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Plats de résistance

Creating Terroir.

An Anthropological Perspective on New Nordic Cuisine as an Expression of Nordic Identity.
Créer du terroir. Une perspective anthropologique de la Nouvelle Cuisine nordique comme une expression de l’identité Nordique.
Mark Emil Tholstrup Hermansen


By examining New Nordic Cuisine - a contemporary food discourse based only on produce grown and ways of cooking “native” to the Nordic region - this article explores localised cuisine as a focal point for analysing contemporary flows of identity sentiments in the Nordic region in the 21st century. By (re)creating a Nordic terroir, New Nordic Cuisine enables its “natives” to ingest the (cultural) landscape, and consume a material version of local and regional identity. Identity will be shown to be a concept that is in many ways inarticulate but can be ingested as “nature” through localised cuisine, becoming, in the words of Appadurai (1981), “a highly condensed social fact”, and established “The Nordic” as a marker of group identity in the Nordic region.

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1This article explores the creation of Nordic terroir by looking at some of the ways in which discourses of cuisine, landscape and identity have shaped contemporary Scandinavian cuisine in order to answer the question: To what extent is New Nordic Cuisine an expression of local identity?

2I will look at the creation of Nordic terroir by studying local and regional perceptions of a shared Nordic history and landscape that enable the “imagined community” (Anderson 1991) of the Nordic people – “the Nordic folk”. I will argue that the New Nordic Cuisine movement can be seen as a reaction to the modern world of globalization, migration and electronic mediation. The new forms of mediation destabilize the traditional boundaries of the nation-state and make room for new transnational “imagined communities”. I will argue that the creation of Nordic terroir is a method to “produce locality” (Appadurai 1996) in the post-national world.

3Terroir will be used as a cultural category in this article, and a further elaboration on its meaning and history is here necessary. Its meaning is originally embedded in French culture, as part of people’s everyday assumptions about food. Its literal meaning is somewhere in between soil, locality, and “part of the country” (Trubek 2008: 9). In Purity and Danger Mary Douglas (1985: 35) defines dirt as “matter out of place”. Terroir, as Trubek notes, is the opposite of dirt - it is matter in a certain place. Douglas continues: “Dirt, then, is never an isolated event. Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, insofar as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (ibid.). Terroir embodies the connections made between “dirt as matter in place”, cuisine, taste, history, memory and landscape. Its meaning is ascribed by culture, transforming it into a significant category, as soil, landscape and surroundings and motivates shifting interpretations of it depending on the culture, the person and the moment in history (Trubek 2008). In her book Taste of Place Amy Trubek (2008) tracks how terroir has been an important cultural category for the French in categorizing taste, produce and local cuisines, and traces it back to a celebration of the peasant and agrarian life that are central to French identity. She highlights the role of the “natural” world when discerning the taste of food; rock, grass, hillside, valley and plateau are all part of the vernacular when the French grow, buy, cook, and eat food. This is particularly evident in the traditional titling of produce with the name of its region of origin.

4The titles associated with particular products are protected by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, a governmental agency with the power to certify geographical indications for agricultural produce seen as “unique” to the place of production. For example, Roquefort cheese has been protected by parliamentary decree since the 15th century. The modern version of the law to protect the place of origin emerged in 1919, granting Roquefort the first Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée in 1925 (Trubek 2008). To a Frenchman, and any other gourmet, this becomes a significant distinctive factor in the taste and meaning of products of the same kind. He or she will thus supposedly know the differences in production, taste and landscape between, for example, a Roquefort cheese and a Comte cheese; the Roquefort being a semi-soft blue-cheese made from sheep’s milk and aged for a few weeks in the caves surrounding the commune of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the South of France, while the Comte is significantly harder, made from cow’s milk, and aged for anywhere between 9 and 12 months in the more northern region of the same name. Terroir is therefore not only a descriptive device for a certain geographical relationship between produce and the land, but it is equally a device for grasping an intrinsic relationship between taste and place; in other words, food and drink are thought to possess unique tastes dependent on their place of origin. Terroir and goût de terroir - the “taste of the earth” - are both categories that frame the perception and practice of food as a material version of local identity. They can thus be used to inform us of the dynamic between “people” and “place”, whether sensual, practical, or habitual.

5The French terroir thus appears as the embodiment of an intrinsic connection between the French people and the French landscape, a connection considered “essential” and “as timeless as the earth itself” and reflects the strong presence of the vision of rural France in French identity (Trubek 2008). Trubek traces this vision of France back to a group of “tastemakers” in the 19th century, who focused intensely on describing and linking produce with provinces and areas, creating, sometimes aristocratic, genealogies and telling the histories of these products with myths of patrimony, linking the produce, the place and the taste to a storied past. In practice, what they did was to convincingly put the vision of agrarian rural France into people’s mouths, and thus facilitate the “imagining” of the modern French nation-state.

6The geographers Bell and Valentine (1997) also point out the association between French cuisine with the distinct geographical locations, where different physical conditions “combine with localised culinary histories to produce a rich map of food custom, habit and practice...” (Bell and Valentine 1997: 156). They highlight the fact that terroir is equally present, though perhaps unarticulated, in many regions outside France. The perception of certain qualities embedded in terroir and local cuisine becomes a manifestation of the everyday practices that relate to the perceptions of identity boundaries. Terroir might, in other words, often be unarticulated, but it is nevertheless an important cultural category for discerning the connection between identity and landscape that is expressed in localised cuisines.

