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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Prudence Wade

What the hell is Scandinavian food?

Columbus Leth/PA

Danish pastries are world-famous, but what do you know about the rest of Scandinavian cuisine?

With a food philosophy that centres around seasonal produce, perhaps the Scandi approach to cooking is the way forward when considering the environment and the cost-of-living crisis.

“It’s very seasonal, lots of vegetables and very clean flavours,” Copenhagen-based chef and food writer Trine Hahnemann says of Danish cuisine.

“So salt, pepper, nutmeg; salt, pepper, lemon; salt, pepper, vinegar – it’s not bland at all, we use spices, but we use them one at a time.”

Hahnemann, 58, says this emphasis on seasonality helps save money. “It becomes too expensive to buy vegetables that are out of season, that are shipped or whatever,” she explains – but she’s all to aware that the Danish food scene is a bit of a paradox.

She mentions produce “that have become everyday things, which people eat every day – like cucumbers, tomatoes and bananas. You can’t convince people there’s also a season for bananas – it’s year round, all the time. They’re the biggest fruit in Denmark”.

This doesn’t stop Hahnemann advocating for eating the seasons – which in Denmark means you might be limited to root vegetables and potatoes in the winter.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly as we’re now coming into summer and there’s a glut of fruit and vegetables available.

Summer cabbage, radish, fennel, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, strawberries, tomatoes – they’re all in her shopping basket during this time of year.

Hahnemann is a salad fan, and she’s devoted a whole section of her new cookbook, Simply Scandinavian, to them.

Hahneman learned traditional Scandinavian cooking from her grandmother
— (Columbus Leth/PA)

The chef argues people “don’t take [salads] seriously enough” – and opening a bag from the supermarket won’t quite cut it.

“Buy a few vegetables, bake them nicely in the oven with either lemon juice and a little bit of a spice of some kind – it could be garam masala, it could be garlic – then always have a nice dressing. Spend some money on some good oils or good vinegars, because that’s where the flavours are.

“Then think about texture… Texture means a lot when we eat.”

The moral of the story? “Salads are amazing, because there are no rules – anything can become a salad,” she says.

Hahnemann learned traditional Scandinavian cooking from her grandmother, saying: “My favourite dish when I was little that my grandmother would cook for me was meatballs with the cucumber salad.”

Her grandma ever explicitly taught her how to make this dish – Hahnemann was instructed to help out, and eventually learned classic Danish recipes through osmosis.

“It was much later in my 20s I realised what an amazing gift she’d given me without ever asking if I wanted to be involved – because I was involved, but I was never asked to be part of the cooking. I just saw it all tasted it,” Hahnemann says.

Not that feeding Hahnemann was much of a chore: “When I was a child I loved everything. The only thing I didn’t like was a well-done omelette, that was the only thing I couldn’t eat when I was little.”

Hahnemann’s grandmother also taught her how to bake, drawing upon the traditional recipes Denmark is famous for. As a child, she practised baking while living on a commune with her parents in the Sixties and Seventies.

“There was this idea that children, their creativity should be nurtured, you shouldn’t put limits on things. So I baked all these horrible cakes and the grown-ups would eat them and say, ‘Oh, it’s wonderful Trine’ – and it was nothing like that,” Hahnemann remembers with a laugh.

It was only when someone in the commune started giving her tips on beating the butter and sugar before adding the rest of the ingredients that “all of a sudden this world opened up to me about baking”.

Hahnemann still uses baking as a tool when she’s “really stressed out”, and has a bakery in Copenhagen putting the spotlight on traditional Scandinavian bakes like cardamom buns and rye bread.

She says baking is “the most important thing” about Scandinavian cuisine.

“Because of the rye bread, and the whole lunch concept of open sandwiches on the rye bread. The whole breakfast is about bread, then you have all the celebratory baked goods – that you can say we now eat on a more regular basis.”

While Hahnemann accepts some “traditions are disappearing, because everybody’s working so much”, she’s keen to keep the spotlight on traditional buns, breads and baking.

When she recently taught a baking class, she was “so happy” to have a group of male friends in their 20s sign up, saying: “I think it’s important to keep it alive.”

‘Simply Scandinavian’ by Trine Hahnemann (Quadrille, £27).

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