you will find a whole menu of Smørrebrød which are appropriately garnished. Think smoked salmon with mustard cress, lemon and asparagus or breaded fried plaice with Danish remoulade (mustard mayo with herbs and capers), Greenland prawns, cress and lemon.
There is nothing more Nordic in the food culture of Scandinavia more than the processes of smoking, curing and pickling. Due to long, harsh winters, food that is gleaned in the summer months must be made to last as long as possible. Therefore, the processes of preserving food is commonplace in this part of the world, and no Nordic feast is complete without it.
Scandinavians like their fish, and they like it smoked. Herring, salmon and mackerel are the most plentiful fish in this part of the world, and to me, nothing tastes more Nordic than a little Smoked Mackerel Pate with some crackers or knäckebröd. They do a fantastic mackerel pate on the new summer menu over at The Bay Horse Tavern – which is the perfect way to get a little taste of the coasts of Finland.
Nordic countries also like to smoke their salmon- but we all know (and love) what that tastes like. If you wanted to be really authentic with your salmon, you would make Gravlax. This is made by curing the fish in sugar, salt and dill. The sugar and the dill give flavour while the salt preserves the fish.
Historically, Gravlax was made by fishermen in the middle ages by salting and burying the fish in the sand above the high tide. This is another example of how the cuisine from this part of the world remains unchanged for hundreds of years- something I find utterly fascinating.
Nowadays, Gravlax is low in the sand department and high in the flavour department. It is typically served as an appetiser or starter with bread or with boiled potatoes with a dill and mustard sauce. Over here in Manchester, you can find Gin Cured Gravlax on the menu at Mr Cooper’s– served with beetroot and fennel which is divine.
Pickled veggies are also a staple in Nordic countries, and no smoked/cured fish is complete without a side of something vinegary. Beets, radishes, carrots, fennel, cucumbers- you name it, they pickle it.
I highly recommend doing some pickling yourself- it is very fun and you can live off the fruits of your labour for months to come. All you need is some vinegar, sugar and various herbs and spices to get the flavour you want- it really is as simple as that.
If you don’t feel like spending your Sunday elbow deep in vinegar and radish leaves, you could try The Plucky Pickle. She is a local pickle maker who supplies her wares to various food stores in the area. Make sure to try the epic Bread and Butter Pickles– they are perfect with smoked salmon or aloft your latest Smørrebrød creation.
You can check out where to find them here.
I feel like I’ve talked a lot about fish, but that is because it is a massive part of the Nordic diet. However, they do like their meat too. Scandinavia eats a lot of pork which is either roasted or fried in a similar way to schnitzel. In the winters, heavy, slow-cooked stews with beef, pork or lamb are eaten too.
That all sounds pretty familiar to us, but one thing that is pretty unique to Scandinavia is the consumption of game like Reindeer and Moose. I use the term game quite loosely here, as the Reindeer in this part of the world are semi-domesticated.
I know it might be hard to imagine gnawing your teeth into Rudolph’s rear haunch, but you have to think of it just like venison- after all, they are more or less the same as our native deer- only with a little more fur to keep them cosy in the wintertime.
It isn’t unusual to see Reindeer as a special on a menu of high-end restaurants in the winter time here in Manchester, but in the meantime, you can source it and cook it for yourself from online alternative meat stores. Reindeer meat has a strong flavour and is served in Nordic countries with rich spices like juniper berries and a sweet-sour jam of lingonberries on the side- which I’m sure we have all had at Ikea.
Speaking of Ikea, this guide would be utterly incomplete without the mention of meatballs. This dish is the ultimate comfort food in Sweden, and other Nordic countries all have their own variation of the meal.
They are made with a mixture of ground beef and ground pork and are much smaller than their Italian cousin- about the size of a walnut. They are cooked in a rich, thick gravy that is enriched with bone broth. Swedish meatballs are served with mash or pasta with a size of that sweet lingonberry jam.
I really struggled to find somewhere (other than the Ashton Ikea) that did these meatballs. However, I did find out that PLY did a special meatball pizza a little while back, which quite frankly, sounds epic. Let’s campaign to get that back on the menu, eh?
If you want the full experience though- definitely head back to KRO because they have them on the menu with crispy potatoes, sweet red cabbage and a liberal dose of red wine gravy. I’m drooling just thinking about it.