Whale, puffin and fermented herring: the forbidden foods of Scandinavia

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The wilder shores of Nordic cuisine are explored in two books by  Swedish chef/photographer Magnus Nilsson.  Even Christopher Hirst has second thoughts…

Published in 2015 and running to 760 pages, the Nordic Cook Book by the Swedish chef/photographer Magnus Nilsson is comprehensive but unwieldy. Possibly because his photographs are a little lost amid the 700 recipes and accompanying essays, his publisher recently filleted the vast tome. Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People  is far less hefty on the lap, running to a mere 128 pages. A few essays remain but no recipes.

The photographs, which are of professional quality, range from the magnificently austere (‘Power lines in snow, close to North Cape, Norway’) and scary (‘Collecting guillemot eggs, north Iceland’) to the mundane (‘Queuing for hot dogs, Are, Sweden’). One picture, however, is jarringly gruesome. A shot of the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroes reveals the shallow sea stained red with their blood. It brings to mind the Macbeth line, ‘multitudinous seas incarnadine’.

In an accompanying essay, Nilsson admits, ‘The sight of people carving up the whales so close to shore… makes for powerful and sometimes disturbing photos. I have rarely seen such a strong reaction to anything I have done.’

Reproduced as a double-page spread in the cookbook, its impact is diminished in the photo book, where it is reduced to quarter-page. Noting that whaling is ‘not vital for survival any more’, Nilsson insists that ‘it is an integral part of Faroese social culture… something that brings people together with a common sense of purpose.’ He adds that ‘the fairly small number of pilot whales killed by the Faroese each year comes from a rather large population in the North Atlantic, and it is non-commercial.’

Arguably, another more insidious assault on the whales is more shocking. ‘Concerns about eating the meat… have been raised because of the high levels of mercury and other toxins like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxin, which accumulates in their flesh.’ This takes place ‘because the whales live considerably longer than most predatory fish’. Despite this hidden retribution, Nilsson includes recipes for braised pilot whale and boiled pilot whale with blubber and potatoes: ‘I find that the meat itself is a little bit like lean beef with a subtle hint of sea and that the cured blubber tastes much like toasted almonds in a strange animal way.’

The hunting of another controversial Faroese foodstuff has, at least for the present, been abandoned. Puffins, we learn, ‘were once vital to the diet of many Faroese families. Tens of thousands of birds were killed per year.’ Declining numbers of puffins, largely due to a shortage of the sand eels that constitute a major part of their juvenile diet, have prompted Faroese landowners to adopt a self-imposed ban. In his essay in the photo book, Nilsson writes that he has never tasted puffin. Yet, he includes a photo of seven dead puffins ‘ready to be plucked’.

The mystery deepens in the Nordic Cook Book, published two years earlier, where Nilsson expresses the view that puffins ‘have a peculiar but tasty, fresh-ocean flavour, which can grow very strong and a bit heady for my taste if they’re not handled well.’ In his recipe for the Faroese delicacy puffin stuffed with cake (unlikely though it may sound, a sweet cake mix with raisins is used as a stuffing), Nilsson describes a refinement. ‘Sometimes when I have been served this, the cake batter has been prepared with the eggs of northern fulmar, which brings the fishy dimension to the stuffing as well.’

Though the extent of his familiarity with puffin flesh is unclear, Nilsson is right about the flavour. When I ate puffin fillet on a press trip to Reykjavik (it was ordered for me), it tasted like fishy pigeon.

Another inclusion in The Nordic Cook Book is more repugnant than taboo but I was lured for journalistic reasons. Innocently described as ‘sour herring’, surstromming is more accurately termed ‘fermented Baltic herring sold in cans’. I once saw it on sale in Macknade’s prodigious farm shop near Faversham, Kent, where the bulging cans, pregnant with gas and covered in warning stickers, were one of the weirdest foods I’ve ever seen. My wife restrained me, ‘It’ll be completely ghastly! You’re not buying that!’ But the reporter in me was roused. On the drive home, I was racked with regret. ‘That would have made a great piece.’

Nilsson comes across as an aficionado of surstromming. His rules for consumption include getting hold of a ‘mature’ (seriously bulging) tin, which has to be opened in a bucket filled with cold water. ‘Don’t keep your face too close to the surface of the water’ or you will ‘spray everything and everyone in the vicinity from top to bottom.’ He notes that a real connoisseur will ‘get especially excited over either female herrings that are filled with roe or last year’s vintage where in-can fermentation [has produced] nothing less than a time bomb of olfactory destruction.’ Once rinsed, the fermented fish is eaten on flat bread with boiled new potatoes, butter, onion and graddfil (sour cream). The combination is washed down with aquavit frozen so it becomes viscous and well-hopped lager.

My planned return to Macknade’s suffered a setback when I discovered that the Telegraph had already carried a piece on ‘the smelliest food in the world’. The reporter Harry Wallop had an outdoor sampling with Jonas Aurell, who sells around 50 tins a week (he says that many are bought by practical jokers) from his London shop Scandinavian Kitchen. Wallop describes the smell initially as ‘slightly farty’. Seconds later, ‘the full horror made it from the tin to my nostrils, a mixture of old nappies… combined with the unmistakable an sharp note of dog faeces.’ The taste was merely ‘unpleasant’. My desire to try this Scandinavian oddity suffered a sudden decline from which it has never recovered. Though the preparation is far less exciting, I’d sooner take my aquavit with rollmop herrings.

The Nordic Cook Book by Magnus Nilsson, uk.phaidon.com £29.95

Nordic: A Photographic Essay of Landscapes, Food and People by Magnus Nilsson, uk.phaidon.com £16.95