We've cooked with our fair share of chefs with Nordic connections, both in this kitchen and further afield, and we see the appeal of the cuisine to chef and eater alike. It's a cuisine inspired by the land, simplicity, tradition and making the most of every ingredient alongside experimentation and a sense of play. Orlando was here for our Oaxen Krog pop up and in this piece explores whether nordic cuisine is really new here or just something we've forgotten. It's particularly interesting that he mentions dairy here as our post next week will be about a research project that dives deep into the Scottish dairy heritage and some weird and wonderful desserts.
When I arrived at EFS on a Thursday morning for their pop-up with Oaxen Krog (last March), the first thing I saw as I came through the front door was chef Ian Doyle putting two empty bottles of Buckfast into the glass-bin. It was 10am. This was ‘New Nordic cuisine’ on tour… in Scotland. Three days later on Sunday morning, nursing both a cup of black coffee and a ferocious hangover, I found myself wondering why in Scotland we have not paid more attention to our northern neighbours. Furthermore, why is Scotland not more often considered a part of the Nordic region, especially in terms of its food? Although this may seem preposterous at first, when you break it down, the idea is not so far-fetched. Indeed, before the 2014 referendum it was suggested that Scotland might join the Nordic Council rather than the EU if it were to become independent. As interesting as this political question is, let’s stick to the scran.
If I were to simplify the influences on the evolution of Scotland’s food culture I would point to three main drives. From the south: English, from the West: Gaelic, and from the East: Norse. Although we perhaps don’t notice it as other more obvious influences, the Union with England effected a profound change on Scotland’s food culture. After 1707, London became Scotland’s political capital and main cultural reference point and Scottish lairds were certainly not immune to southern fashions.
While a fair part of the French influence on Scottish cooking came directly from the continent, the stranglehold that French cuisine has on Scotland’s restaurants was inherited from an English fashion for French food and the establishment of French chefs in fine London hotels during the 18th and 19th centuries. On that note, it is not for nothing that the French call the English les rosbifs (roast beefs) and the influence of our southern neighbours more meat-heavy diet, coupled with cheaper meat, has seen fish lose the importance that it traditionally held in the Scottish kitchen. Moreover, since the 2nd World War, the growth of Britain-wide brands and chains has further homogenised British food.
The Gaelic part of Scotland’s food landscape, and indeed Scotland’s culture as a whole, was all but eradicated as a result of the Highland Clearances. Over 100 years later it is still heavily marginalised although it is now finally gaining the recognition and support that it is due. Nevertheless, the wounds inflicted by the Clearances are far from healed.
Although perhaps not immediately apparent, the Norwegian Vikings who settled in Scotland had a profound influence on our gastronomic history and one which permeates our kitchen. So absorbed have they become that much of what we take for granted as ‘Scottish’ often has roots which run back across the North Sea. Although there remains plenty of speculation as to the parentage of the haggis, the theory which tends to hold the most water is that it is related to the Scandinavian hǫggva in both name and essence. We must also remember that both Orkney and the Western Isles were controlled by the Norwegian king until the 15th century.
Both Scotland and the Nordic countries have traditionally grown non-wheat grains; the climate and soil not being suitable. In Scotland we favour barley and oats while the Nordics tend more towards rye. England, meanwhile, favours wheat and in so doing places is closer to the wheat-focused kitchens of middle and southern Europe. If we look to fish dishes again, Scotland and the Nordic countries all enjoy soused herring, raw cured and smoked salmon, hot and cold smoked white fish as well as salted and dried white fish. Indeed it was the Vikings who first brought techniques for curing, drying and smoking different white and oily fish to Scotland. I would go further by agreeing with Annette Hope when she suggests in A Caledonian Feast that “it was Viking influence which made of the Scots a sea-going nation.”.
When the infamous Dr Johnson made his trip around Scotland he remarked that upon the variety of milk-based dishes in Scotland as opposed to England. If we look at many of these now-uncommon dishes, they often bring to mind an equivalent dish in one of the Scandinavian countries. Unfortunately, many of the Highland and Island dairy traditions are no longer as widely practiced as they once were. This is due in no small part to the Clearances, but also I fear to the elimination of raw milk from our diets coupled with modern refrigeration which together have removed the need for fermented milk dishes. Ru’glen (Rutherglen) cream, hattit kit, lappered, strubba and usted/ost-mylk are all examples of soured milk dishes which we can compare to similar preparations such as filmjölk (Sweden), surmelk (Norway), súrmjólk and skyr (both Iceland). Similarly, beist-cheese is the boiled or baked colostrum (the first milk after calving) and is still eaten in both Iceland and Sweden under the names ábrystir and kalvdans, respectively. Flot-whey, fleetings and scadded-whey are all names for a dish which Marian McNeill describes in A Scots Kitchen as being made by “boiling whey on a slow fire”, conjuring up images of similar reduced-whey dishes from the Nordics: mysinger (Iceland), prim (Norway) and messmör (Sweden). Even just from the name of the Shetlandic dish usted or ost-mylk, its Nordic heritage is clear to see.
So there you have it. Now, I’m not suggesting that Scotland should be admitted to the Nordic Council based on a shared history of sour-milk and smoked haddock. However, I thought it worthwhile to point out the proximity of Scotland’s gastronomy to that of the Nordic countries, especially at a time when ‘New Nordic’ cuisine is enjoying such popularity in Europe. It is essential that in developing our own cuisine we do not simply copy techniques and recipes from across the Nordics. My point is that we don’t have to, many of those traditions are also our own, albeit largely forgotten. Furthermore, in light of the obvious political tension that exists between Edinburgh and London let me just clarify that this article is not intended to offend our southern neighbours. Buckfast is, after all, English.
About Orlando Addis
Orlando studied history at the University of Glasgow, including writing a thesis on the history of Catalan food and its importance in Catalan culture today. he has worked and traveled all over including a dairy farm on Iceland, a hotel in the north of Sweden, farms in Spain and Italy and a kite surfing cafe in Patagonia.
After some elusive 'almost meeting's' with the team he spent about 6 months helping out at the studio, cooking, scrubbing, serving and generally having a grand time of it!
His interest in Scotland's food and landscape continues and he has spent several months over the past year hitchhiking and camping across the length and breadth of Scotland researching local food history and stories and meeting Scottish producers and it something he continues to research
He is currently cooking in Stockholm where he says he enjoys proper coffee and misses proper beer.
Photos all property of Edinburgh Food Studio
Words by Orlando Addis