Biking in the rain, potatoes, seaside villages, potatoes, endless green hills, potatoes…
Did I mention potatoes?
This session, I’m taking the class Nordic Culinary Culture and we’ve just finished our Study Tour, with the first leg taking place on the island of Samsø! Denmark is comprised of three land masses: Jutland, Funen, and Zealand (where Copenhagen is). In addition, it contains over 400 small islands! Samsø—spanning only about two miles by ten miles—is actually one of the bigger ones.
The goals of our tour are to discover Danish food culture outside of Copenhagen, specifically in the context of the New Nordic cuisine and adaptations on traditional food based on the land. In addition, many of our experiences will have a focus on sustainability.
Before I can talk about multiple perspectives on the New Nordic Cuisine, a definition is probably in order. Ever heard of the restaurant Noma? In 2004 a group of chefs created a manifesto proposing a cuisine based exclusively on ingredients from the natural environment of the Nordic region. Their goal was to promote high quality, local food, but also to create a distinguished alternative to the French and Mediterranean cuisine that had served as the international standard of “good taste” for so long. The end result is Noma and its many successors across Scandinavia: dishes that focus on the ingredients themselves, often foraged or harvested that day, and served in ways that highlight the flavors.
We’ve discussed New Nordic Cuisine (or NNC) in class mostly in sociological and political terms, which has been incredibly interesting. There has been a social identity and restructuring of culinary capital that has occured with the rise of NNC. We’ve learned about the effective branding of the movement (“Nordic,” an ‘empty label,’ rather than Danish, which is the food it mainly consists of), and its politics, with failed attempts to ‘democratize’ the movement and make the cuisine accessible. It is often seen by critics as pretentious and elitist, with notably a focus on white male chefs, but has remained relatively uncriticized by the media.
New Nordic is not quite reimagined traditional cuisine, although it can feature some elevated traditional dishes. Rather, it takes the same traditional ingredients from the land and prepares them in often unconventional ways. Noma, for instance, serves courses such as live ants, mould pancakes, and dehydrated cucumber skins.
In Samsø, we’re returning to the roots of Nordic cooking to experience the very best and freshest of the Danish landscape.
Day One: Arrival
Early on Monday morning we took a bus from Copenhagen to a port called Kalundborg. A two-hour long, very rainy ferry ride later, we arrived in Samsø! I was immediately charmed by the tiny port village and our drive to the town of Brundby. The landscape was a vibrant green even in the rain, lush and fertile.
In Brundby, we got bikes for the day and met our guides, Jeppe and Jakob! A few wobbly test-rides down gravel paths later, and we were off. First we biked to the town of Tranebjerg, where we surveyed the landscape from one of the tallest hills on the island. Perched atop the hill is also one of the oldest windmills in Denmark!
While gazing out to the ocean, we learned about the farming industry on Samsø. The island’s moderate microclimate lends itself to growing vegetables, as well as the extra minerals infused into the soil from the sea—no part of Samsø is more than a few kilometers away from water. The vegetables are more tasty and the harvest comes sooner here. Jakob claimed the strawberries and asparagus here are the best in the world—and the first harvest of the year of the famed new potatoes sell for over 200 euros per kilo!
Jakob explained how nearly everything on Samsø is controlled by farmers: the prices, the tourism, and the economy as a whole. There was a boom of farming immigrants, creating quite surprising diversity—within the island’s population of about 3,700, there are 39 countries represented! And in fact, neither of our tour guides were from Samsø themselves, instead having chosen to move here for the community.
The small farming population often creates an intriguing juxtaposition between old and new. For example, Samsø is entirely sustainable and organic farming has grown recently. At the same time, residents are against installing a single traffic light, since Samsø has never had one! “It’s a strange balance to live in,” Jakob told us, “but it somehow works.”
