Arctic Cuisine - next frontier in Food

Trip Start Jun 13, 2007
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Trip End Sep 23, 2007


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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The gastronomic centre of Europe this month was not in France, but close to the arctic circle, in Stavanger, Norway

Some of Norway's and Europe's best chefs, including the legendary Paul Bocuse, descended this month on the small city of Stavanger, on Norway's south-west coast, for both the Norwegian championship in culinary arts and the inaugural Bocuse d'Or Europe chefs championship in a three-day culinary summit organised as part of the city's busy program as the European Cultural City of the year.

This was the first time a Bocuse d'Or competition has been held outside the gastronomic centre of Lyon and the first ever European championship for individual chefs, and probably also the first time culinary art has been included in a cultural program alongside performing and visual arts.

Using locally grown salmon and lamb, 20 of Europe's best and brightest young talent competed over two days to surprise their judges with novel and creative ways to prepare these two fairly mundane ingredients for best taste and presentation at the Bocuse d'Or Europe.

Under the close scrutiny of two panels of judges made up of top European chefs (one panel for fish and one for meat), most of them Bocuse d'Or winners, and an honorary panel including Bocuse himself, Norway's hope, Geir Skeie, a 28-year old Norwegian chef, took out the inaugural Bocuse d'Or Europe trophy in a hometeam win while second and third ranking went to the Swedish and Danish chefs, respectively, for a Nordic trifector.

New Nordic food

Skeie's win was not accidental. So-called 'new Nordic food' is fast emerging as the next culinary frontier in Europe. Based on natural food from "the wild and the deep", it is a cuisine which is positioning itself as simple - meaning not tricked up or exotic - pure, fresh and seasonal.

Skeie's winning salmon dish - Salmon Austevoll - named after the birthplace of Skeie's assistant in the outer islands on the Norwegian west coast, was made up of salmon baked with avocado and nori served with egg yolk gribiche; crisp fried gravlaks and pickled vegetables and apple pure; served with Jerusalem artichoke and whipped potatoes; cauliflower and salmon caviar; and horseradish and cauliflower froth.

His lamb dish - Lamb Fitjar - named after Skeie's own home village by the ancient Viking sea lanes north of Stavanger, was also a triumph: saddle and leg of lamb with tarragon and root vegetables; lamb roulade with apricot, lamb sausage and glazed sweetbread; lamb kidney with onion, served with artichokes, spring cabbage and other spring vegetables; cubes of potato with porcini and broad beans; and savoury lamb and tarragon jelly.

High standard

Eivind Hellestrøm, president of Bocuse d'Or Europe, and executive chef and owner of Bagatelle restaurant in Oslo, the only restaurant in Norway to achieve two stars in the Michelin guide (one of which he lost this year), told journalists the overall standard of the competitors was surprisingly high from countries which had never competed in European individual championships before, particularly Eastern Europe.

The Estonian chef's salmon dish had the judges sit up and take notice - the lightly smoked salmon was ingeniously presented shrouded in its own smoke under a small glass dome, which, when lifted sent an delectable aroma of smoked salmon into the room. But in the overall taste and presentation, Skeie topped them all.

Asked if the win would see him in pursue an executive chef position at one of Europe's grand Michelin-star restaurants - Skeie's answer was a definite 'no'. Skeie, who has already worked at top restaurants in France and Denmark, is now co-owner and executive chef at Midtåsen Solvold, a fine dining restaurant outside Stavanger in a converted manor house.

Australia might find its match in Skeie and his Nordic colleagues when they compete at the Bocuse d'Or world championships in Lyon on January 27 at 28, regarded as the Formula One for young chefs, which will be expanded from 24 chefs to 51 from across the world.

He is part of a growing number of Norwegian chefs to promote and nurture Norway's fledgling gastronomic industry into maturity, hoping the championships will put Norway and its produce on Europe's culinary map.

But according to Hellestrøm, Norway is already on the culinary map. Norwegians have been particularly successful at the Bocuse d'Or championships thanks mostly to Hellestrøm, himself a fifth place getter in 1989, who has officiated many times since 1993 as president of the Norwegian teams which since then has had four first place winners, and winners in second, third, fourth and fifth place at the Bocuse d'Or.

Nascent culinary reputation

A tireless promoter of Norway's produce and its nascent culinary reputation, Hellestrøm is largely responsible for bringing this inaugural European championship to Norway, almost entirely due to his personal friendship with Bocuse.

Stavanger, Norway's fourth biggest city with 120,000 residents, is better known internationally as the centre of the country's North Sea oil industry than for its culinary art. But it is also the home to 150 different nationalities attracted by the oil industry, providing a fertile environment for culinary experimentation.

Hence the city's role as 'Culinary Stavanger', rather than Oslo, despite the latter boasting all of Norway's six Michelin star restaurants, as demonstrated at the Norwegian Culinary Championships where the three top winners all came from Stavanger restaurants.

Moreover, the surrounding area of Rogaland is Norway's food bowl and has, with the support of the local industry and political leaders, been positioning itself as Norway's answer to Lyon as the country's culinary centre.

Stavanger has long had a link to food. Once the centre of the country's now vastly reduced herring and canning industry, it presently accounts for 80% of the country's greenhouses, supplying much of the country's vegetables and fruit.

The area also provides pastures for 200,000 sheep, 300,000 pigs and 50,000 dairy cows. It supports one million egg laying hens and produces 500,000 tonnes of seafood. The area employs 20,000 people in the food industry.

Rogaland is also the home of Atlantic salmon farms, many of them belonging to Marine Harvest, one of the world's biggest producers of Atlantic salmon, which pioneered salmon farming in the late 1960s in Norway and Scotland and now also has salmon farming operations in Canada, Chile, the Faroes and Ireland.

Gentle transport to harvest

Marine Harvest, which produces salmon the size of 4kg to 5kg, has salmon farming down to a fine art and can determine the salmon's taste, texture, colour and even the ease of filleting by the way they feed and rear the fish and promotes their quality partly as the result of 'gentle transport to harvesting plant'.

The salmon is transported live in tanks of water by boat from the various pens along the coast to a central harvesting plant, where they are allowed to swim around for three days to relax after the journey before they are harvested.

The region's lamb has a unique, mild taste which is hardly recognisable as lamb by Australian standards. Smaller than Australian animals, the sheep are almost wild, grazing all year round in vast, rich outlying pastures at the edge of the North Sea, where they build muscle and gain weight rapidly without much fat, giving the lamb meat its delicate flavour "of the deep" as one advertisement extolls.

Norwegians are not exactly known for being discerning diners. According to Hellestrøm, they are "too polite" to complain about the food they are served. The culinary groundswell taking place in the country is largely industry-driven by chefs like Hellestrøm, who is getting support from government and industry initiatives such as the "culinary food cluster".

This is a professional food collaboration established this year between Rogaland regional, its governor, the area's development organisation, the professional forum for food and beverages, NCE Culinology and Innovation Norway Rogaland, intent on creating Europe's next culinary frontier.
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