7Following Billig’s argument that “one needs to look at the reasons why people in the contemporary world do not forget their nationality” (Billig 1995: 7), localised cuisine can be viewed as a method of expressing local identity in everyday discourse. To Billig, the concept of nationalism is problematic because it becomes misleading when describing what happens in the practice of the everyday in established nation-states. By looking at mundane, everyday practices one can examine the symbols and elements that discreetly remind people of “who they are”. These practices and discourses combine to construct and maintain a sense of national identity. They also play a part in how acting individuals with a shared sense of identity form an “imagined community” (Anderson 1991). Anderson argues that “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which - as well as against which - it came into being” (1991: 12).

8As will be shown in this article, the creation of terroir can be seen as one of the everyday discourses that facilitates the imagined community. Localised cuisine can thus be seen as a manifestation of group sentiment, a way in which feelings for and ideas about “the land” and “the people” can be expressed in the context of the everyday, and becomes a platform for the production of locality (Appadurai 1996).

9I use New Nordic Cuisine as a broad term for the emphasis on terroir in contemporary Scandinavian cuisine that has risen in popularity in the first decade of the 21st century, and is embodied in the practices and menu of the NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen and the Manifesto for a New Nordic Cuisine. In the spirit of Appadurai (1988), I will be using cookbooks as “revealing artefacts of culture in the making” (1988: 22). I have maintained the French term “terroir” throughout the article, as this term is part of the chef’s own description of the cuisine, and hence has taken up a role as a “native” term of the movement.

10The first part will explore Nordic terroir as an expression of the “imagined community” of “the Nordic” by looking at the formation of the modern Scandinavian nation-states, and particularly on the notions of a Nordic folk (people) and the Nordic landscape. The second part will look at how terroir is created in contemporary Scandinavian food practices. The third part will draw together Nordic terroir and New Nordic Cuisine with theories by Billig (1995), Anderson (1991) and Appadurai (1996) in order to argue that New Nordic Cuisine is an expression of local identity through the production of locality (Appadurai 1996).

Nordic Terroir: The Landscape and the People

11In order to survey the creation of the Nordic terroir, one must look at what the idea of “the Nordic” means as a marker of identification, and especially the role of the Nordic landscape as the foundation of the localised cuisine.

12The Nordic landscape has long been categorized as part of a particularly Nordic view. As will be shown later, terms like “pureness”, “freshness”, “simplicity”, “ethics” and “light” all surface in descriptions of the qualities that are intrinsic to the idea of “the Nordic”. As we shall see, the New Nordic Cuisine movement perceives produce from the Nordic landscape as comprising certain special characteristics by virtue of its “place in history”, and “degree” of indigenity.

13In her two edited volumes on the “Nordic World” (Den Nordiske Verden), the Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup explores “the Nordic” as a part of everyday discourse in the Scandinavian region. She finds that whether concerned with the “Nordic countries”, “Nordic cooperation”, or “Nordic culture”, “the Nordic” is largely taken for granted. Despite differences in language and manners between the countries, “the Nordic” is experienced as a single “unit”, distinct from “the South” and the rest of the world. From the “Southern” perspective “the North” has often been an exotic wilderness, a place in which life is closely in touch with nature, and the people with a certain naturalness that is largely absent from the rest of Europe (Hastrup 1992: 12). Despite political changes and numerous displacements of peoples, languages and national boundaries, the idea of the Nordic has persisted as a concept that connects the peoples of Scandinavia in a shared culture, from which the “Northerners” can think of themselves and others. Thus, Hastrup emphasizes, by studying the idea of “the Nordic” in its local manifestations rather than the idea itself, we are granted with a perspective that can allow us to generalize on the Nordic region as a whole.

14In his ethnography of the Danes, Being Danish, Roger Jenkins (2011) tries to map out the ways in which ideas of Danish and Nordic identity are constructed and perceived. His main ethnographic argument is concerned with the paradoxical nature of identification, manifested in the assumptions of a Nordic cultural and political homogeneity as a fundamental aspect of Nordic identity, embodied in the idea of the Nordic folk – the Nordic people. The paradox is the fact that the idea of cultural and ideological homogeneity, in Denmark itself, and in the rest of the Nordic region, does not reflect the political and cultural reality. This aspect of Nordic identity is important in informing us how the Nordic people, on a rhetorical and political level, express how they believe the world to be, or how they believe it ought to be.

15The idea of the coherent Nordic folk is intimately bound up with the relationship to the landscape, which is seen as a manifestation of a set of Nordic characteristics. Despite the profound geological differences between the Nordic landscapes, they are perceived as part of the same Nordic “sphere”. This perception of a coherent, decidedly Nordic landscape indicates how powerful the Nordic landscape is in the image of a coherent Nordic identity.

