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Swedish Chef Magnus Nilsson on Why No One Understands Nordic Food—and What the Slow Food Movement Gets Wrong

An in-depth interview with the chef behind Fäviken.

magnus nilsson faviken Photo: courtesy Erik Olsson

If Magnus Nilsson is being honest, his own book didn’t make sense to him at first. The chef behind Fäviken, the restaurant nestled in the far reaches of Sweden, wanted to write a book that catalogued the cuisine and customs of his homeland. His publisher wanted something broader: a book that encompassed the entire Nordic region. He saw a problem with that. “There is no common Nordic culture,” he says. “The Nordic is a geographic region, not a cultural one.”

As he embarked on the project anyway, he found the answer was more complicated than he originally believed. Nilsson worked for six years traversing the frigid region he calls home to understand how the food customs of everyday people came to be. That meant talking to people outside his industry. “I didn’t want chefs,” he says. “This is not a book about professional cooking, it’s about how people eat at home.”

Digging into everyday life became revelatory. By studying the food from each Nordic country, he could see how technology, economics, and imperial ambitions shaped how people eat day-to-day and how the countries influenced each other. For instance, it could be something as mundane as Icelandic people developing a culture around rye bread, which only happened because the country was invaded by Denmark at one point.

The result of his research and recipe testing is two volumes and features nearly 1,000 recipes: The Nordic Cookbook, and the recently published Nordic Baking Book. Nilsson sat down with Robb Report to discuss tackling such an ambitious project, how it turned him into as much an anthropologist as a chef, and why he worries about “food fascists.”

Why did you want to write this book?
There are two reasons actually. One is that I think that Nordic food culture is the most misunderstood food culture there is.

Why is it misunderstood?
I think that the problem is largely my fault from the beginning, because if you type “Nordic cooking” in Google, you get a thousand articles about Noma and Fäviken and like two more restaurants. That overshadows everything. But they’re not very indicative of what people actually eat. And then aside of that, you also get lots of recipes for gravlax, or for meatballs, herring, and cinnamon buns, which people don’t actually eat on an everyday basis. People don’t understand how much diversity there is. These two books together contain more than a thousand unique recipes. That was the greatest discovery for me in writing the books—the diversity.

Diversity in what way?
You can just look at the fact that we have four different grains that have all been equally important in their own part of the region. Wheat, oats, rye, and barley. Most other regions, they had one grain. If you go to South and Central America, for example, there’s almost only corn. The one grain, you know? If you go to Central Europe, it’s wheat. The one grain. And naturally, that would lead to a less-varied expression of baking.

What’s the second reason Nordic food is misunderstood?
The other reason was that was that when Fäviken came out and became successful as a book, there were discussions with the publisher about making more books, and I pitched an idea of making a Swedish cookbook. And they got back to me and was like, “No, that’s not financially viable, so we’re not going for that. But, if you want to, you can make a Nordic cookbook.” And I declined it and I was also very offended, because one, they didn’t want my book and, two, there’s no common Nordic culture. I mean, I’m Swedish. Someone from Denmark, they’re Danish. It’s like, the Nordic is a geographical region, not a cultural region, so I was a little bit offended by that.

Yet, here we are, with your second Nordic book.
After a while, I realized that they were going to make a Nordic cookbook with or without me. And I didn’t want that to happen either. So I just felt that it was better to just do it and make sure it gets done well and that it is representative of the whole region. And I like to see that I’ll maybe use this book a little bit as a way of explaining not only what Nordic food culture is, but also that it is not a homogenous region and why the countries are different from each other, but also a little bit about how they’re tied together as well.

nordic baking book nilsson

The second volume of Magnus Nilsson’s ambitious project.  Photo: courtesy Phaidon

You thought of it as a geographical region more than a cultural region at first, but what did you find that tied the Nordic countries together?
There are a few things. One that’s always there as a baseline is that it’s a marginal climate. That even if the climate is very different from Southern Denmark to Northern Norway, the whole region is located in a climate where people, in historical times, had to produce an excess of calories in the summer and store them for winter. And that is still, even today when it doesn’t have to be that way, it really influences the way people choose to eat. And then it’s like you can divide the Nordic region into two parts. One that’s had the Danish influence and one that’s had the Swedish influence.

I have to stick up for my mother’s side of the family right now—there’s not a Norwegian influence?
The Norwegians we split. We shared the Norwegians. Norway has never been like a conquering country, whilst both Sweden and Denmark have that great sort of imperial ambitions. And the whole western part of the Nordic region would be Danish influenced. And the whole eastern part, including the Baltics and Poland, would be Swedish influenced. And this has to do with who occupied whom. And then, Norway has been occupied, back and forth, between both Sweden and Denmark, which also shows, because there is quite a lot of culture from both countries sort of overlapping into the original Norwegian food culture.

What makes the Danish and Swedish factions different from each other?
It differs because there’s just different parts of the world. So it’s as simple as that. But if you’re looking for some examples, you can see that all of the Danish influenced countries, except Norway, they will have a great rye bread tradition. You’ll find versions of the classics of Danish rye. And you’ll find other, like the Danish Christmas traditions permeate all the other countries, including Norway. I mean, people have roast pork and things like that for Christmas in Norway. Meaning that’s not a Norwegian tradition. It’s a Danish tradition that was brought there not that long ago, actually. Just a few hundred years ago.

