Yesterday Dana pondered whether it's OK for a cookbook to be so pretty and so impressive that you're afraid to bring it into the kitchen. Noma is one book that might fall into that category. In fact, I would guard it with my life from kitchen stains! The recipes also call for some rather specific ingredients ("8 small shallots from the island of Læsø") that most of us would never have access to. And yet it's one of the most inspiring books I have ever seen. Title & Publisher: Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi, photographs by Ditte Isager. Published by Phaidon Press, 2010.
Noma is not the type of book I'll keep on the kitchen counter, or from which I'll glean staple recipes. Although it contains over 90 recipes from René Redzepi's award-winning restaurant, this book strikes me as more of an art volume than a cookbook. It opens with fold-out, hand-illustrated map of the Nordic region, moves into a series of essays (the first by artist Olafur Eliasson), and then presents readers with about 200 pages of heartbreakingly beautiful photographs by Ditte Isager. Recipes come at the end but are not to be skipped; reading them is as fascinating as looking at the images.
Before Redzepi gained international recognition for his restaurant Noma (it was voted Best Restaurant in the World at the S. Pellegrino awards in 2010), he worked at prestigious restaurants like elBulli and The French Laundry. He was just 25 years old when Noma opened in 2003 and the essays and journal entries in this book describe his growth process as a chef (and, we'd say, artist), from mimicking what he'd learned at other restaurants and geographic locations to developing a truly Nordic cuisine. (Noma stands for "Nordisk Mad" – Nordic Food.) Everyone's doing seasonal, local food these days but Redzepi's dishes take this engagement with time and place to a new level.
Discussing his ingredients, Redzepi says he "wouldn't dream of manipulating the materials excessively. It's about being able to feel the link to the producer, whether it's nature herself or agriculture." In his dishes there is a profound sense of the earth – winter, spring, mossy forests, and wild seashores. Looking at a dish called Blueberries Surrounded By Their Natural Environment, you feel as if you're outside picking blueberries, not just seeing them on a plate. In addition to the culinary creations, Isager's photographs highlight the Nordic landscape and the farmers, foragers, and fishermen who bring the raw materials to the restaurant.
Because it's so rooted in a specific place, it would be difficult – and perhaps against the point – to replicate Noma's recipes if you live elsewhere. However, if you're willing to be creative and to make substitutions, there are some wonderful ideas. I love the recipe for Spinach Steamed In Tea, for example, and the Vegetable Field, with soil made from malt, actually seems quite doable. (Note to fellow vegetarians: many of the recipes aren't veg-friendly as they contain gelatin or other animal products. I still think we can glean ideas for presentation, though.)
Most of all, I think the book inspires readers to look beyond their grocery stores, to engage with the environment where food grows, and to see raw materials in a new way. As someone who considers her two great passions in life to be food and nature, this is pretty much my favorite cookbook in years. Now to plan a trip to the actual restaurant…
• Buy it: Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine, $32.97 at Amazon
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturer did give us the product for testing and review purposes.
(Images: From Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine (Phaidon Press, $49.95, www.phaidon.com) © Ditte Isager / courtesy Phaidon Press )