16Jenkins puts an emphasis on the Nordic history of social development which results in an image of country people and rural life as “more “real”, more dependable, and more in touch with the important things in life – generally more authentic, in fact – than town dwellers and the sophisticated urban milieu” (ibid.: 58). He concludes that this image of the Nordic rural landscape and the people who inhabit it is deeply important in what is understood as characteristically Nordic. This feeds into the geo-political idea of Norden (the North) as a powerful motif in everyday discourse and popular sentiment (ibid.: 92) to the extent that the notions held about the political and cultural similarity of the Nordic folk become ideological: “We are all the same, we are all equal” (ibid.: 100).

17The “imagining” of a coherent Nordic folk can be seen as a result of various historical events of the mid to late 19th century. In Denmark, the constitution of 1849 established a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected government. This was followed by the defeat to Prussia in 1864 resulting in the annexation of a large area of Southern Jutland. The defeat to Prussia, as Danish territory was significantly reduced, provoked a mobilisation of nationalist sentiment. Similarly, the “loss” of Finland and the Norwegian independence spurred nationalistic sentiments in Sweden; and in the new Norwegian and Finnish nation-states nationalist sentiment in art and literature was also used to express and celebrate the new nations. This change in perspective was also present in other countries at this time, e.g. Germany or Italy.

18In this period in Denmark, known as Guldalderen (The Golden Age), a large number of hymns celebrating the country and the Nordic folk were written, many of which are still sung today at public and private gatherings, weddings and holiday celebrations. This includes the Danish national anthem: Der er et Yndigt Land (“There is a Lovely Land”) from 1819. The Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish national anthems were written in the same period, under similar political circumstances, and all refer specifically to “the land” of the nation, as a primordial setting for the people of the Nordic region. Even in this period of nationalist sentiment, the Nordic landscape as an image of primordial beauty and as the “natural habitat” for the Nordic folk transcended the narratives of the individual nation-states. This echoes Jenkins’ remark that the Nordic people perceive themselves as intrinsically one and the same folk: “We are all the same, we are all equal” (Jenkins 2011: 100). In Denmark, following Grundtvig’s social movement and the modernisation of the rural production facilities, the idea of the folk and its adverbial version, folkelig [popular], became synonymous with the Nordic tradition of popular, participatory social democracy (in the non-party sense), and it is in this period that the geo-political idea of “the North” emerges (Jenkins 2011: 92).

19The meaning of the Nordic landscape has been and is continually reproduced through a range of different media that have become instrumental in the construction of the Nordic landscape as a cultural artefact. This includes the consumption of images, texts, anthems and music, but also through geography lessons in schools, the landscape paintings on display in the national museums, and the images used to decorate the home, be they paintings, posters or postcards. Furthermore the advent of mass tourism and the “pilgrimages” to special national landscapes have become popular, because they are defined as “ancient Swedish”, “purely Finnish”, “authentic Danish” or “very Norwegian”. There has come to exist a sort of national gallery of the landscape, exhibited everywhere from museums, to homes and tourist brochures, presenting a series of places where “emotions” and “nature” are combined in a very specific way (Löfgren 1992: 157).

20Löfgren (1992) highlights a specific Nordic emphasis on vildmarken (“wilderness”) as an organising theme in the history of the Nordic landscape. The Nordic wilderness has since the national romanticism of the 19th century been portrayed as a “fascinating utopia” with an abundance of unknown, unexplored and unexploited resources (ibid.: 115). As shown, this has been partly a result of the emergence of the democratic nation-states, in which the importance of the landscape in the creation of national identity was highlighted. As a cultural concept, the wilderness is often an embodiment of what was “before”, and it takes on not only a spatial, but also a temporal dimension: “Before, this was just wilderness” (ibid.: 115).

  • 1 One “defence” of the landscape on a political level is the fact that it is not legally possible for (...)

21The widespread ownership, across classes, of second homes in the countryside grants us a look at the role of the landscape in everyday life. Especially in Denmark, this often takes the form of allotments. Allotments, in Denmark called kolonihaver, and their attached houses, kolonihavehuse, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century, as spaces for the growing urban working class to enjoy fresh air and good company. Allotments were also utilized to grow vegetables, to support the diet and budget of the average working class family. As a sign of, and perhaps in honour of, the idealistic origins of the kolonihave, hedges are still today only allowed to be 125 cm tall to allow neighbours to stay in contact, and enable people to follow the life of the inhabitants of the other allotments (ibid.: 140). The allotments and the small houses were meant as “natural” spaces that could function without the supervision of the establishment found in the urban public parks, facilitating the image of the Nordic pastoral idyll “with fresh air and sunshine available to all, and its defence symbolizes the defence of something much wider” (Jenkins 2011: 99)1. The allotment gardens and houses reflect a sort of imaginative individualism, with no two houses or gardens looking the same, and often with national flags waving from the multiple flagpoles, meticulously and carefully raised and taken down in accordance with the rules of the national “flag calendar”.

22It is interesting to see how Nordic identity, and the idea of a coherent Nordic folk is perceived to be a synthesis of other regional identities, with whom the Nordic peoples identify by virtue of their mutually intelligible languages (especially Sweden, Norway and Denmark) and closely intertwined histories, despite a history of hostility and migration. The anthropologist Marianne Gullestad (1989) even goes as far as identifying a few aspects that are perceived as universal to Nordic identity, namely “equality defined as sameness; home-centeredness; desire for peace and quiet; love of nature; stability; independence; self-sufficiency; and self-control” (ibid.: 85).