We biked from the windmill to a 100% organic, independent farm run by René Malarik, who is not from Samsø, but the Czech Republic. There was a farm stand out front, something which is quite common here. You pay for what you take on the honor system—or as Jakob said, “There are no cameras, but there is a lot of trust.” Often farmers will supply to local restaurants, then sell the rest in the stand—all harvested that day—thereby eliminating food waste.
René himself is down-to-earth, funny, and reminded me a little bit of a Hobbit from Lord of the Rings—wholesome and utterly committed to his food. After working on organic farms, he moved here and sensed a financial niche in the 100% organic farming sector—Danes, he realized, would pay a premium for things grown locally and on a small scale without pesticides. In other places, he explained, it might be difficult to make a living on organic farming.
We strolled through his small farm to see the produce. Small greenhouses lined the front, where warm-weather plants such as tomatoes, broccoli, and romanesco could be seeded in February, acclimatized just outside, then moved to plots later. Further down, we viewed a lush variety of vegetables: sugar peas, beans, three types of beets, kohlrabi, bok choy, carrots, salad greens, herbs, and of course potatoes, potatoes, potatoes ad infinitum.
René’s main business is supplying to local restaurants, most especially those in pursuit of the New Nordic ideals—use what grows best here, and use things that were picked today. Here in Samsø we see a stark alternative to restaurant depots and superfarms. The restaurants here have personal relationships with farmers; for example, last year a restaurant requested a specific type of potato for their chips, and this year René was able to plant them. Same with the three different colors of beets that he grows!
At 2.3 hectares, René’s farm is tiny even by Samsø standards; most big farmers here have about 2,000 hectares, while the small ones have about 200. But he still makes a massive yield by planting densely and rotating and harvesting every ten weeks to ensure a turnover.
How does 100% organic affect farming? In terms of sustainability, it is of course a good thing: it’s better for the environment and keeps the soil healthy, which in turn ensures a robust crop yield for years to come, rather than chemical fertilizers which degrade the soil. It’s cost effective, since the farmer René leases from keeps cows, whose manure is the perfect fertilizer. While it has its challenges, there are solutions—for example, René uses large, lightweight nets over many of his plants to keep away pests like insects and deer. (Yes, deer.) The nets actually end up being better for the crops as they protect from the elements and keep in moisture. And of course, the vegetables taste better! It’s a win-win.
Biking in the Rain
This wasn’t an “event” per say, but it was absolutely gorgeous. The landscape smeared by, edges softened by falling rain and billowing mists. The sea was a hazy grey to our left, blurry and ethereal.
Following the farm visit, where else could we dine but a farm-to-table restaurant? At the restaurant and hotel Strandlyst we were treated to the famous kartoffelmad. (Potato food/bread.) Traditional rye bread topped with a mix of wild shallots and ramps, then fresh new potatoes filled with a ramson (wild garlic) mayo mixture. Tiny, crispy new potato chips completed the final layer of the smorrebrød.
The end result was a delicious mixture of tastes and textures in every bite: a savoury bite from the bread, spiciness from the onions, firm-yet-creamy potatoes, a tang from the filling, and finally a crunch on top to complete the experience.
When we spoke to the chef, Matthias, we found out that this kartoffelmad is actually award-winning! Samsø hosts a contest each year—no surprise, considering the potato obsession. The chefs create a new spin on the classic dish every year, and this year Strandlyst won! You can read more about the kartoffelmad contest here and see some photos; I find it quite entertaining. Seriously, the website’s just called… kartoffelmad.dk. It is the kartoffelmad.
Everything in Strandlyst’s kartoffelmad is made using local produce, including the flour for the rye bread and a variety of local potatoes called Glorious potatoes. (In Matthias’s words: “The potatoes are from a little lady around the corner—well actually she’s not little, she’s actually quite scary.” And then, looking over his shoulder as if she might appear: “No guys, she’s really nice!”)
