Wild food in the fjords
In Denmark, food is the latest experience to be given the Viking treatment. Catherine Cleary eats her way through the menu
Copenhagen, which has had a 12 per cent increase in visitors in the past two years
Viking feast: green asparagus served with radish and elderflowers. Photograph: Kasper Fogh
It’s not ladylike to lose one’s lunch in the fjord. So I’m planning a firm “no thanks” to the trip on a Viking boat. I have the sea legs of a potato; turf over surf, please. But on a sunny afternoon in Roskilde in northern Denmark Rikke Johansen has just talked me into clambering down into a replica Viking boat. I slot my long, thin wooden oar into its rope notch and heave-ho with the rest of the crew/group of amused journalists. A Viking boat, she explains, snakes and worms its way through the waves rather than bashing and bobbing along. Their suppleness is down to the way they’re made. Whether it’s the rowing or the laughing, ducking the sail or the ingenuous design, those choppy waves are having none of their usual effect. I’m in touch with my inner Viking.
They sometimes joke at the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde that they are the smallest museum in the world “because we have just five things”.
These are the five Viking boats discovered on the seabed and salvaged piece by painstaking piece more than 50 years ago. One of them, the Sea Stallion, was made in Dublin and a replica was sailed back to Dublin in 2007. In Roskilde they built a modern concrete and glass building to house the ships’ remnants. You won’t find staff wearing Viking costumes. There isn’t a horned helmet in sight.
And the food is the latest visitor experience to be Viking-ed in Roskilde. A year of research went into trying to figure out the Viking diet, curator Louise Kaempe Henriksen explains. The work was in response to complaints from visitors. The food project got curators thinking about how people go to museums to look at things and read information but come away feeling like they haven’t experienced anything.
Say “Viking meal” and people picture someone gnawing on a bone, dribbling meat juices down their tunic. But this cafe is all sleek lines, more Viking hipster than ye olden days recreation. “New Nordic hotdog” anyone?
The rules are simple. The menu only allows foods that would have been available from the Stone Age to the 12th century. That means no chips (potatoes weren’t in Europe until the 1600s) or tomatoes. But also no Jerusalem artichokes, cauliflower, rhubarb or asparagus, all central planks of Nordic food.
The idea is to “generate stories in people’s heads,” Rikke Johansen explains, like trying to imagine what it must have been like for a Viking to come home and tell his friends and family what it was like to eat an orange.
They’re also allowed to serve foods that the Vikings might have brought back from overseas. It’s typical of Danish attitudes to package Vikings as early gastro-tourists. You can see everything through the prism of the country’s vibrant new food culture. Copenhagen restaurant Noma may have slipped from best restaurant in the world slot (Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca took the crown this year) but the “Nomanomics” around having the world’s best restaurant for three years are fascinating.
Copenhagen has had a 12 per cent increase in visitors in the past two years, according to Kasper Fogh of the Danish Food Project. Last year 5,000 new jobs were created in the restaurant scene. And one in three tourists comes to Denmark to eat dinner in a particular restaurant.
The night before our Viking trip we ate 10 courses of spectacular food at the beautiful Dragsholm Slot, a 12th-century castle on the Lammefjord on the coast, about 90 minutes drive from Copenhagen. Chef Claus Henrikson and his team turned potatoes into tagliatelle (through the magic of a Japanese mandolin crossed with a pasta maker), fermented raw squid and sliced purple “vintage” carrots (they spend two years in the sandy soil of this reclaimed former fjord) into ribbons. It was a symphony of vegetables and wild foods.