Chef Esben Holmboe Bang, Maaemo
I want my cooking to reflect the rugged nature and climate of Norway.
Trading in life in Danish capital for Norway’s long, craggy coastlines 15 years ago, Chef Esben Holmboe Bang is the youngest and northernmost chef to hold three Michelin stars. Carrying with him a respect for the natural world taught to him from an early age, he went on to open Maaemo, a restaurant that pulls the clean, bright flavours of Norway into focus. Following ‘New Nordic’ manifesto, the last decade has seen the chef’s in the region abandon the classic French fare and revive traditional cooking for a modern audience. Serving mahogany clams from the depths of the Arctic circle, foraged mountain herbs and reindeer from the north, Maaemo’s menus have put the Norwegian terroir firmly on the culinary map. Served as an authentic expression of the country, his preparations draw on hundreds of years of regional food culture, which has naturally adapted to accommodate the environment’s extremes. We sat down with the chef to speak about the geography of his food and the Nordic culinary traditions that demand preservation for the sake of posterity and the future of sustainable cooking.
TBE- What were your first impressions of Norway?
E– Coming from Denmark, which has had a good economy and more lavish culinary traditions, initially I wasn’t very impressed with Norwegian cooking. Before we struck oil in the 1980’s, Norway used to be a very poor country and as such our traditional dishes are very spartan. Where Danish Christmas means three different style of potatoes and roasted whole duck, while in Norway they eat boiled potatoes and dried sheep. However, there is some kind of suffering in this which I find very appealing.
TBE – Can you pinpoint a moment when your fascination with Norway and it’s food began?
E- I remember driving around in Norway and my wife and I stopped at a road side café near Jotunheimen and I had my first taste of the traditional dish ’Rømmegrøt’, which is a porridge made of very sour cream, served with salty cured meats. That was really an eye-opener for me. I had never tasted anything like it! I went right back to the restaurant and made my own version of this dish with smoked and dried Reindeer heart and plum vinegar, and it has been on the menu ever since. It has turned into one of our signature dishes.
Chef Esben, Maaemo
Local ingredients serve the purpose of reawakening memories, they are rooted in the landscape they’re grown, they tell a story – and that is a beautiful thing which we should keep on exploring.
TBE – What are the characteristics of Norwegian cuisine?
E – Well, I think what defines Norwegian cuisine is that everything is about drying, curing and smoking. Because we have quite harsh winters it’s all about survival to be honest. It’s completely different to what a lot of people think about the Nordic regions. There is a lot of seafood and everything is very salty. Sometimes we use dry salted cod for seasoning instead of salt. It’s not about making delicious food in Norway, it’s about surviving so things are not necessarily made up to be delicious but we find a way!
Butter from Røros
Langoustine from Midsund with pickled spruce and cold pressed rapeseed oil
Rømmegrøt- Sour cream porridge with smoked, shaved reindeer heart, butter and plum vinegar
TBE – Why is it so important to you to maintain this connection with the country and the idea of survival?
E -We work hard everyday to reflect our surroundings and our heritage. Our aim is to cook delicious food with a strong sense of place. We have very short growing seasons so, it is extremely important that we utilise these precious months to preserve what’s growing and stock up for the winter. This gives us a significant identity but is very much a constant struggle – thankfully one we enjoy and that gives us a sense of purpose. We push ourselves every day and in doing so we rediscover our land. Everyday. All year.
Chef Esben, Maaemo
I think that truly unique experiences are rarely made without putting a lot of time, passion and a huge chunk of yourself into it.
TBE – You only use regional, seasonal produce, this must be quite hard in Norway. Has it inspired you to be more creative with the way you source and forage for ingredients?
E – The challenge of only serving Norwegian produce is absolutely something that has forced us to be more creative. And in this day and age where everything is available to anyone all the time, it’s actually very meaningful to have limitations. We are, in a way, moving forward by looking back and using old preparation methods and techniques. Using seasonal and local ingredients is absolutely about being in the present, but it is also about studying and understanding the past – and not to mention – trying to make a better future.
TBE – You seem to have no limits when it comes to searching for flavours, I heard you use wood ants!
E – Yes, we do serve wood ants, they have a delicious acidic lemongrass flavour that we are unable to get from anything else.
TBE – I was reading about how old and slow growing the Mahogany clams on your menu are and it made me realize quite how different the Norwegian environment is.
E – Geographically Norway is a very long country with an equal length of coastline, that runs all the way from Sweden to Russia. So there is a lot of seafood, a lot of dried cod. Everything is very salty The waters up north are very, very cold, falling inside the Arctic Circle. This makes the seafood grow very slow, and in return they develop an amazing depth of flavour. Sweet, succulent and very unique to this part of the world. The Mahogany clams we are so fortunate to work with are hand dived and can be up to 300 years old. This really puts some perspective into what we do, and how we treat this precious resource.
TBE – Have you noticed that Nordic techniques like dry-curing, fermenting and salting seem to be appearing more and more on continental menus?
E – Of course it’s a trend but it’s important to remember that fermentation is a technique that started as a necessity. We have learnt how to make things delicious and bring a new dimension, a new depth of flavour. I think that the really beautiful thing about these preserving methods, that actually time is what gives energy to ingredients. For me fermentation has become as natural as frying a piece of fish, it’s a technique that is so integrated in the way we cook, it’s really nothing special. It’s a natural thing, it’s a cooking method like any other.
The way we cure meat and fish, a lot of these methods have been around for hundreds of years and we have hardly changed them. For instance, mead a fermented honey wine. Mead is one of the most cliché Viking drinks. It’s not so common anymore but we use it every day in our cooking. I think it’s funny that in a lot of literature, it was written as peasant drink but actually, it was probably preserved for the higher classes because honey, which is the backbone of mead, is very, very expensive. It was not just for anybody. I think you have it in some areas in Britain too, the Lindisfarne area.
TBE- Do you have any advice for people wanting to try introducing traditional Nordic techniques to their cooking?
E – It’s a fun process, and it’s a natural way to create new flavours so I think just play around with it. But, read a little bit about it first because you have to treat it with a little bit of respect. ‘The Art of Fermentation’ (see excerpts below) is a good book to start with.For me it’s a good way it’s a really good way of establishing a connection with the produce. You have to really get under the skin of your ingredients and understand what’s happening, because when you ferment the results change day to day. it’s a science. It’s a challenge
SIMPLE FERMENTATION RECIPES
courtesy of Sandor Katz
‘The Art of Fermentation’ (Chelsea Green Publishing, £20)
Esben Holmboe Bang is head chef, co-owner and creative force behind Maaemo. He was born and raised in Copenhagen, but has spent most of his culinary career in Oslo. In 2012, just 15 months after opening, Maaemo was awarded two Michelin stars in its first ever mention in the prestigious guide, becoming the first, and only, restaurant in the Nordics to do so. In 2016 Maaemo was awarded a third Michelin star, making Esben one of the youngest chefs to hold Michelin’s highest accolade and the first ever in Norway to do so. Maaemo was also listed as one of the top 100 restaurants in the world at the 2015 World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.