So, you are with your significant other and neither of you can decide where you’d like to go out to eat. You’re both tired of Chinese food, not in the mood for pizza, sickened by the thought of consuming another hamburger, and the Indian place you both love is too far away and they don’t do take out. Then, seemingly out of the blue, your partner says: “I know this great place that serves Viking food.” Interested? Well, you should be!
The term “Viking food” is neither original nor at all characteristic of the types of foods you will encounter if you visit any of the countries that make up Scandinavia, which are Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and some of Finland. I only used the term because it’s funny. The joke itself comes from The Naked Gun. But I digress.
The Scandinavian Peninsula is the largest in all of Europe (1,500 miles long and 500 miles wide) and is surrounded by the following bodies of water: the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, and the Barents Sea. About a quarter of Scandinavia lies north of the Arctic Circle, with Cape Nordkyn, Norway being the northern most outcrop of civilization before the vast expansion of tundra that is the Arctic. This area of northern Europe may not seem to be an appealing area for food or any sort of gastronomical endeavor, but I assure you that it is a region sprouting with creativity and lusciousness combined together with some of (if not the) cleanest environmental habitats on planet Earth.
As with all peninsulas, Scandinavia has a longstanding and colorful history of boat building and fishing. Norse shipwrights during the beginning of the Common Era built the fastest and most versatile ships in the entire world. Sailing all across the rough waters of Europe’s northern seas, they became the first early Europeans to cross the Atlantic and land in the New World, as archeological evidence suggests. So, with this long history of seafaring, the cuisine of the Scandinavian countries is very heavily influenced by the fish caught offshore and inland. Eel, cod, herring, Blue Fin Tuna, carp, lake and river trout, and salmon are just a few examples of the varieties of fish available to be caught and cooked all over the countries. One dish native to Iceland is called harkal, which is shark meat that has been fermented for 6-12 weeks, and then left out in a shack to dry. The finished product looks like leather and smells strongly of and tastes like ammonia due to the high content found in the shark meat. The smell and flavor derived from this dish has made many in the culinary world question the sanity of the Icelandic.
Fermentation and preservation is a proud and strong tradition in all of Scandinavia, not just with fish but with other products as well. Reindeer and stag meat is often smoked or preserved in salt, butter and cheese are stored in cellars dug out of hills, and root vegetables are often canned and stored in basements or food cellars. There is, however, one fermented treat that stands out amongst the others as being particularly dangerous. Surströmming is fermented Baltic herring that is salted just enough to keep it from rotting and then sealed tightly in a can. The chemical process occurring inside of the can creates a pungent aroma similar to that of the harkal; the only difference is that it is trapped within the can creating a decent amount of air pressure inside of the can. Both Air France and British Airways have banned surströmming from being transported on the airlines for fear that the altitude and outside air pressure would cause the cans to explode.
Please don’t be put off by the descriptions of these foods, because I’ve been told that once past the smell (at least in terms of surströmming) the taste and texture is actually very appealing and pairs very well with white wine, salted water crackers, and boiled potatoes. For those of you who don’t like fish or anything fermented, Scandinavian cuisine still has much to offer you. Meat roasts — venison in particular — are very popular in Norway and Sweden in particular. The meat is often roasted with several vegetables as well, mainly beets and potatoes seasoned with plenty of dill. I cannot overstate the importance of dill in Scandinavian cooking. It is in literally almost everything that they cook and balances out the strong gamy flavors of the meats typically used in roasts. Bread is very popular in Sweden, the most popular being thin bread caked with caraway seeds native to Stockholm, the Swedish capital.
Still holding true to its roots as world-class sailors and fishermen, Scandinavia today is home to a plethora of creativity that is so worth discussing that I’ll be writing even more about it next week. But here, as promised, is a recipe. While not truly Scandinavian in nature, there are two important ingredients in here: tuna and dill! Enjoy!
As always: Buona Tavola é Mangiare Bene!
TUNA PASTA SALAD
12 oz can Albacore tuna
20 cherry or sunburst tomatoes, sliced in half
2 bell peppers, diced
Salt & Pepper
1 box elbow pasta
Bring a pot of water to boil and cook the pasta for about 12 minutes. Once cooked, drain the pasta and run it under cold water to stop the cooking.
In a bowl combine tomatoes, bell peppers, and tuna.
Stir in about 1 – 1 ½ tables spoons of mayonnaise and add the pasta and season with dill salt and pepper.
Keeps in refrigerator for about a week.