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 is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

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