Northern exposure

Felicity Cloake explains why Scandinavian cuisine is giving the French a fright.

Once upon a time, we could afford to lord it over our northern neighbours. They might have low crime, great design and cheekbones to die for, but the Nordic climate makes Margate look positively Mediterranean, and as for their food - well, Jacques Chirac dismissed it as even worse than our dismal efforts in the kitchen. Instead, Britain turned south for inspiration: a year in Provence was preferable to an eternity in Eskilstuna as far as the chattering classes were concerned.

Yet Scandinavia's star is suddenly in the ascendant - we can't get enough of Swedish detective fiction or Faroese knitwear (as modelled on BBC4's cult Danish drama The Killing), and nowadays it's easier to find an open sandwich than a jellied eel in the capital's eateries. In fact, Nordic food was widely tipped to be one of the hot culinary trends for this year - which may come as a surprise to anyone who's ever had the pleasure of an Ikea hot dog.

Of course, the Swedish behemoth isn't the only big name in Nordic cuisine. The year after Chirac's charming remark, a Copenhagen eatery made its debut in the annual list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

Noma, a contraction of the Danish nordisk mad, or Nordic food, is a trailblazer for Scan­dinavian pride in a region where most kitchens remain rooted in the classical French tradition. In 2010, four years after its first appearance on the list, Noma came tops - a position that it retains today.

However, Stefan Chomka, deputy editor of Restaurant magazine, which runs the 50 Best competition, dismisses talk of a culinary revolution. "While Nordic food is influencing how some chefs cook," he tells me, "it's premature to talk about a Nordic food trend in the same way you might talk about a trend for French, Spanish or Asian cuisine." For a start, there are only a couple of high-profile restaurants in Britain that have a Scandinavian influence - and "many typical Nordic ingredients like lingonberries or herring aren't likely to be embraced by the eating-out public at large any time soon".

These are just the kinds of ingredients that Noma's chef, René Redzepi, insists on, promoting a localism that extends to a boycott of olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and anything else that would look out of place beside a fjord. That he has triumphed with Greenland musk ox and foraged seaweed when, as Chomka observes, it is still French food that "turns heads in global gastronomy" is more testament to the man's talent than a sign that Scandinavia has emerged as a culinary superpower.

Nevertheless, Noma is distinctively Nordic, and not just in the ingredients it uses, but in the simplicity of the way they are prepared and presented. (One of its best-known, or perhaps most notorious, dishes is a single live shrimp, served on ice, which skitters about unnervingly on the tongue. It was, without question, the best I have ever tasted.) The dining room is relaxed and informal to a degree that is sadly rare at this level: no tablecloths, no overstarched service. Many of the courses don't even come with cutlery.

This unfussy approach makes Scandinavian cookery accessible in a way that classic French cuisine is not. "Nordic food is about good ingredients being allowed to shine, rather than lots of fancy embellishment and tarting-up of dishes," the London-based Norwegian food writer Signe Johansen tells me. Flicking through her recipe book, Scandilicious, I am surprised how many of these ingredients are also found in our native larder.

Both British and Scandinavian cultures have a love of game, fresh fish and berries, as well as preserving and home baking. And, spiced apple cake aside, there is growing evidence that the Nordic diet is as healthy as its celebrated Mediterranean counterpart (and a good deal greener, besides, for those of us stuck in northern climes).

Local, seasonal and defiantly simple, Nordic food couldn't be trendier if it tried. Signe Johansen muses on how odd it is that it has taken Britain so long to recognise the riches on our doorstep. Looking at her recipe for Valhalla brownies, I'm inclined to agree.

Felicity Cloake will be writing a regularcolumn on food. She is the author of “Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire" (Fig Tree, £18.99)

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis