Rektún mat- Real Food

 It's amazing for me to think that it was 2008, the year when I lived in Sweden, when Magnus Nilsson was getting his little restaurant in the North of Sweden off the ground. That so much has changed since then, not just for me, but for the entire idea of Swedish food.

Perhaps it is because Swedish is a small country, that a relatively small food movement can have an impact the way it has there. Back when I moved there, traditional Swedish food was considered an austere thing fit only for pensioners eating brown bland things while staring off into the dark Nordic rain. As Jonathan Gold, a food critic I otherwise respect very much, said in a recent interview:

JG: Look at Europe, for example. You have the land of plenty—in the low country, plenty of meat and cheese—it’s the cuisine of abundance, and it’s boring. Guys like [René] Redzepi are making huge inroads in Nordic cuisine, but the cuisine of southern Sweden is, like, giant portions of meat and gluey gravy eaten in complete silence in ten minutes.

But how wrong! And unfair!

First, Sweden has a long tough history, one of poverty and famine. In my archeology seminar there, we saw the remains of peasant houses, built before the potato arrived there, with huge cellars for turnips and rutabagas. The people's bones were gnarled from malnutrition, their whole lives surrounded by nutritious game that they were forbidden to kill, as it belonged to the king. Many traditional Swedish foods are just scrap meat extended with scraps of bread bread or potato starch. Many traditional sausages, and the famous meatballs, are often more bread than meat. 

But there are gems in Swedish cuisine, though most often they have not been available to the average visitor. Husmanskost, the traditional Swedish food, is hard to find in a restaurant. There isn't much of a culture of eating out, it is something special, and until recently, nice restaurants were completely dominated by French and other foreign styles of cooking. To a visitor, the experience of Swedish cuisine, which is characterized by foraging and cooking at home, was largely very remote. IKEA's food, which while satisfying on a long shopping trip, is a bland caricature made with industrial crud livened up with a dash of real lingonberries adulterated with sugar. It hasn't done much to enlighten. 

And then there is the fact that a lot of it relies on ingredients that are not going to show up in Ikea anytime soon.

In retrospect, it was only a matter of time. Swedish dairy is the best I've ever tasted, and yes, I've been to Switzerland. Herbicides are forbidden in woods, so foraging for plants like mushrooms and berries is widespread. It is legal to serve hunted meat in restaurants. And the flavors that have been alienating to many foreigners in the past, the funky fermented ones, are now fairly trendy. 

When I lived there, there was already another movement afoot, which was the low-carb high fat (LCHF) diet, popularized by doctors like Annika Dahlqvist. Even within a year, "old fashioned" high-fat foods were becoming easier and easier to find, a rebellion against the reign of the insipid virtueless canola oil which had wormed itself into all manner of foods. 

Living in Sweden was my chance to do something I'd always wanted, but never had the guts to do, which is to walk around forests and eat things growing there. In America this is considered insane, particularly when it comes to mushrooms. Mere children in Sweden forage for mushrooms, but the idea of me harvesting them as an adult woman who has taken mycology classes at university makes some of my more urban relatives a little upset. I was at a park earlier this year with a friend and I reached into a tree as we walked by and grabbed a handful of mulberries. 

"You are really going to eat those?" my friend said.

"Yeah, they are mulberries" I replied

"Are you really sure? I mean they could be ANYTHING!!!"

"Um, yeah, I think I'll be OK"

The comments on Reader's excellent article on Chicago Chef Iliana Regan, who is perhaps the person most similar to Magnus here are pretty telling, with many commenters dismayed at the idea that people would serve foraged food in a restaurant, even incorrectly stating that foraged food is illegal to serve. 

Reminds me of this essay on poisonous plants

Of course, it isn’t true, but the fear of wild plants runs very deep in Western civilization. While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose. Like many profound and unexamined fears, this one breeds irrationality, causing many people to suspend all logic and refuse to participate in rational discourse...

Our culture is spellbound and beguiled by the story of someone mistaking a poisonous plant for an edible one and dying from the error. It is a magnetic motif with a suite of admonitions that we find economically and socially useful: don’t stray too far from the beaten path; what civilization has given you is better than you realize; Nature cannot be trusted; be normal and live a predictable life of routine. These messages are compelling when a torturous death is presented as the cost of disregarding them.
 

Of course there are some wild edibles that are a bit dangerous since they resemble a few poisonous plants, but mulberries are not one of them in Illinois. With attitudes like this it is amazing the human species existed for most of its history eating wild plants every single day. I've had similar experiences discussing butchery. It if were really rocket science, we wouldn't exist. Butchering small game and deer is not difficult. 

Not only that, in America, landscapers plant sterile fruit trees so we can enjoy the blossoms without all the "inconvenience" of fruit. In the Autumn in Uppsala, an apple or a plum was a convenient snack found in nearly every roadway or park.  And since herbicides are forbidden in forests and there is a "right to roam," wild foods are accessible to all. 

My roommates thought I was strange because I really was very interested in the very old foods. To be honest, not all of them are good. The liver pate I had is only good if you stack butter on it an inch deep. It seems to be mainly flour anyway. Many of the cheeses are a bit boring. Mucous-like fermented milk known långfil might still be a hard sell even among fermented food lovers, though I find it a bit fun to eat. I'm not really crazy about falukorv, the ubiquitous fairly flavorless cheap sausage. Falukorv comes from the legacy of poverty and industrialization, in general the best, the foods that make up the Scandinavia's terroir, are from a time much longer ago, that I fell in love with when I read Sigrid Undset's novels about the Middle Age farms nestled within forests and mountains. 

“It’s good when you don’t dare do something that doesn’t seem right,” said Fru Aashild with a little laugh. “But it’s not so good if you think something isn’t right because you don’t dare do it.”- Kristin Lavransdatter
 

Magnus' work is considered by many to be modernist, and in its plating perhaps it is and the perfectionism is very classically French, but it is profoundly conservative at its core, hearkening back to those times. When I met him during his book tour at Publican here in Chicago, it was as it he had walked right out of the pages of Undset's Kristin Lavransdattar. The core ingredients would have been recognizable to the people in those books and even to the people living in Sweden before the advent of agriculture and later, Christianity. It is fitting that he starts his first chapter with a Norse legend. 

Much has been written about Noma, but Noma really is a modernist restaurant, utilizing the region's terroir to great affect, but creating very globalized concoctions. To contrast, many of the techniques and recipes in Faviken, Magnus' new cookbook, would be familiar to his great grandparents. For example, messmor, a caramelized fatty spread made from whey, or calvdans (Calf's dance), an extremely rich creme brulee of sorts made with colostrum, the first milk of a cow after birthing a calf. These are old country foods. Or even really his great^24 grandparents. For all the papers on starch granules on Neanderthal teeth, who is actually bothering to gather these foods? Wild legumes for example, how many of you have even thought of these? It's not like agricultural foods came from nowhere, there is strong evidence their ancestors were utilized in the wild seasonally in small amounts long before the first farmers. Magnus uses them in several recipes, precious morsels, hard to gather, paired with things like raw or lightly steamed sea creatures. 

There is a tendency to think of those people in that long ago past as being utilitarian creatures, only thinking of the basics of food, reproduction, and shelter. Forgetting that these peoples stretched across the world, thousands of tribes we will never know. As striking as the diversity is between different foraging people now, that is but a small fraction of what was then. It has become clear that their paintings and sculptures and possibly texture arts were finely honed and painstaking, requiring much devotion to craft. It's hard to imagine food was immune from this. Bits of yarrow and chamomile found on Neanderthal teeth, were they medicine as speculated by the archeologists or could they have been flavorings? If gathering food was so much of your life, how could flavor be something you could not consider? Could not turn into an art? These are chefs we will never know. Some puritans consider the art of food a decadence, but the delights we now enjoy on that front, are a product of millions of years of evolution, they are not trivial at all. 

Magnus is a hunter, and his restaurant features his game. Having worked in local food infrastructure for some time now, I think he also personifies the kind of chef that a farmer would love to work with, the one who doesn't just write out his menus a month in advice and call the farmer looking for 30 grass-fed tenderloins, which of course is an impossible order for a small farmer to fill, and ends up buying his items labeled "grass-fed' from unspecific farms from some food service distributor. I find a lot of these restaurants end up emphasizing toppings on burgers more than the actual meat itself, which is often fairly mediocre in flavor.  

 

Magnus cut ties from his food distributor and does his own butchery, buying whole animals from small farms he works closely with because he recognizes that each animal has its own what I would call micro-terroir, it's life story written into every sinew, bone, and streak of fat. I remember when my family bought our herd, some folks told me that a lot of the cows I owned were useless as meat because they were older than a year. Thankfully we started working with a more knowledgeable meat processor, AKA someone who actually likes meat for meat, like Magnus appreciating the grassy, the gamey, the earthy. The pictures of meat in Faviken look like blood oranges, a depth of ruby red that comes from an animal that has roamed the pastures and forests of Northern Sweden. Magnus explains in his book that he prefers older dairy cows because of their deeper more complex flavor which he enhances through dry aging. According to him, this meat has real marbling caused by the use of the muscles as the cow ages, interspersing it with fat, whereas corn-finished young cattle marbling "is just blubber."

Faviken is unfortunately quite remote and I didn't make it there when I last was in Sweden earlier this year, but I did eat at Frantzen/Lindeberg, which is certainly influenced by Faviken's style. One of the dishes I had was a tartare made with meat from a 7-year-old dairy cow named Stina, topped with tallow. It was a dish I certainly won't forget. I was reading a discussion online today about buying grass-fed meat from Target and using it to make tartare. It was labeled comes from "farms." Which farms? Which cows? Which butcher ground the beef? When was it ground? When I eat raw meat, these are things I like to know. These are things that affect my trust, as well as the flavor, especially given the drought this season, which causing some farmers to cull cattle that would normally be sent to a feedlot and fattened on corn. What I've learned is that cattle lines that have been breed for feedlot finishing are not the same cattle that finish well on grass, if they are finished at all. I wasn't aware until my family opened our farm that a grass-fed cow should be finished for optimal flavor and texture as well. I learned this the hard way, after one bull that we didn't finish ended up being maddeningly inconsistent in terms of flavors. Once we started finishing, the meat had better flavor in general and was more consistent. 

It is a bit strange for Magnus to have a cookbook, given how tied his work is to the very specific part of Sweden where he lives and works. But I see the Faviken Cookbook as more more a style guide to Rektún mat- "real food" in all its glorious anachronistic devotion to specific farms, specific lands, specific trees, specific places. It is easy to dismiss this as being just the style of food for a fancy restaurants, but few restaurants achieve this style to any meaningful extent, yet I met many people of varying backgrounds that manage to eat this way for every day and for every meal. Maybe not in the intricate manner of some of the recipes in the book, but in the overall approach to sourcing and appreciating food. 

Dry-aged grass-fed tartare using McEwen Farms beef with fresh sourdough and brown butter from Thurk, a pop-up restaurant I've been hosting

Louise McCready Hart: Your philosophy about food is called Rektún mat.

Magnus Nilsson: It means real food. It is something my grandfather used to say when I grew up and it has so much meaning to me.

LMH: In the US, different organizations talk about real food as in not processed, not manipulated.

MN: It's food from the surroundings, from the farm and the earth.

LMH: I like your idea for a drivers' license equivalent for meat-eaters for which the test would be raising and getting to know the animal before killing and eating it.

MN: I think that would make a huge difference.

That's always been my own aim when buying food, to really know and understand where it comes from and cultivate a relationship and knowledge in every step. And why I started Meatshare, for example, to be able to do that in a way that is actually often more affordable than buying green-washed products from a supermarket that are divorced from context. The more I buy this way, the more passionate I become about it and it's one of the reasons I've avoided turning the concept into a "startup" where I would be forced to cut corners, instead of growing slowly and learning carefully as I go. Reminds me of this blog post from a farmer:

In the past year, we have been contacted by nubile entrepreneurs who have launched websites to connect farm products to customers. Except for one or two who are owned or managed by people who understand food and farming, most of the sites are run by twenty-something foodies who don’t know the difference between a rib or riblet and have never heard of rillette, confit or other meat goodies. And they are clueless about seasonality of food, inventory control, shipping and distribution. The only thing they have going for them is decent marketing and a snazzy website. I decline their offers to sell our products because we prefer to sell directly to consumers at the farmers markets and our farm store. We want to shake the hand of the person who cooks and eats our food. We enjoy face to face discussions about recipes, cuts of meat and sharing educational tidbits such as getting the tenderloin from the pig or loin chops but not both unless it is a mutant pig...While we applaud entrepreneurs, we think that food site managers need some education. They need to learn meat cuts, the seasons in which meat is available. Ideally they need to spend some time on the farm docking lamb tails, castrating rams and dealing with livestock mauled by coyotes and neighbor dogs. Perhaps then they’ve earned the credentials to sell my leg of lamb. If they pick it up at the farmers market and ship it themselves of course!

Unfortunately, I haven't encountered many meat-related startups that don't cut corners. I can't completely blame them though. You are working within a system created by monopolies and government regulations that makes it very difficult not to if you want to generate a fast-growing nationwide business. Sometimes I wonder if there is room to care about much of anything, much less the life and death matters at the core of this, in such a system? During this election season, I mused on what it really might mean to be a conservative, to want to conserve the good in the old ways as you move forward, and how little of that I see in those politicians that call themselves conservatives, besides that which is very shallow and easy, or even profitable, for those who live for that profit to follow.

The skinny waterfalls, footpaths
wandering out of heaven, strike
the cliffside, leap, and shudder off.
Somewhere behind me
a small fire goes on flaring in the rain, in the desolate ashes.
No matter, now, whom it was built for,
it keeps its flames,
it warms
everyone who might shay into its radiance,
a tree, a lost animal, the stones,
because in the dying world it was set burning.- from Lastness by Galway Kinnell

In contrast, I can work with really small farmers and hopefully come up with methods that work on that scale. It's interesting to compare Faviken to some of the farm/restaurant collaborations I've seen here. Unfortunately, most use poultry currently in a way that is modern and I feel is unsustainable for a farm that wants to be truly self-sufficient. First, they must rely on commercial hatcheries, which many feel, quite rightly, are a source of cruelty, because they do not breed their own line of chickens. Secondly, the breed they use is the Cornish Cross, which is a type of chicken that can't really free range because it is so deformed since it has been bred for that large insipid breast meat that has unfortunately become so popular. Contrast that with the chickens Magnus uses, slow-growing dual-use hardy Brahma. 

Modern poultry farming is, with very few exceptions (at least in Scandinavia), a sad state of affairs with the fast-growing unhealthy birds deprived of the opportunity to pursue even some of their most basic instincts. Most of the animals, which are merely a tool for production of cheap meat, are no more than a few weeks old when they are slaughtered, having never set foot outside the coop in which they grew up. For some time after that experience, I didn't serve chicken or any other farmed poultry. At least not until I met Mr Duck, our poultry supplier. He is a man to whom I am very grateful for changing my views on poultry farming. For the last couple of years we have been developing our own breeding program, one that came about because of Mr Duck's sound philosophy of keeping poultry, and the fact that we couldn't find the quality we wanted any other way. Healthy, slow-growing birds, which live a happy life with plenty of outside space, good food and someone to care for them properly will produce better meat than most of what is served in restaurants...Our hens are fed a mixture of different cereals (mostly crushed barley) and kitchen scraps. They are never given anything to eat that would not be fit to serve a human. Commercial bird feed is strictly banned, as are cereals not native to our part of the world, such as soybeans and corn. We apply a very careful selective breeding program so that the birds stay the way we want them, generation after generation. Any bird that does not fully share the characteristics of our breeding stock immediately becomes part of a different stock. - Magnus

I think this book is rather useful for farmers who want to really do things in a traditional self-sufficient manner. I have it next to my set of other farming books, which includes that which inspires, as well as practical tomes. It is next to my Wendell Berry book of poetry and other volumes of farm poetry that serve to remind me and inspire me;

