Respect for ingredients is of paramount importance, especially those that are indigenous and traditional. Monica Berg has some sage advice on protecting precious cultures.
I grew up in family quite connected to nature and, although I didn’t realise it at the time, my childhood was very much an education in Norwegian and Scandinavian food culture. From a very young age, it would be normal for me to witness the full cycle of livestock with my great grandparents, who were farmers, or my uncle, who was a butcher. I would pick strawberries with my grandfather every summer, or make jams with my grandmother, but the one person who influenced me the most was my stepfather. We would fish together, make (delicious) sourdough bread and (horrible) fruit wines every late summer, and hunt every fall – and the funny thing is, I never knew this wasn’t normal, until years later when it finally became clear to me that not everyone’s childhood was like that.
I was taught at a very early age how everything is connected, and the importance of respecting ingredients – and how everything has a price, whether it’s time and labour or money, or both. This has deeply impacted the way I work, and especially how I constantly look to maximise the use of my ingredients and create as little waste as possible.
During my teenage years, I used to hate all the boring tasks and preps, but looking back now, I feel really fortunate to have had those lessons – as they have given me a great foundation – and I’m always very happy when I can go back and spend time off grid.
When everything you eat and drink comes from a supplier all packed up and ready, it’s surprisingly easy to forget that your veggies were once growing outside or that your steak used to have a pulse.
Spirit of Norway
In the past, I have worked a lot with regional spirits, particularly aquavit which is the national spirit of Norway – and perhaps the whole Nordic region. Although I’ve done a lot of cool projects over the years, it wasn’t necessarily a ‘match made in heaven’ at first.
I have always loved aquavit, not only for its brilliant mixability in cocktails, but also the historical traditions and role it has played in Norwegian food and drinks culture over the years.
I love spirits that are great representations of their regions, and which are not only a part of the ecology of drinking, but a central part of their societies. Spirits such as mezcal, armagnac, pisco, grappa and many more. I also love that we now see these spirits more frequently on cocktail menus around the world – because I know the struggle that has gone in to getting them there.
Who hasn’t been told at some point that “these spirits are traditions, and we don’t change traditions”. Well, you know what? We actually do. A tradition is something that has been passed down from generation to generation, mostly verbally, meaning not in writing. Isn’t it very likely that each generation has added or taken something away – to make it fit with their lives? To ask in a different way, don’t you think that it’s more likely a 20-year-old will enjoy an aquavit cocktail more than drinking it neat just because it’s a tradition?
I understand how it can be difficult to break a pattern, but here’s the problem we’ll face if we don’t take on the responsibility of passing down our heritage to the next generation: by the time they are old enough to realise what’s at risk, it’s going to be too late. If we don’t protect our local flavours, they will disappear. If we don’t support our local farmers, producers and brands – they won’t be here in 20 or 30 years from now. As much as one size does not fit all, neither does one flavour. Can you imagine how boring our lives would be if we had to eat flavourless tomatoes from a vacuum storage rather than delicious seasonal ones?
The thing is, we have to be realistic – if you want to make changes, you have to commit to a goal that you can honestly hold yourself accountable to. I’m not saying that every one of us should stop using global brands, because why would we? There are so many amazing spirits brands out there, why would you limit yourself ? But, what if everyone here said: from now on, I’m going to make sure that maybe 10%-40% of my menu will be supporting local brands? That would make a massive difference. Not only for the local producer, but for your guests and not to mention for you. Supporting local does not have to mean excluding international.
A few years ago, I was part of a very exciting project back in Oslo. I was working with a unique bar – Himkok - and when the time came to create a new menu, I wanted to really tell the story about the flavours of Norway. Over the years, I have done a lot of research into local food and drinks history, and I thought this narrative would fit the bar perfectly. Through this journey of creating 15 drinks for a cocktail menu, I ended up discovering so many beautiful people around the country who are growing, fermenting, brewing, cooking and producing amazing products that are specific to them. I met farmers, beekeepers, hunters, cheese makers, seaweed pickers and distillers and they became my friends. I always feel extremely privileged that they trust me with their products, and excited I get to work with and learn from such passionate individuals.
In doing so, I would also find references to once-great producers or products that have been lost to time. We were too late to appreciate their importance. Too often these days we jump on trends and hype, forgetting to appreciate what is already around us. The grass isn’t greener on the other side. It’s greener where you water it.