Nordic Food Lab, Copenhagen – The Communicability of Cultural Identity by way of the Chemical Senses

 

Nordic Food Lab, Copenhagen, Denmark

Director: Michael Bom Frøst Director
Visiting Researcher: Ryan Frederick Bromley, Canada & Poland

Overview

The purpose of this research investigation was to pursue examples of when specific flavours or combinations of flavours could be used to convey the characteristics of 'cultural identity'. In 2004, through a public-private initiative, Scandinavian countries launched the New Nordic food movement; the movement was appointed a council, a manifesto and an EU budget allocation of EUR 3 Million. The manifesto outlined a set of criteria defining what values and characteristics New Nordic food must posses in order to be deemed acceptable. Spearheading the New Nordic food moment was Noma restaurant, one of the world's most celebrated dining experiences, supported by the open-source research and development NGO, the Nordic Food Lab. Situated in a houseboat moored on the jetty in front of Noma, the Nordic Food Lab has academic ties to the University of Copenhagen by way of its Director, Michael Bom Frost, Associate Professor in the Department of Food Sciences with a focus on Sensory Science. 

Because of the specific nature of the Nordic Food Lab - research into ingredients and techniques under the mandate of New Nordic Cuisine - there was a natural symmetry both with my overall research aims, as well as with the case study aims. In this case study, an important criteria was that the conceptual abstract of 'national identity' or even 'cultural identity' (to cast a broader lens on the issue) had to be communicated by way of the chemical senses - could I turn out the lights, block my ears and experience 'Nordic-ness' through my mouth?

To achieve this, I conducted a series of interviews to try to better understand how flavours might embody cultural identity. I also believe that the context of placing myself within Denmark and investigating their city 'foodscape' also lent strength to my observations.

One piece of writing that I used as a jumping-in point was Elizabeth Rozin's book, Ethnic Cuisine: the Flavor-Principle Cookbook (1983), which suggested that certain combinations of flavours can define a people's culinary distinctiveness. I sought to build upon this notion by increasing the complexity of the flavour principles and including the flavaours attributed to specific methods of preparation. To apply a linguistic concept to cuisine, such complex profiles may serve to resemble culinary ‘dialects’ within a larger flavour family.

An additional piece of research that inspired me was Paul Rozin's study on Vegemite, which offers an example of national identity embodied in flavour (Rozin & Siegal, Vegemite as a Marker of National Identity, 2003)

 

Findings

Overall, the research experience was a positive one. I did not walk-away with the conviction that I had found an example of the chemical senses perceiving the value 'Nordic-ness', however, I did feel that I was better able to understand the challenge of such conceptual communication. One of the issues that I determined was that with the concept of national identity a 'perceiver' would need to have a reference point for the indications of Nordic-ness, without which, encounters with culturally-specific flavours would simply be perceived as novel. The problem arose that, the understanding of those same cultural values that possessed identification markers for perception by the chemical senses might well have been formed by way of association with the other senses. While this could be said of almost all concepts, it did serve to illuminate the complexities of the research.

Another problem that I encountered was that many cultures share similar culinary approaches that could very well be interchanged. In the case of Denmark, I believe that similar combinations of flavours and cooking techniques could easily be found in the traditional cuisines of Germany, Poland or even Japan. It was interesting for me to discover an essay that was produced in May, 2015, that challenged the tenants of the Nordic Food Manifesto. While likely unrelated, the questions that are being asked in the essay could very well have been drawn from my own research - specifically, how do we delineate the ingredients of cultural identity in a borderless landscape of food and flavours?  

 

 

 

 

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Nordic Food Lab Interview

Avery McGuire

 

 

Avery McGuire

Researcher - Anthropologist from Dickinson College
Nordic Food Lab, Copenhagen

 

Avery's work focusses on cuisine and its connection to cultural identity. My interview was probing for aspects of Danish and/or Nordic cultural identity which could be communicated by way of the chemical senses.  One of the most important points was the connection between a Nordic appreciation for nature and their culinary values; where cuisine is treated in an act of participation with nature, where purity, freshness and quality are greatly valued. Because the flavours produced by terroir are most present when fresh and unadulterated, then it means that Nordic food is near impossible to export. The consequence of the non-transience of Nordic cuisine is that it can only really be communicated by dining within the Nordic region.   

