The city of Aarhus, in Denmark, probably draws a blank expression from most of us. Certainly, when I was asked to go on a food and travel trip there, I didn't immediately know where it was, and neither did many of the people I shamelessly boasted to about my upcoming excursion (although they may have just been sour about it). The trip was organised by a part-government-funded, part-not-for-profit organisation established to promote and develop Danish and Nordic food and gastronomy, The Food Project (known as FOOD) and took me to a chef-centred world of new trends, thoughts and concepts, focusing on fresh, wild and if possible organic food, with taste and the environment, in more ways than one, at the core
Aarhus is a culinary powerhouse in the making. And it's not just me who thinks it. Hailed as a simmering pot in the vast Nordic food revolution's kitchen, Aarhus will be the European Region of Gastronomy 2017. And at the heart are around 10 young chefs, all learning from each other and carving a new food landscape, which will no doubt influence commercial buyers and consumer buying patterns worldwide for years to come.
Product of their environment
Aarhus is an ideal combination for anyone who wants to create natural, environment-aware dishes that could be classed as a real art form. This fusion of sea, forest and farmland was put most aptly by the first chef to obtain and maintain a Michelin star in Aarhus, Wassim Hallal: “As chefs, we are in the perfect situation here – we are right next to the sea, amongst forests and are a short drive from the main growing and producing area, Jutland. Everything is at our fingertips to create food that reflects and sustains our wonderful environment.”
Young chefs now stay in the area rather than living at home, says Hallal, which is probably a direct result of him refusing to move to Copenhagen from the place he grew up himself to further his chef’s skills. Now, restaurants and artisan cafes, delis and farm shops are popping up at a fast rate, as consumers become more and more anti-establishment about their food.
The homegrown DIY and uber-fresh attitude runs throughout the chefs I meet, echoing the ethos of René Redzepi; a Copenhagan-based three-Michelin star chef and the guiding force at Noma's. Redzepi’s philosophy is one of paring back cuisine so it only uses one’s immediate environment. "Food wise, it has to be as local as possible and from small farms," says one of the chefs at Restaurant Domestic as he starts to decant the beginning of an eight-course 'snack’ menu to us eager journalists. "We make everything here from scratch: it's our own bread, butter; we brew our own beer and have a small wine production. We also have our own organic production of animals, so we can control now they live and we butcher sustainably, using the whole animal on the menu. We grow our own herbs, salads and vegetables, like lemon balm and Cos lettuce, pickle our own ‘beech’ onions and ferment fruit, including whole berries, as well as juice fruit and vegetables. We get the fruit and berries from local producers."
Most of the restaurants I went to in Aarhus followed the tasting-menu style, where only one, or a selection of, multi-course menus is available, sometimes only revealed on the night. This makes for sensible and sustainable menu planning and kitchen management, using up all of what is available rather than tailoring a menu to what you think should be in season at that time, or indeed, what the customer expects to be served. Although, especially if the restaurant is fine-dining, the chefs need to stick to their expected signature dishes, but the courses are mostly only described by two or three, or even just one adjective, giving them the freedom to source whatever is good quality and available, as their suppliers around them dictate.
Organic as the norm
I admit that I have been an organic sceptic in the past; too many contradictory rules and not enough traceability, as well as being hazy on the actual benefits when it comes to fruit and vegetables, have held me back. But as the realisation that organic animal products is a must, due to the strict welfare standards, fruit and vegetables comes to mind, and as long as products are available with minimal wastage at farm level, my trip to Aarhus left me with little doubt as to the fact that producing something as naturally as possible has got to be an advantage.
In Denmark, most people have been used to this kind of thinking for a good while now – almost a generation's worth. The government has enforced that 90% of food in child daycare facilities is certified organic, meaning that the diet of the majority of children from age two-to five-years in Denmark is organic.
This attitude or sea change shows in the young chefs' attitudes. Co-revolutionary restaurant Michelin-recommended Haervaerk attended the annual national Hotdog Championships (it's classier than it sounds) at the Aarhus Food Festival armed with the most perfectly fresh and tasty, wonky organic cucumbers instead of sausages, covered in grated dried beef heart and served with edible flowers and a killer mustard mayo in a lettuce leaf, rather than a bun. As far as I could gather this was a protest entry that ended up gaining the most-innovative accolade. The concept of using better-quality, better-welfare meat and less of it on the menu is also providing opportunity for fresh produce to shine as the hero of many a dish. Indeed, freeze-dried, braised carrots stole the show over slow-cooked belly pork as part of a 10-course tasting menu at Michelin-star organic restaurant Substans.
Nordic to the bone, fermenting and pickling is everywhere in Aarhus. Large vats containing kombucha, with bacteria and yeast cultures reproducing away, can be seen in most bars and restaurants. There was a whole section in the Aarhus Food Festival exploring the process and at Restaurant Domestic, a room of festering concoctions can be found.
For anyone at a loss here, kombucha is a drink derived from a bacterial culture normally starting off from a tea, fresh fruit or vegetable that is stored in large pickling jars for weeks on end, until ready to drink. Sour in taste and full of active bacteria that’s said to be good for your gut and immune system, kombucha is mostly paired with alcohol for a feel-good cocktail. It's been suggested by certain older generation chefs that fermenting should have its time and place, i.e. not dominate the whole menu, but the trend is here to stay in Denmark. Look out for it as it steadily makes its way across Europe.