Scandinavian food: Why is it becoming popular in the UK?

Scandinavian dishes

Swedish food sales in the UK have risen by almost 30% in the past five years, with Norway and Denmark also reporting an increase in exports destined for our dining tables. So why is Scandinavian cuisine getting so popular here?

It began with the warm, creamy, cut-price meatballs designed to fuel flat-pack furniture fans seeking a break from the aisles of Ikea. But over the past few years Scandinavian cuisine has been spreading beyond Britain's retail parks and creeping into supermarkets and restaurants.

The latest figures from government agency Statistics Sweden indicate that Swedish food and drink sales in the UK were worth almost £290m in 2010. Norway measures its performance in weight, with about 127,000 tonnes exported here in 2011, a rise of 18% since 2006.

Last January, food trends agency the Food People tipped Scandinavian food as the "hottest UK culinary trend of 2011".

Since then UK retailers Waitrose and John Lewis have been trying out Scandinavian speciality products, from crispbreads to speciality cheeses and lingonberry jam.

Marks and Spencer has launched a range of Swedish cinnamon buns. Danish Chef Christoffer Hruskova's London restaurant, North Road, has been awarded a Michelin star.

"There are two sides to food from the region," says Scandinavian-born Mark Ruby, who runs KRO - a budget-friendly chain of Danish restaurants in locations across Manchester and Cheshire.

Classic Scandinavian dishes

Biksemad
  • Kottbullar - Meatballs with cream sauce, potatoes and lingonberry jam
  • Inlagd sill - Herrings pickled in a marinade of vinegar, sugar and onion
  • Kanelbullar - Sweet cinnamon buns
  • Biksemad - Chunks of roast pork sauteed with onions and potatoes topped with fried eggs and beetroot

"You have the hearty dishes, like meatballs and lots of pork and fish. They're comfort foods which people really enjoy, especially on a cold winter's day. But the other strand is food with a real attention to detail, things that you eat with your eyes. Danish open sandwiches for example or the smorgasbord, which is a platter of different dishes."

He says Scandinavian cooking is about quality and service. Some of the more complex Scandinavian meals take years to perfect, making it difficult to train staff working in the often transient hospitality trade in the UK.

"The world's best restaurant is in Copenhagen," he adds. Noma was awarded the prestigious annual prize by Restaurant Magazine, which draws on the opinions of more than 800 international industry experts.

"I think that Noma's success has helped open the door to Scandinavian food and the Scandinavian way of life. It's not so different from the UK so it's almost a voyeuristic fascination for people, as if they are looking over their garden fence at neighbours they have never noticed before."

For those within the food critic and blogging communities, the Scandinavian kitchen has been a major influence over the past 18 months.

Part-Norwegian Signe Johansen, a food anthropologist based in London, secured a publishing deal for the recipes she posted on her Scandilicious blog, with reviewers dubbing her the Nordic Nigella.

Rene Redzepi, of Copenhagen restaurant Noma, on why it was voted best in the world

Kerstin Rodgers, who blogs under the name Ms Marmite Lover and runs an underground supper club restaurant from inside her home in north London, became so obsessed with the region's cuisine she visited Sweden and brought back original ingredients to use at Scandinavian-themed dinners.

"I have been interested in other aspects of Scandinavia for years," she says. "I fancy the men and like a lot of people I enjoy Swedish design. Now it seems to be Scandinavia's turn to have a real impact on our cooking. There is a genuine movement in the UK supporting food from the region."

But why now? Is it the times we are living in that has made us chose this moment to turn our attention to dishes long loved by Nordic neighbours?

"For me it is because so much of it is fresh and healthy - apart from the buns," says Rodgers. "Cured fish and herrings are low carb, high protein and have fresh flavours, which people are looking for these days.

Kerstin Rodgers Rodgers thinks the cuisine will become widespread

"I think that culture has an influence too. I was so engrossed in Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that I tried to read it in the shower. I hankered after the sweater in The Killing TV series. The country itself makes a refreshing change from sun, sea and sand."

She believes that Scandinavian food consumption could soon become much more widespread.

"It is the same thing that we saw happening in the 1980s when there was a cultural explosion in Spain, with Pedro Almodovar's movies. After that, tapas restaurants started popping up everywhere in Britain. Or if you think about sushi, raw fish seemed mad when we first heard about it but not any more."

Analysts at the ESCP Europe business school take a different view.

"We are going through a period of austerity and we can't show off," says affiliate professor Jeremy Baker. "People are looking for authenticity and along come the Scandinavians to help us out, with a whole range of foods, designs and products which are nice, simple, very attractive, warm and happy."

He believes that Scandinavian food could have a more temporary shelf-life.

The connoisseurs' choice

Othello cake
  • Mark Ruby: Othello cake -layered sponge cake filled with berries and custard, covered in chocolate glaze and marzipan
  • Kerstin Rodgers: Gravadlax -raw salmon, cured in salt, sugar and herbs
  • Anne Hedensted Steffensen: Liquorice ice cream - ice cream made with double cream and liquorice root

"Certain cuisines can be sold as a complete lifestyle. People are very happy to buy into the Spanish or Mediterranean way of life. You cannot say the same thing about Scandinavia. It works on a smaller level with people showing an interest in individual items - the bread, the fish, using lingonberries and elderflowers."

Like many niche food styles, Scandinavian cooking also includes some dishes that will most likely never become household favourites in Britain. One of the region's most famous offerings in this category is Lutefisk - aged, dried white fish soaked in lye (sodium hydroxide).

American author Garrison Keillor famously described it as resembling squirrels' insides run over by trucks.

"Most lutefisk is not edible by normal people," he wrote in his 2008 novel, Pontoon. "It is reminiscent of the afterbirth of a dog or the world's largest chunk of phlegm."

For those with a sweeter tooth, KRO owner Ruby recommends Rod Grod med Flode: "It's a cold berry stew soup with a swirl of cream. It tastes like a raspberry ripple ice cream that has slightly melted."

However, even this Scandinavian classic proves controversial in the elite London quarters of the Danish Ambassador to the UK, Anne Hedensted Steffensen.

"I hate the consistency," she says. "Rod Grod med Flode is supposed to taste of fruit but I think it has a wishy-washy flavour and the cream is fatty. I know I am from Denmark but I will never come to terms with it. My tip is liquorice ice cream - I think everyone should try it."

But with Denmark producing some of the strongest liquorice in the world, her suggestion is perhaps further evidence that the Scandinavian dream might not make it to the British mainstream.

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