I also took a reciprical approach to these values, not only looking at what culinary values are being projected as Nordic through cuisine, but also considering what transformations occur when foods are adopted from other culinary traditions. When considering the example of bread, there was a process of stripping away any excess, restoring the quality of ingredients, and perfecting the effectiveness of techniques, such a fermentation and baking. 

In summary, the focus on connectedness to nature, simplicity, quality and freshness creates problems for the communication of Nordic cuisine by way of the chemical senses. It is not to say that there is not a Nordic food culture, but that it is difficult to identify it as distinct by way of flavours, as the distinction is focussed more on their understanding of quality, more so than specific flavours. The irony is that, I believe it to be possible for a person who is intimately associated with Nordic cuisine to detect a Nordic culinary identity solely by way of the chemical senses, however, this is not as simple as producing a flavour 'marker' such a Vegemite = Australia.  Having said that, specific flavours such as sea buckthorn, rye, pickled vegitables, certain breads and herring could be considered as culinary markers of cultural identity. While this may be the case, many of these flavours would be common across the countries of the Baltic region.  

 

 

 

 

Nordic Food Lab Interview

Josh Evans

 

 

 

Josh Evans

Lead Researcher
Nordic Food Lab, Copenhagen

Josh Evans was able to articulate a more mature understanding of the Nordic Food Movement for my research; despite our conversation around Nordic/Danish food identity, the interview yielded more contextually relevant notions rather than information specific to the case study. Having said that, a few good points were made.

Josh discussed the idea of the Nordic Food Movement not in terms of the communication of a national/regional cuisine, but rather a concept that involves making the most of the ingredients, preparation techniques and cultural influences in any given locale. As such, The Nordic Food Movement is more than culinary 'archaeology', it is a paradigm for sensible and sensual engagements with food. One indicator of this is the fact that in a staff of 12 at the Nordic Food Lab, only one of the staff are natively Danish. Instead, the Nordic Food Movement considers the chemical and aesthetic properties of ingredients and how they interact with other ingredients and cooking processes, rather than placing obvious regional ingredients onto plates in an effort to exude nationalism in food.  

With regard to differentiation between regional peoples of the Nordic territories, Josh provided two interesting examples. The first was the method of fermentation as a regionally specific practice. In Sweden, Surströmming is herring which is fermented anaerobically in the tin; in Norway, Gravlax is cured fish, usually salmon; in Denmark, herring are pickled - originally lacto-fermented, but now mostly set in a sweet-sour vinegar. These differentiations are broad categories which become increasingly complex when examined more closely; however, it provides for some vague idea of regional differentiation through cuisine. The second example that Josh provided was that of different woods used in smoking, where variations resulted from terroir differences (i.e. different forests of different trees in different places). In those cases, the type of wood used would contribute a distinctively different flavour, regardless of the commonality of the fish being used.

Beyond these examples, I was able to articulate a more interesting point concerning the potency of conceptual communication pertaining to gastronomy. Josh explained that, “NoMa is very good at serving you a dish that reminds you of a memory that you do not have.” A sort of culinary déjà vu. "They will serve a dish that is so evocative that it makes me believe that I have a taste memory associated with it, even if I don’t." I responded by explaining, "One of the challenges to all of this work with concepts and flavours is that I'm trying to attach words to something that words don’t explain. For example, the reason that the ‘language’ of visual art is so effective is because words weren't – it does something that words can’t. It creates an emotional trigger that allows you to experience something different. And I think that the conceptual elements of cuisine are like that as well. It triggers something inside of you that is really very difficult to ‘package’, or to explain, but it somehow affects us as cultural, physical human creatures."