So you’ll find little things like that that you can trace back in time, and you can sometimes also figure out when they actually arrived. It’s like, Iceland may have their version of a Danish rye bread. You know that Iceland did not have a culture growing grains before Denmark invaded. Because it’s located where it is. It’s a cold climate and so on. So therefore, they didn’t have a culture of bread, either. So you can go back in history, and you can see, from shipping records and things like that, when rye was actually brought to Iceland. And you can pretty much figure out that that was also when the Icelandic rye was invented.

How did you go about understanding these recipes and history?
The first thing was that we wanted to see how people thought about their own food culture. So I made a questionnaire where people had some multiple-choice questions, some questions that you could write yourself, and then also the possibility to submit recipes. That became a roadmap. Then we interviewed people, looked at their recipe books, and tried to figure out which recipe for each item would be most representative.

It seems like you’d have people even in the same town disagreeing over what the true recipe is for something.
That’s the thing you have to get past is there is no true recipe. And because this is a documentary book that has a limited amount of space, I picked the route of a recipe that’s more representative for more people always being more important than one that is representative of less people or very specialized. I want to show the one that most people used. And in some cases, I know that most people use it because it’s on the back of the flour packet in all the Scandinavian countries. And people really use it.

But you’re not saying these recipes are thee way to make these baked goods?
I think what can happen when you label things is that they can get a bit stagnant. Because you define what something is going to be. And rather than food culture being what it has always been, which is ever-changing, it can be like, no, no, no, if you’re going to be Nordic, this is how it needs to be, or if you’re going to be this, this is like that. Which doesn’t really matter, really.

There’s also idea that many of us have now, especially in the food world, that food traditions have to be preserved, almost in a bubble. I have very heated discussions with people in the Slow Food movement because I think that they are like food fascists without knowing it. I mean, they want to do good, but what they’re doing is not good. It’s like, you know, no culture can ever thrive if it doesn’t just evolve. It doesn’t work. And no one is going to eat stuff that’s obsolete. And the important thing, I think, is to just make sure that things get properly recorded and documented, so that knowledge that has sometimes taken many, many generations—in some cases thousands of years to improve—doesn’t just disappear. Because that’s very sad. But if people don’t want to practice a certain type of culture, you can’t really force them to it.

How is Slow Food acting like food fascists?
Do you know the Ark of Taste, what that is? It’s a project that Slow Food has been running where they’re cataloging and trying to preserve regional specialties across the world. It’s a very ambitious project, and it’s a great thing until you start thinking about what that actually means. Because it has a set of rules on what they consider worthy of being on the Ark of Taste. And if you were to take these sets of rules, and you apply them on any other cultural expression—to music or art or architecture—and then it gets a bit scary.

yeasted sweet buns nordic

Nordic sweet treats.  Photo: courtesy Magnus Nilsson

There’s such a great tradition of sweet pastries in Scandinavia, through your research did you figure out how that happened?
Most of us think that many of these sweets and sweet pastries and baked goods are really old. The fact is, they’re not. Like the buns, for example. It’s what many people would consider one of the most traditional Swedish things to have is the cinnamon bun. But if you start looking at it from a slightly bigger perspective, before the industrial revolution, the easiest and cheapest source of sweetness would have been honey. Especially back then, before modern bee keeping, keeping bees and making honey was not very efficient. So you didn’t have a lot of that, either. So pretty much no baking with honey, I think.

And then, there was obviously some imported cane sugar, probably very expensive. And you would mostly find it in royal homes or very wealthy homes. And they didn’t really bake with it either. They used it to season their food. Because it was a sign of wealth that you could sweeten savory food. And then we started growing sugar beets, and people learned how to process sugar, and industrialization began with sugar production in the Nordic region. And that’s when we had this huge explosion in sweet pastries, when sugar started to become much cheaper. And that’s not more than 120, 130 years ago, perhaps.

Do you feel kind of like an anthropologist now?
Well, I do, and I enjoy it. But I’ve always liked history. And I think that, to me, one of the most fascinating things with these books and the book project for me personally, is to understand, what we eat is very easy to see. That’s just sort of you going around and collect recipes and talk to people. But the interesting part to me is to understand why we eat the way we do. And surprisingly often, you track things back in time, and you come up with the result that the history of certain dishes are not particularly long. And when you do that, it often also becomes very clear why.

It’s like why do they eat flatbreads in North Sweden, for example? Well, before modern transportation, there was no wheat there. You can’t grow wheat there. People grew barley, and barley has so little gluten that you can’t make the fluffy breads. You make flatbreads. And so there’s a lot of things like that.

And then in Norway, which is just coastal, there are no big forests. So they would have to be much more careful with their firewood. And then they figured out that it was better to, you know, make a small fire with a griddle on top and cook them on the griddle instead. And I think many things like that, they’re irrelevant today, for practical reasons, but we still choose to do that.

Did the process of creating this book change your approach to Fäviken?
Absolutely. And I didn’t think it was going to do that. Someone asked me early on in the project, “Do you think this is going to influence Fäviken?” And I said, “No. This is Nordic cooking, and that’s not what Fäviken is about.” But I mean, that was very naïve. And I mean, if as a creative person, if you spend six years doing something, obviously it’s going to filter into your creative process. And also all cooking in places like Fäviken, it’s ultimately based somehow on home cooking from the very beginning. So it’s definitely made its way into what we do.

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