The ocean pulls at me always. I grew up on the Pacific coast of Canada; lived briefly in southern Japan; went to college in Connecticut on the Sound; moved three weeks ago to Copenhagen. There is something about the movement, the sense of shift and the gulls and the salt that can sift in the air, the breeze or gale or the bare trickle; but sometimes, even when there are none of these things, you can feel it: something different in being next to the vaster water.
I came here to learn, to keep probing ‘agriculture’ and ‘wildness’, to soak up ‘deliciousness’ and ‘edibility’ and test their charges. I came to embed myself into this place, to learn the vocabulary of flavours – and also to get my hands dirty: to spend the day juicing crates upon crates of produce for vinegars, to learn wild herbs by sight and smell, to harvest ants well, inhaling the cloud of formic acid as they scurry and bite at my ankles and inner cheek.
Our lab is on a houseboat in the harbour. Sometimes, our electronic scale will fluctuate ever so slightly, if a wake passes. The sea is right there, the brine, and the hosts of vegetables.
Nordic Food Lab is a non-profit research organisation that explores Nordic cuisines and the science of gastronomy, and disseminates these results to the public. We are interested in expanding the sphere of the edible with an eye to sustainability, health, and biodiversity – but our driving goal, every day, is the pursuit of deliciousness.
An in-depth investigation into Nordic seaweeds was one of the lab’s first projects after it was founded in 2009. ‘Seaweeds’ – though I prefer sea vegetables, it’s a little less judgemental – are one of the most nutritionally, ecologically, and gastronomically rich edibles. They contain significant amounts of essential amino acids (between 7 and 35% by mass), huge amounts of dietary fibre (45-75%), vitamins A, C, E, and most of the Bs, and on average 10 times as much minerals as land plants: more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, and a host of other beneficial compounds. The many thousands of different species in existence grow in diverse ecosystems around the world, and many grow exceptionally fast, sequestering carbon as they do.
And this is all before we get to their deliciousness. Many sea vegetables are known for their umami properties, especially kombu, common in Japanese cuisine and the basis for dashi, the base of all soup stocks. In addition to this, the great variety of sea vegetables holds a wide range of flavours and aromatic qualities. And the big salty flavour? Most of the salts are actually Potassium-based, chemically and therefore nutritionally different from the Sodium-based salts prevalent in the modern Western diet.
So why aren’t sea vegetables eaten widely in every maritime region the world over? Though a few historical sources hint at Nordic peoples eating seaweeds in the past, the lab wanted to help revive this tradition to become more robust than ever before. They developed all sorts of interesting recipes, many of them straight and simple: dried kelp chips, for example, and a concentrated dashi soup stock. But my favourite recipe does something completely new with seaweed, yet something also strangely intuitive, and pulls it off splendidly: ice cream.
Dulse, or søl in Danish, is a red algae with a uniquely delicate aroma: tea-like, almost, with hints of anise. Infused cold into milk and frozen with a bit of cream and sugar and a touch of thickener (it doesn’t even need as much as a regular ice cream because of the naturally-occurring carrageenan in the seaweed), it becomes truly something from another world. A pale mauve, it looks like some sort of berry ice cream, but all that changes when it meets the tongue.
To me, it goes through phases – first, an unmistakable green tea flavour, savoury, aromatic, and pleasantly, ever-so-slightly bitter. The tea note unravels into a rush of aromatics – woodruff, sweet clover, the headiness of coumarin. Slowly, these ebb, and leave a lingering, shimmering umami that coats the tongue like cream; the youngest, wisest sibling. We serve it with a beetroot woodruff reduction and it is simply remarkable. Like nothing else I’ve encountered on this earth.
At the end of a long day in the lab, a scoop of søl ice cream is hard to beat. On the boat deck, overlooking the harbour, in the late, oblique glow of the Nordic summer night, I wonder at the sea below me that yields something so potent, subtle, divine.
My quenelles need practice, but there is ample time for that.
Josh Evans is a regular contributor for Diaforlife. He recently graduated from Yale University and has moved to Copenhagen to work at the Nordic Food Lab. You can read more about Josh, his adventures and fabulous cooking on: hearthstrung.wordpress.com