23This way, the Nordic landscape takes on two separate, but historically intertwined perceptions: One is as a utopian image of pastoral idyll, the other as the setting for the social movements of the 20th century. By looking to the North, to a perceived historical relationship between the people and landscapes of the Nordic region, a sort of perceived Nordic “race” appears as the embodiment of a vision of the North, which is continuously reproduced in daily practice, not only as reflected in the national anthems, but in the everyday practice and discourse of engaging with the landscape. The kolonihave and public parks are incorporated in a particularly Nordic landscape; a place where romanticist discourses of “the land” and its “genealogy” as the primordial home of the Nordic folk, is closely intertwined with its role in the reproduction of the social ideology, that Gullestad and others have revealed as central to Nordic identity. As will be shown in the next chapter, it is this dual perception of the Nordic landscape that is embodied in Nordic terroir.

Water, Light and Soil: Discerning the Taste of the Nordic

24The Manifesto for a New Nordic Cuisine was created by a group of Scandinavian chefs in 2004. By listing ten specific aims of the movement, New Nordic Cuisine is presented as a powerful medium through which certain characteristics of the Nordic can be expressed. It is described in abstract and ambiguous terms like “ethics” and “simplicity”. The “demand for good taste” results in a plan for the creation of the New Nordic Cuisine that will benefit the “health and well-being” of “everyone in the Nordic countries”. It has a “special character”, a Nordic character, which can be “favourable” compared to other global cuisines. These characteristics are produced by the “particularly excellent” conditions of the Nordic landscape, climate and waters (Meyer n.d.a).

25Following Bourdieu (1989), the experience of “taste” (and in this context particularly the experience of something “tasting good”) is largely determined by the social structures in which it is a part of everyday experience, often discerned by a relatively small elite group. Just as Trubek (2008) traces the vision of French terroir back to a group of “tastemakers” in the 19th century, the Manifesto for a New Nordic Cuisine signifies a similar mobilisation of landscape, “nation” and cuisine. The “tastemakers” of the New Nordic Cuisine movement are a group of chefs, cooks and food critics who discern the taste of the Nordic for the general public who make use of their buying power to implement their ideas, and put the vision of “the Nordic” in their mouths. Since cooking and eating in the postmodern era involve both the domestic and public sphere, this is a movement that can be traced in practices across the spheres of society. The flagship of the movement is the NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen (NOMA is an acronym for Nordisk Mad – lit. “Nordic Food”). NOMA offers “an innovative gastronomic take on traditional cooking methods, fine Nordic produce and the legacy of our shared food heritage” (NOMA n.d.). Since being founded in 2004, by the Danish cook and entrepreneur Claus Meyer and Danish-Macedonian chef René Redzepi, NOMA has received worldwide attention, culminating in the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant Award in both 2010 and 2011. While NOMA is a relatively expensive, gourmet-oriented restaurant, its effect as a foundational institution within New Nordic Cuisine has been profound.

26The movement has become the platform for the establishment of a consortium of bakeries, farms and fisheries around Scandinavia as well as the establishment of numbers of new restaurants, food markets and cookbooks about Scandinavian cuisine and “traditional” ingredients, serving the booming market for quality local produce. In fact, ground elder and ramsons (wild garlic), which are common wild plants, can now be purchased in several supermarkets in Copenhagen. While chefs like René Redzepi engaged in developing this “new” cuisine came from an essentially culinary interest in exploring the Nordic “taste”, a “trickle-down” or “NOMA effect” has conceived a democratising process (von Hippel 2005) by which the everyday food choices of many regional consumers have shifted towards consuming more local products, along with organic, bio-dynamic and environmentally sustainable produce, which are perceived to reside in the same “sphere” of products as local produce, and all collectively perceived as “good for you” (Lassen and Korzen 2009, Terragni, Torjusen and Vittersø 2009, Halkier 2009, Boström and Klintman 2009). By acting as “lead-users” (as described by Eric von Hippel, 2005) in the food sector, the New Nordic Cuisine Movement’s initially novel and innovative approach to food and cooking is now mainstream practice. Similarly, in her cookbook entitled The Scandinavian Kitchen (2010), Danish cook Camilla Plum describes it as a growing environmental awareness, and the awareness of “growing and eating organic food, and eating locally and seasonally [is] growing fast”(Plum 2010: 6). Plum, who, like Meyer, also hosts a range of public TV-shows, describes the attention to Nordic cuisine as a result of the efforts of “young chefs and young families [who] embrace traditions, in order to evolve them, creating fresher, lighter, even more seasonal and local food”(ibid.).

27Evidently, the terroir concept is used instrumentally to express an almost pseudo-scientific reasoning behind the “special character” of Nordic cuisine. Clearly, Meyer, Redzepi, Plum and chefs like them, as discerners of taste, have an influence on the transformation of everyday food practices that cannot be ignored.