 

 

 

 

Nordic Food Lab

Michael Bom Frøst 

 

 

Michael Bom Frøst

Director; Associate Professor in Sensory Science at University of Copenhagen
Nordic Food Lab, Copenhagen

 

Dr. Bom Frøst began our interview by drawing a parallel between Danish language identity and its food identity. He told the story of rødgrød med fløde, an iconic Danish dessert that is near impossible for foreigners to pronounce fluently. In fact, it its pronunciation is so challenging that is has been used as a shibboleth to screen foreigners. The point - there is a food culture in Denmark that is as distinctive as its language. 

Together we explored the tenets of the Nordic Food Movement: Purity, Quality & Freshness, and the challenge of expressing these values in food terms because, to varying degrees, they are concepts in themselves. Dr. Bom Frøst explained that Noma strives towards the principle of Occam's Razor, looking for ways to subtract process in order to increase beauty in food. This was interesting for me as I have often expressed conceptual art in terms of Occam's Razor, where a beautiful work of conceptual art is the one that explains the most with the greatest simplicity. As such, the principle of Occam's Razor would seem to be a sort of merging value for Art, Science and Gastronomy.

We concluded the conversation with Dr. Bom Frøst's construct for an ideal meal. He explained that there were three levels of gratification required to achieve an exceptional meal: sensory, functionality, and cognitive. In the sensory level, 'deliciousness' is an imperative. Functionally, the meal must be nutritionally sound. Cognitively, the meal must be perceived to embody ethical/moral values. For me, this idea also represents a limiting factor for gastronomy in art, as the priority of 'deliciousness' must sometimes be violated in sacrifice for the concept. In the same way, in works of art the values/ethics conveyed by the artist are sometimes in contradiction to our own. Finally, practical functionality has always been a point of departure from art. My conclusion is that cuisine and food can participate in conceptual art, however, to do so may require a departure from the values esteemed in gastronomy. Additionally, gastronomy does not 'ascend' to art through the perfection of form, but may participate in art by way of conceptual communication.    

 

 

 

 

Food Organisation of Denmark

Kasper Fogh Hansen

 

 

 

Kasper Fogh Hansen

Director of Communications
Food Organisation of Denmark, Copenhagen

 

Kasper presented an alternative perspective to the others who I interviewed - it was a perspective that I greatly appreciated for its divergence from the evangelists of the Nordic Food Movement. Kasper announced in no uncertain terms that the Nordic Food Movement was not representative of a Danish food culture, nor was there such a thing as a Danish culinary identity. He justified this with strong historical arguments that illustrated how Danish 'traditional' cuisine was a product of 20th century economic and agricultural realities, while presenting reasonable perspectives that the Nordic Food Movement was a manufactured cultural product. Kasper's concession was that such a product might find its way into the culinary 'vocabulary' of future Danish recipes, however, the Nordic Food Movement is not a renaissance of classical culinary ideas so much as a completely new initiative.

If I were to place my research into Kasper's understanding of Danish food traditions, then it would mean that "Danishness" cannot be communicated by way of the chemical senses, as there is no such identity to communicate. I would tend to agree with Kasper in this regard. I can see that the Danish Food Movement has more to do with an expression of values that arises from within the global food community (if there can be said to be such a thing), than from Danish tradition itself. This movement prioritises an ecological imperative with a local orientation, placing the stewardship of nature into the hands of the food harvesters, producers, manufacturers, chefs and consumers.  Denmark became an ideal place for this movement because of Denmark's orientation towards nature, while the success of the project also leans on successful public relations campaigns. Manufacturing food culture in Denmark has created a sort of self-confidence. Denmark lost 186,000 jobs since 2008 in the private sector, in 2014, restaurants created 500 new jobs in Denmark. One group of people had an idea about how food should taste, and the realisation of that idea is fundamentally changing Denmark - when you consider tourism, the service sector/dining & catering, and the food industry.

While Kasper's assertions are probably close to the mark, I would not go as far as to say that there is no Danish food culture. Regardless, I think that the New Nordic Food movement can be compared to the Body Art and Performance art (1940-80s) scene; there was a lot of silliness surrounding the scene at the time, but what we remember after time has washed much of that silliness from our memories, are a few important conversations. And it's important that those conversations happened. I feel that the Nordic Food Movement is one of those important conversations that have been birthed from Gastronomy, regardless of the silliness that lingers on the fray.