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Nordic terroir: an interview with Mark Emil Hermansen

In 2012, Mark Emil Hermansen— then a graduate student at the University of Oxford— published the most comprehensive examination of the New Nordic Cuisine movement. His paper titled Creating Terroir: An Anthropological Perspective on New Nordic Cuisine as an Expression of Nordic Identity uses food to trace the genealogy of Nordic identity, and highlights with great insight how a group of Scandinavian chefs, in 2004, created not only a new food movement with global implications but also informed a radically new Nordic identity.

Shortly after graduating, Hermansen joined the team at the Nordic Food Lab, a Copenhagen-based non-profit research institution established by head chef of Noma, Rene Redzepi, and gastronomic entrepreneur, Claus Meyer. He was also the Head of Development at MAD, a Noma-affiliated annual symposium held in Copenhagen. In 2017, Hermansen and the former head of R&D at Noma, Lars Williams, founded Empirical Spirits, a flavour company.

At Appetite, we were thrilled to encounter Hermansen’s paper. He addressed the core tenets of crossroads thinking, but with a Nordic lens. As he outlines in his paper, “while cuisines are often associated with certain regions and nations, the mixing of cultures, patterns of trade and migration have resulted in cuisines that cannot be said to derive from one single nationally defined source.”

We spoke to Hermansen last week to learn more about his work, how his perspectives on Nordic terroir have evolved in the last seven years, and its influence on his work today. You can find his full paper here.

Why Nordic terroir?

It was fairly easy. I was living in Oxford and I hated the food in the college. They treat you to two or three meals a day with white gloves. It was horrible.

So, I got into cooking. Around the same time, there was a lot going on in terms of Nordic cuisine back home. I was just really interested in it as a Dane. The reason it initially sparked my interest was really a longing for home.

I found the idea of terroir deeply fascinating, particularly how the Nordic created terroir in a region that had not been on the map for any flavours of the land, or of time and place. How was that possible? Why was it meaningful?

So Lars and I, when I started at the Nordic Food Lab, we kind of had this working hypothesis that the delineation between edible and inedible is deliciousness. It really goes back to the definition of deliciousness.

How was the paper received when it was first published?

It was received really well. I think it succeeded because it connected a lot of disciplines and a lot of thoughts that were being discussed in contemporary anthropology, from Arjun Appadurai onwards, on identity and politics.

How did you join the Nordic Food Lab?

After spending so long on this paper and realising that it was only being read by about three people, I spent an evening reaching out to all the individuals I had quoted in the paper. I wrote them an email saying: “You wouldn’t know, but I’ve spent the last four months with you, and I just want to say thank you. If you have any interest or should you ever drop by London or Copenhagen, I’d be happy to host you but for now, this is what came out and I felt like sharing it with you.” And one of the people I obviously sent it to was Rene Redzepi at Noma. I was at that point returning to Copenhagen to figure out what to do next, and Rene called me and said: “I think you should join the team. I’m not quite sure what your role is going to be but I want you to come and meet Lars and join the team and we’ll take it from there.”

What are the strongest multicultural influences in Nordic food?

Basically, spices. One of the most iconic dishes of Danish cuisine is the curry herring. It goes all the way back to medieval society with spices from Morocco. You find in France and all of continental Europe, this influence from overseas. Medieval meals are such a weird hybrid of so many things. Very sweet spices, cinnamon, etc. We think Danish cuisine is very traditional but it’s not. When you take its history one step further, you confront a contradiction of identities.

You describe the New Nordic Cuisine movement as “reaction to the modern world of globalization, migration and electronic mediation”. What drove this reaction?

I’m not even sure it was a reaction as much as it was a result. Maybe an unforeseen result of globalisation. We all had this impression that globalisation was going to turn us all culturally homogenous. Instead, it has set us free from nation-state boundaries or boundaries of identity that we previously saw. It has enabled us to feel community cross-nationally and really create meaning from a new kind of locality.

You and I are clearly part of the same community, much more so than whichever Dane is standing around the corner. We produce locality in terms of what we believe to be the local. Ultimately, we’re trying to produce meaning. That used to be owned by different entities before globalisation.

In the same way that notions of terroir “facilitated the “imagining” of the modern French nation-state”, do you think the New Nordic Cuisine movement facilitated the imagining of a cultural and political homogenous Nordic region?

I think it may be partly true. This is actually a great point. Something like the Nordic Food Manifesto has never been brought up in the last seven years. You would never hear it being mentioned in a kitchen. Even the expression New Nordic is something you’d never talk about. It is now completely irrelevant. What is relevant is the palate.

At Empirical, we’re interested in looking at the world as our local. That’s what’s interesting about making booze or some of these fermented products. You are able to see the world as your terroir.

How do you approach questions of authenticity?

It’s one of those words I really hate. Once articulated, you cannot un-articulate it. You know what I mean?

It’s the big difference between Italian cuisine and Japanese cuisine. In Italian cuisine, quality is measured by how long you’ve done something the same way.  This balsamico recipe or that parmesan cheese has changed… never. It’s the original recipe from the same cave and the same jar. When you go to Japan and speak to an 11th generation miso maker, every single generation renews the recipe because tradition is not relevant without innovation. And that’s authentic to the Japanese. That’s authenticity. The other stuff is just copying.

One of the reasons I love South America is the region’s interesting confrontation with authenticity. Brazilian cuisine has so much to do with a postcolonial negotiation with identity, and taking back a lost identity. Authenticity there has a very specific meaning.

What is the research process at Empirical like?

It’s one big, realtime hybrid of knowledge and ingredient and season. It runs very much like a restaurant kitchen. We don’t do market research. My partner Lars just came back from Mexico. He discovered a chili in a market that he loved. He went back to get more chilis but couldn’t find a supplier for them of the same quality. The way we distill means that we have to use the right ingredients; otherwise it doesn’t taste as good. We don’t use any heat. It’s all raw.

Lars went back to Mexico again to find the village in Oaxaca with an indigenous community that has grown this chili for 500 years. Now we work directly with them. We brought in four agronomists to help them with organic farming, dealing with pesticides, introducing cover crops, and working with them to directly adjust the ways they smoke the chilis. It feels like a real collaboration between tradition and innovation.

All of our procurement is deeply rooted in direct relationships with farmers. Right now, we just want people to love the product. Even if people don’t understand what it is, we want them to love the product. And then, in that quality paradigm, we want all the cultural values to be implicit.

That’s why we started this. I was tired of seeing these small suppliers going to big restaurants yet they could hardly make a living. Now, we’re buying out the whole yield of a community, helping improve their production, and giving them a much higher margin because we cut out the middleman. We can pay upfront. We do the same in Zimbabwe, in the Amazon, and very soon we will be doing the same in Japan.