28René Redzepi, the co-founder and head-chef of NOMA, has published a cookbook entitled NOMA – Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (2010), containing his diary from 2003 about his “culinary expedition” across the Nordic region. Here Redzepi describes his encounters with traditional produce and cooking methods. The purpose of this trip was to find inspiration for the future menu of NOMA, a menu that should reflect the region and its “special character” and would eventually result in the creation of the Manifesto for a New Nordic Cuisine. This is how Redzepi describes one of his first encounters with Icelandic cuisine:

“We meet with Einar Matthiasson at the MS dairy. He has organised a tasting of their skyr. Skyr is a cottage-type cheese with deep roots in Icelandic history that can be traced back a thousand years, and the recipe hasn’t really changed since! Wild! The milk is heated, then cooled to 40°C. You add rennet and old skyr. It matures for a full day in a muslin (cheesecloth). Then it can be mixed as you like it – with milk or cream – and you can use it in pastries, desserts, etc. Skyr just tastes damn good: creamy, low-fat and with a very deep flavour, much better than fromage blanc. Perhaps the special milk from the indigenous cows really makes a difference?” (Redzepi 2010: 29)

29As Redzepi indicates in his description of skyr, there is a perception that produce embodies and expresses, by way of taste, certain special characteristics by virtue of its place in history, and perceived “degree” of indigenity. This way, the emphasis on local produce as ingredients in Nordic cuisine, becomes just as much a focus on the land that has produced it. This “primordial” approach suggests that the “taste of place” is produced by an encounter with “nature” through preparing and ingesting food, and the soil and its cultural and historical genealogy is of primary importance in its creation – it is, in other words, deeply intertwined with the Nordic terroir. The use of authenticity seems to rest on an assumption of a superiority of traditional practices; that historical persistence somehow guarantees higher quality food and drink. This emphasis on the superiority of Nordic terroir is present across the spectrum of contemporary Scandinavian cuisine. Claus Meyer explains his view on the importance of terroir in New Nordic Cuisine:

“The French word terroir is very important in our Nordic primary produce culture, a fact that is often overlooked. Usually terroir is defined as the impact of the cultivation location on primary produce. In other words, the impact of all sorts of natural forces – soil condition, sun, wind and rain – that enables us to bring the primary produce to the table with its own distinctive characteristics. By consuming the produce we become part of the surroundings that go into the food, and the cultivation location becomes part of us. It works both ways. For that reason the origin of primary produce, its identity, is vital if we want to avoid becoming alienated from ourselves. No matter who we are.”(Meyer n.d. b)

30Meyer here links the landscape with “ourselves”, practically presenting the landscape and its inhabitants as one and the same. Meyer continues: “Terroir is the “soul” of a location and is largely unaffected by time. If you return to Perigord [a French region] in two hundred years’ time you will still be able to grow superb walnuts there. In comparison to this permanence, human beings are a transient secondary factor.” (ibid.)

31Camilla Plum also presents the intimate connection between taste and Nordic landscape and climate, and of the importance of the “traditional” preparation methods involved in the production of Nordic cuisine:

“Growing conditions are the roots of any kitchen; the flavours of our food here in the north stem from cool summers and icy winters, plenty of rain, cold waters and long summer days with endless rain…. Scandinavian cooking achieves a delicate balance between extravagance and the humble…. We are proud of our traditions, and they are mostly very much alive, some of them very local or regional.” (Plum 2010: 6)

32Meyer, Redzepi and Plum all highlight the importance of the “timeless” and “essential” aspects in the taste of Nordic cuisine. The Nordic landscape and climate are essential elements of the taste of the Nordic, expressing the “special and favourable climatic conditions …, undisturbed areas of countryside, and very small population” and the “unusual” light conditions. The long hours of light in the summer is presented as particularly important to the taste of the North, since plants acquire “all their energy and consequently their entire taste foundation from light”, and it is hence possible to “equate the sum of light with richness of taste”, because the glucose produced in photosynthesis “fuels the plant’s inner creativity… ensuring high concentration and diversity (complexity) of appealing flavours” (Meyer n.d. b). The “essentialist” view on Nordic produce is reflected across many of the recent Scandinavian cookbooks. Hahnemann’s (2010) describes the many health benefits of Nordic cuisine, while chefs like Camilla Plum (2010) also highlight the intrinsic values of a cuisine that is “all about simple, healthy, seasonal food made from delicious, local produce: luscious berries, juicy fruits, fresh fish and game, and ancient grains combined with deliciously pungent herbs to create sensational flavours”. These “natural” conditions for Nordic terroir and its supposed “patrimony” should be explored further:

33Kirsten Hastrup’s work on the “Nordic World” discussed in the previous chapter, is attributed as a continuation of the work of the Danish cultural historian Troels-Lund (1883), who in the end of the 19th century published 12 volumes on Dagligliv I Norden (“Everyday Life in the North”). In his comments about the “development of foods” (Troels-Lund 1883: 1), he mentions the harsh weather conditions as a condition that encourages a strong appetite, and makes preservation easier. Troels-Lund highlights grød (porridge) as one of the “oldest” Nordic meals. No other meal is described as frequently as this “from the moment the written sources begun”. The word grød has hence “for millennia worked its magic in the North”, as both a daily and festive dish. Troels-Lund highlights the fact that the word grød is closely related to the word gryde (a pot) and how its difference from the French pot – derived from potage, a soup, which is once again derived from the words potage or potager meaning “vegetable garden” – underlines the differences between the way of life in “the North” and “the South” (ibid.: 9), as examples of two “primordial” dishes, the one based on grain and milk, the other on vegetables, both reflecting the climatic and geographical circumstances under which they were produced.