Following our lunch at Strandlyst, we sought shelter from the increasing downpour at Energi Akademiet, or the Energy Academy of Samsø in the town of Ballen. The building serves as a common space for community events revolving around the island’s sustainability. It hosts meetings and gatherings surrounding education and research, like seminar and exhibitions about energy, climate change, and sustainable resources.
While this is primarily a food and culture Study Tour, one of the major focuses of our trip is sustainability—good news for me, since I was able to take the course as part of my sustainable business practices minor. Samsø is a fascinating place to be as someone studying sustainability, because not only is it a major producer of local and organic foods, a vital component in local sustainability—it’s also carbon negative.
That’s right. Carbon negative. In 1997, the Danish government hosted a competition to decide which of its islands could be renewable energy self-sufficient, and Samsø won. It has gained international recognition with its success; the Energy Academy aims to showcase its journey so it can be used as a practical example of sustainable transition. (Read more about Samsø’s transition here.)
Samsø’s many windmills produce much more renewable energy than its 3,700 residents can use. The journey was a slightly rocky one, with no one wanting windmills on their property or blocking their view. The solution was to create economic incentives for people to “host” windmills; and if you can see a windmill from your window, you have the opportunity to buy shares in it.
Samsø is a very interesting example of how a small community can come together to live completely sustainably. However, it also illustrates how even places this tiny experience internal conflict when making sustainability decisions. Scaling this process during the journey to a sustainable world will surely come with challenges on a much grander scale, but this is one positive step.
Tante Tut & Onkel E
We biked across and down the island, a total of about 5 kilometres, until we reached the town of Kolby Kås.
You can see our route here:
There, we visited a lovely tea room right on the water. We got to rewind over coffee and delicious desserts made from local strawberries and rhubarb in season.
We stayed at a campsite close by that featured cozy cabins and a host of activities, including giant trampolines, mini golf, and a pool! We spent the evening relaxing, jumping on the trampoline, enjoying dinner (potatoes, neverending potatoes, and also some delicious frikadeller—Danish meatballs), and watching the Denmark vs. Russia football match. (Denmark won!)
Day Two: Surprise Shrimp
Maybe we should not have been surprised when we pulled up in the bus to meet our guides and they were holding up rubber wading suits for us with huge grins on their faces.
Samsø: Land of Adventure. And shrimp, apparently.
That’s right. We were going shrimp fishing!
After we slipped into the silly-looking suits, Jeppe and Jakob explained that today, we were going to make our own lunch using almost exclusively foraged and caught food from the area. We paired up, gathered buckets and giant nets, and waded directly into the sea.
The shrimp hide in seaweed and if you go to the right spot, it’s possible to catch up to 30 at once! The shrimp themselves are tiny and almost clear-colored. The seaweed they live in is also edible and has a mild, salty flavor when boiled. We all filled our buckets with as many shrimp as we could catch.
The view wasn’t bad, either.
On the way back, we foraged for herbs and other ingredients for our meal. Foraging in Denmark is legal so long as you collect no more than you can fit in a hat. We found a treasure trove of edible things along the coastline: wild onions (or ramps), horseradish flowers, sea wormwood, dogrose, elderflower, spear-headed orache, sea sandwort, glasswort, and my personal favorite, sea beets—thick red-green leaves that tasted earthy like beets, and saltier the closer you got to the ocean.
We had a mini cook-off when we returned, using what we’d caught along with local rye bread, fresh mayonnaise, and just-boiled Annabelle potatoes from Rene’s farm. We boiled the shrimp with seaweed or pan-fried it with butter, made potato salad or sliced them all pretty, and one group even steamed some mussels they found. Top with flowers for the true New Nordic™ experience.
NOMA, here I come?
I’ve never made food in this way before—I’m not sure anyone in the class had. It was quite humbling and extremely rewarding to cook food that we had just caught or found literally minutes before. This, to me, is the epitome of New Nordic Cuisine; this is what it’s all about. These are the roots and the inspiration.
After lunch, we took a ferry to Jutland. And that’s a wrap on Samsø!