By Amanda Balagur
Although she’s best known as the Founding Editor of Gastronomica and Professor of Russian at Williams College, Darra Goldstein has a long-standing history with Scandinavian cooking. She first ventured to that part of the world in 1972, when she flew to Finland and took a weekend bus from Helsinki to Leningrad (she was studying Russian then). In 1980, she had plans to go to Moscow to research her dissertation, but unforeseen circumstances related to the U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympics resulted in a change of plans — she and her husband, newly married, ended up going to Stockholm, Sweden instead. Goldstein describes herself as being quite taken by Scandinavia, calling her latest cookbook, Fire + Ice, a “cultural excursion into the way people actually eat there” in contrast to the often innovative and highly conceptual New Nordic cuisine.
The cookbook focuses on four core countries: Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The name Fire + Ice reflects the two key elements that define the region. Photos of snowy landscapes, silvery architecture and windows glowing with amber warmth gave the Pepin Lecture audience a feel for Goldstein’s inspiration as she described the local cuisine. Cold and warmth are reflected in traditional beverages such as glug, which is mulled wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom served warm in the wintertime, and schnapps or aquavit, a distilled liquor made from grain and flavored with caraway, ginger, cardamom or even young birch leaves.
Goldstein explained the evolution of one of the most familiar Scandinavian offerings, the Smörgåsbord. It started out as a table displaying an array of schnapps, to which food was added until it became institutionalized as the feast we think of today. According to Goldstein, there is a certain way to eat at a Smorgasbord, which is broken up into five courses: his majesty the herring (a fish so important to local cuisine it’s admired in isolation like royalty!), other fish and seafood, cold meats and salads, hot dishes and desserts. After the Smörgåsbord was introduced to the U.S. at the 1939 World’s Fair, it became all the rage and eventually turned into the all-you-can eat buffets and salad bars that pepper the American landscape to this day.
Other items of importance in Scandinavian cuisine include brown bread, made from grains like barley, oats and rye, which ranges from chewy sourdough to delicate crispbread, and pickled, salted and fermented fish, which range from mild (gravlax) to pungent (suströmming). Additional favorites include foraged greens, mushrooms and berries, and dairy products like cheese and butter. The region’s cuisine reflects seasonality, indigenous influences and Viking conquests – it’s no coincidence that spices like cinnamon, saffron and nutmeg, encountered centuries ago via the Silk Road, are now associated with Scandinavian cuisine. The art of preserving food, shaping anthropomorphic Christmas cookies and infusing liqueurs is as much a part of life in this realm as the extremes of light and dark. To learn more about Darra Goldstein and Fire + Ice, click here.