34Grain and milk are presented as fundamental ingredients of the “traditional” Nordic diet, along with produce hunted or collected from the nature since the Stone Age: oysters, mussels, snails and game (ibid.: 4). The Nordic peoples used to eat their meat raw - either smoked, salted or dried - never boiled. According to Troels-Lund, the disgust with “bloody meats” came with the introduction of the Old Testament, in which blood is described as containing the soul, highlighting the influence of religion on food taboos. Apart from mentioning the pre-Christian importance of drinking water and blood, milk and beer are mentioned as particular to pre-modern Nordic cuisine, often making out a key ingredient in most daily diets (ibid.). While Troels-Lund mentions the “traditional” Nordic diet as being largely static through time, he does not mention any specific relationship between the produce, the landscape and the taste. However, weather conditions are once again mentioned as being of intrinsic importance to how the landscape presents its produce to its inhabitants and the conditions under which they collect and preserve it is highlighted as definitive in the diet of the Nordic peoples.

35This example shows us that the idea of a “traditional” Nordic cuisine, grounded in a historical continuum to produce and methods of preparation, is to some extent present in historical accounts. However, it is difficult to establish the intrinsic relationship between the Nordic people of “the past” and the landscape they inhabited. Their dependency on terroir was in a world that was, to a large extent, fundamentally localised. So there is a connection between contemporary cuisine and its supposed historical and traditional roots, but it could perhaps be said that Nordic terroir as we see it today has to be created as much as discovered. Traditionally, geographical names have been used to name and describe food: In Denmark, it is Samsøe potatoes as opposed to Lammefjord potatoes, beer from Thy as opposed to beer from Faxe, or herring from Glyngøre as opposed to herring from Christiansø; but also many other regional specialities, like mushrooms from Anderslöv in Southern Sweden, sea urchins from Bodö and eggs from the Swedish Blue ducks in Gotland bear the name of the geographical location of its production (Redzepi 2010). Unlike France, however, the produce’s connection to geographical locations are not protected by a controlling organization like the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, and produce can thus, in theory, be from anywhere and still bear the name of a geographical location without necessarily being derived from it. Still, the geographical title is a symbol of “authenticity”, as it links the produce with the landscape, making a claim to the Nordic terroir. The (re)creation of Nordic terroir enables the Nordic folk to discover “who they are” through an encounter with the landscape, tradition, and the “natural” world, and puts them “in touch” with the natural seasons and climates of the land they inhabit. As Hahnemann (2010) notes,

“The countries of the Nordic Hemisphere have their very own healthy food culture, ingredients and traditions which have, for too long, been eclipsed by the perceived benefits of the cuisines of other nations deemed to be intrinsically better for us. Rediscovering our Northern heritage also helps us address several issues around food other than health” (ibid.: 8).

36Additionally, Hahnemann (2010) emphasizes the importance of the “cooking and eating habits” (ibid.:6) centred around the kitchen, and using cooking as a way of “living life together” (ibid.). Hence, New Nordic Cuisine reflects some of the aspects Gullestad has mentioned as central to Nordic identity (quoted previously on page 5, Gullestad 1989: 85).

37To adopt Hahnemann’s expression, discovering the Nordic terroir can help address several issues around cuisine other than health. In the next chapter I will discuss how the creation of terroir can be seen as an expression of local identity through the production of locality, to reflect a cuisine where, as the artist Olafur Eliasson writes, “the potato cannot be separated from the soil... They come from a field, a tree, a bush, an animal, the sea... In other words, they, like us, are inseparable from the environment. And NOMA’s environment is largely Scandinavian” (Eliasson 2010: 9).

“There is a Lovely Land”: New Nordic Cuisine as Production of Locality

38Anthropology has traditionally established food as a topic that is about commensality, a way to define one’s own group and distinguish the “other”. For those working on ethnicity, particularly for Mary Douglas in her seminal book Purity and Danger (1985), cuisine and culinary tradition is a good “boundary maker”, providing a symbol for transforming “nature”, or the “outside”, into “culture”, “the inside”, providing meaning through structure. Cuisine becomes about identity creation and maintenance, whether it be national, ethnic, class or gender-based (Douglas 1985, Sutton 2001, Jansen 2001, Fischler 1988, Scholliers 2001, Eriksen 2002.).

39As Fischler (1988) has pointed out, food is central to our sense of identity. While eating is a “biological” act in the sense that it is vital for survival, it requires a crossing of “natural” and “cultural” boundaries; of the threshold between what is “outside” and what is “inside”. This principle of incorporation touches not only upon the very nature of a person but also forms a basis for collective identity. One example of the importance of eating and drinking habits as a boundary maker is when some migrant groups maintain their culinary traditions, even when language and other cultural expressions fade. In other words, food choices are a way for people to demarcate their own and the other group. The principle of incorporation is empowered by the understanding of cuisine as a system of classification and representation, operating in the register of the imagination, giving food and its eaters a place in the world (Fischler 1988 and Scholliers 2001).

40The power of food as boundary-marker is also described by Jansen (2001) in his study of different kinds of bread as a manifestation of conflicting identities in a post-colonial Algerian village. According to Jansen, the different kinds of breads originating from two distinctly different culinary traditions, become an indicator for social and hierarchical differences, and show that particular foods can become anchors of identity. While not all foods hold the symbolic power to demarcate identity, the incorporation of certain food types into the traditional local cuisine, exemplified in the local interest in the French baguette, as a substitute for the traditional flatbread, can be used as a way to express an aspiration to belong to a higher status group (Jansen 2001).