Like a man, the farm is headed
for the woods. the wild
is already veined in it
everywhere, its thriving.
To love these things one did not
intend to is to be a friend
to the beginning and the end.
- Wendell Berry, Work Song

I also hope it influences chefs. Even some really innovative chefs I know have set menus. And I see way too many "sustainable" restaurants that have just one set menu item, such as the now-ubiquitous natural/grass-fed burger place that typically sources from very large middleman and covers up the low-quality with all manner of elaborate toppings. They ask for products that fit their menus, rather than asking what the land and the season provides and shaping their menus for that, as Magnus and his chef friend, Sean Brock, of South Carolina. If Sean Brock came out with a cookbook, I'd definitely also have to add it to this shelf, as he has been so instrumental in bringing back old Southern foodways. 

Brock and his chef de cuisine, Travis Grimes, rewrite the menu at Husk every day, based on whatever arrives in the kitchen that morning. The food comes to the table in cast-iron pans and on carved wooden platters, the savory dishes paired with acidic sides: raw oysters and pickled ramps, rattlesnake beans with buttermilk sauce, sorghum-fried green tomatoes with goat cheese and wild peaches. "It's just a sea of plates all the time," Brock said. This is how Sunday dinner was eaten at his grandmother's house. You took a bite of biscuit, a bite of banana pepper, a bite of creamed corn, each taste enhancing the next, each ingredient given its proper attention.- True Grit, The New Yorker

An editorial in the Times today lamented that those who might be interested otherwise in "art" have devoted their energies to food, explaining "meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things." That is difficult for me to swallow, having felt upon this journey here, sorrow, anger, sadness, a deeper connection with something I felt was missing from my life for a long time, since I was a young girl in yellow boots clambering upon miles of creek land and pine forests in Georgia, some of which now is gone.

I remember once I found a bird, a woodpecker dying upon the brown pine needles, perhaps of age, or of accident. I didn't want it to die, so I brought it home in a box, hoping the next day my family could take it to the nature center. But in the morning it was gone. We buried it in a red clay ground, as we dug the soil clamored with black beetles and little pink worms, waiting there for their meals. I don't think things like this happen on the concrete playgrounds where later, as a young college student, I took my young charges to "play" beset with rules. They eat the food of death, which is all food, but do not think about death in their sterile playpens.

I remembered the bird when I was in Budapest, and by some enormous luck there was an El Greco exhibition there, paintings of radiant gloom and pathos, as if every story he portrayed was in an underground grotto only lit by pale cloudlight. The wings of angels like the wings of the birds I had known, that bird, and others I would know. Of living and dead commingled. Not all flavors I like are those of joy or delight. My favorite tea, after all, a puer'h of ancient leaves, so polarizing in its flavors of the leaves on the forest floor after many rains. There are other puer'h teas I own that taste like the bottom of the ocean. I think it makes people uncomfortable in the way that occurs when someone leaves the head or the feet on a bird served to eat. It functions as a Memento mori, all things that live must also die. For me, all these things are intertwined. 

Et in Arcadia ego- even in the idyllic world, death is there

It's also, I think, easy for those who are older to miss the facts of the days, that things are not going very well for "the lost generation" and many who would have otherwise been painters, writers, or musicians out of necessity are working in food. It is only natural that they would want to transform it into art. There is also an apocalyptic mood, a sense that the world is in decline, that is fostered in my own life by a general atmosphere of decay both in the city and in the place I grew up, where infrastructure is crumbling and housing prices have declined precipitously. I think that makes young people want to learn things that might come in need if the decline continues- butchery, hunting, growing your own food, basic survival skills if the world goes to hell.

When I was young I wandered the back fences where the honeysuckle grew. I've been many places, but never had a dessert as sweet as that I found when I pulled out the stamens. Each flower a different fragrant floral dust of sugar upon my tongue. I remembered that reading this book, I remembered fondly those days that will never be again. 

The quartet also bears the subtitle 'Under the Ancient Maple Tree'. Hovhaness remarked about this quartet: There grew a "Marvelous tree on my uncle's farm in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, where I had many happy times. From under its branches were spectacular views in every direction. Later, lightning struck the tree and destroyed it. This piece is my memorial to that beautiful tree."