41Sutton (2001) builds on this by discussing the power of food as an incubator of memory, and especially its power to stimulate nostalgia. Sutton focuses on the ability of everyday practices of cooking and eating to generate “subjective commentary” and “encode” powerful meanings, linking food with memory as both have strong connections to issues of identity, summed up in the phrase: “if we are what we eat”, then “we are what we ate as well” (Sutton 2001: 6), and reflected in Hannerz’ anecdote that the first thing a Swedish couple did after a trip to Borneo was to drink a glass of cold milk: “Home is where that glass of cold milk is”(Hannerz 1996: 27).

42Palmer (1998) further explores how culturally defined patterns of eating enable people to express and re-affirm their identity, because the “material world serve to identify who and what we are, both to ourselves and to others: natural surroundings, the food we eat, literary fiction, museums and galleries etc.” (ibid.: 176). 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. However, the importance is not whether the cuisine can be “proven” to derive from a certain nation, but rather why certain foods, styles of cooking, products, and culinary particularities persist to be associated with certain nationalities or groups. This is supported by Bell and Valentine (1997) who argue that food is a language that “articulates notions of inclusion and exclusion, of national pride and xenophobia” (ibid.: 168). According to Palmer, it is exactly the ability of cuisine to express identity that enables it to act as a boundary-marker between identities (also Eriksen 2002).

43Hiroko (2008), in her study of Japanese cuisine, argues that cuisine practices are influential in reproducing the bodies of the nation and by that process the “national body is reproduced, whilst incorporating dissident voices” (ibid.: 25). At the same time, globalization has resulted in an increased emphasis on the “Japanese” element of a cuisine that is of an intrinsically hybrid nature, in order to “reinforce national coherence and integrity” (ibid.). Hiroko suggests that cuisine thus becomes a tool for “biopolitical governing” (ibid.) to negotiate identity boundaries while “developing the nation-state through taking care of the national population” (ibid.).

44Direct expressions and acts of nationalism, are frowned upon in the Nordic region, and words like nationalism and patriotism are often avoided when discussing what is and what is not Nordic, although nationalism is “everywhere one looks and outspoken pride in the nation is taken for granted and unremarkable” (Jenkins 2011: 219). Evidently, New Nordic Cuisine, with its explicit focus on the Nordic terroir, can be seen as an example of the “banal” expression of the imagined Nordic community. From this view, cuisine is as much a symbol of identity and nationality as the more obvious symbols of anthems, coins and ceremonies.

45As discussed earlier, an idea of a coherent Nordic landscape as the “natural” habitat for the Nordic folk is pivotal in Nordic identity and in the creation of terroir. In his inquiry into Danish identity, Jenkins concludes a list of features that, to the Danes, participate in the creation of an identity that is specifically Danish. Topping this list is the perception of a menu of supposedly Danish dishes such as pastries (wienerbrød), roast pork (flæskesteg), beef with soft onion, gravy, frankfurters, meat patties (frikadeller), old-fashioned ice-cream wafers, or stewed berries with cream (rødgrød med fløde), beer and schnapps (Jenkins 2011: 213). Also, eating and the social setting of eating together with family, friends or acquaintances, and the hygge – the important Scandinavian concept that could be described as a sense of togetherness, fellowship, personal warmth and mutuality - that is produced by this setting, are all intimately connected with notions of culture, tradition, solidarity and fellowship. Other features listed as central to the “shared place” that appears as fundamentally important to Danish identity are:

“Physical geography (i.e. Denmark seen as a natural feature on the planet's surface); the weather; wildlife and plants; a beautiful landscape on gentle hills, sand dunes, beaches; low islands and beech woods; a strong ideological rural orientation; farms, farmers and farm animals; visible relics of history such as stone tombs, barrows, rune stones and ancient churches; architecture, whether classical or modern; and tourist attractions. This is a heady mixture of longitude and latitude, climate, nature, landscape, romanticism, agriculture, history, the built environment, and tourism” (Jenkins 2011: 219).

46This echoes Löfgren’s (1992) description of a powerful romantic image of the rural landscape that has been an important part of the collective self-perception of Nordic identity since at least the 19th century, presenting an image of the Nordic landscape that is “relatively coherent, striking and powerful, and utterly romantic” (Jenkins 2011: 215). The perceived “historical continuity” of the connection between the Nordic folk and the Nordic landscape is again closely connected to a sense of community (or imagined community), claiming legitimacy that “derives from lineage and the sheer passage of time” telling a story of a people “that has been continuously settled since at least the Viking age, homogeneous in culture and race” (Anderson 1991 and Jenkins 2011: 219).

47Following Billig’s (1995: 7) argument that “one needs to look at the reasons why people in the contemporary world do not forget their nationality” by looking at everyday practices and discourses, one can consider New Nordic Cuisine a discourse that discreetly reminds the Nordic people of who they are and enables them to imagine the Nordic folk. Perhaps it is even because of the Nordic aversion to act directly “nationalistic” (Jenkins 2011) that this “banal” form of nationalism becomes potent as an identity-marker in the Nordic region. New Nordic Cuisine in this context is a symbolic setting that allows the idea of the Nordic folk to be reproduced, and echoes Palmer’s observation that “culturally defined patterns of eating enable people to both re-affirm and express their sense of identity” (Palmer 1998: 190).

48The idea of a coherent Nordic identity, or imagined community, is based on shared claims of land or language, that draw their power from the sentiments of boundary maintenance that bind small groups (as described by Barth (1969) and Eriksen (2002)). In this view, small intimate, everyday practices, and practices and discourses involving the group, are, essentially, based on kinship or its extensions. However, as Appadurai (1996) has shown, this “Primordialist Thesis” is deeply flawed, and should be re-evaluated to fit in with a post-modern world of globalization, migration, and electronic mediation.

49I will briefly outline Appadurai’s argument: The modern world of migration, technology and electronic mediation makes room for new “imagined communities” (Anderson 1991) that are able to transcend the boundaries of large-scale group identities that might have previously been taken for granted. The nation-state is particularly challenged and destabilized by the new transnational communities. The new group identities thus take over the role of the nation-state as the arbiter of important social changes. Rituals especially (like eating and cooking produced from local knowledge) take on an important role to “embody locality as well as to locate bodies in socially and spatially defined communities” (Appadurai 1996: 179). This way, globalization does not (necessarily) mean Westernization, but rather production of locality, as transnational groups seek to reproduce their identity, to produce “natives” and reliable local neighbourhoods, within which people can be recognized and organized. This facilitates “the construction of local terrain of habitation, production, and moral security” (ibid.: 181), in other words, a reliable “locality” which would have not otherwise had any moral security attached to it.

50New Nordic Cuisine to some extent becomes an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to recapture a bygone era, which allows for the Nordic peoples, now primarily living in cities and towns, to flirt with a lifestyle more representative of the past than of the present. Although the North is still a big exporter of specialized products, especially milk, sugar, bacon, butter and beer, the region has been subject to a shrinking agricultural sector. Particularly over the past century, farming has shifted away from being a localised activity that spurs economic and culinary activity across national home communities towards becoming a sector of a large industrialised portfolio based on distant trade, and on importing a large portion of produce. This is reflected in both Plum (2010) and Eliasson, who describe New Nordic Cuisine as a “recreation of local specialities, keeping and evolving traditions almost lost to large-scale farming and factory food” (Plum 2010: 6) that is based on a “trivialized sensory world” that is “the product of banal commercialization” (Eliason 2010: 8). The contemporary global marketplace and its consolidated distribution systems contributes to a situation that, as David Harvey (1989) says, brings worlds together “in such a way as to conceal almost perfectly any trace of origin, of the labour processes that produced them, or of the social relations implicated in their production”.

51The alienation from place that follows from the postmodern condition, in some ways inverts the expression of identity through cuisine, as it ceases to express local sentiments and instead expresses an “alien” identity. The Nordic terroir and its role in New Nordic Cuisine can be seen as an instrument to (re)create the national expression of the landscape that has been “lost” to industrialisation and modernisation. The Nordic terroir in this way becomes an expression of the sentiments that bind together the imagined community that is the Nordic folk.


52New Nordic Cuisine is a way for Nordic identity to be expressed in everyday life by operating as a platform for the production of locality. Since taste cannot be physiologically shared, it must be evaluated through language and interaction, mediated by the dominant cultural beliefs and practices. The Nordic terroir expresses the “taste” of the Nordic landscape and creates a foundation for the “imagined community” of the Nordic folk, produced by the historically reproduced image of the landscape as the “natural” habitat for the Nordic folk and its role in the formation and reproduction of the social ideology so central to Nordic identity. Terroir here acts as a pseudo-geographical concept that allows for a transnational interpretation of a coherent Nordic identity: the Nordic folk.

53By incorporating the Nordic terroir, New Nordic Cuisine enables the Nordic folk to discover “who they are”, and puts them “back in touch” with the Nordic landscape and its produce. The Nordic terroir might have been previously unarticulated, but the mobilisation of identity and cultural differences (Appadurai, 1996) that has happened as a response to a “globalised” or “post-modern” condition, has produced a Nordic locality that confirms the ideological notion of the political and cultural similarity of the Nordic folk: “We are all the same, we are all equal” (Jenkins 2011: 100).

54The idea of a Nordic folk when exposed to the modern world of globalization, migration and electronic mediation exists to allow for a production of locality in everyday discourse; but rather than basing its idea of itself on the perceived historical ties that make out claims to blood or land, “native” bodies are reproduced via a continued production of locality – “this is who we are”. This allows for a way to view the New Nordic Cuisine as a sort of post-national movement, especially because it reproduces a Nordic imagined community based on the (re)creation of a Nordic cuisine that takes its meaning from the production of locality, in the form of the Nordic terroir.

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1 One “defence” of the landscape on a political level is the fact that it is not legally possible for a non-national resident outside Denmark to buy property (Jenkins 2011: 99).

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Electronic reference

Mark Emil Tholstrup Hermansen, Creating Terroir. Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 22 December 2012, connection on 19 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Mark Emil Tholstrup Hermansen

University of Oxford, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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