Sunday, 26 February 2012

Scandinavian Food, or, 'Is there anything Vikings can't do?'

This morning I was amused by this story from the BBC: Scandinavian food: Why is it becoming so popular in the UK?:

Swedish food sales in the UK have risen by almost 30% in the past five years, with Norway and Denmark also reporting an increase in exports destined for our dining tables. So why is Scandinavian cuisine getting so popular here?

It began with the warm, creamy, cut-price meatballs designed to fuel flat-pack furniture fans seeking a break from the aisles of Ikea. But over the past few years Scandinavian cuisine has been spreading beyond Britain's retail parks and creeping into supermarkets and restaurants.

The latest figures from government agency Statistics Sweden indicate that Swedish food and drink sales in the UK were worth almost £290m in 2010. Norway measures its performance in weight, with about 127,000 tonnes exported here in 2011, a rise of 18% since 2006.

Last January, food trends agency the Food People tipped Scandinavian food as the "hottest UK culinary trend of 2011".

Why is Scandinavian food so popular? Well, I think we've been through this before; the answer to this question, just as to the question 'why is Danish drama becoming so popular in the UK?' is: Scandinavia is just plain cool. The BBC quotes a restauranteur who hits the nail on the head:

"It's not so different from the UK so it's almost a voyeuristic fascination for people, as if they are looking over their garden fence at neighbours they have never noticed before."
The Scandinavians are just like us, only cooler. Food, clothes, hairstyles, language; the way our northern neighbours do things has fascinated some English people pretty much as long as England has existed. This was true back in 795, when Alcuin was appalled that the people of Northumbria were imitating the hairstyles of the Vikings who were raiding their land; true also during the ninth and tenth century, when Danes and Norwegians settled in northern and eastern England and English people adopted the settlers' fashions in dress and jewellery; and perhaps most true of all in the first half of the eleventh century, when under the Danish king Cnut it was not only politic but highly fashionable to give your children Danish names and listen to stories from Norse mythology.

As for food - I don't know if there's much archaeological evidence to tell us whether the Danes brought a distinctive kind of food to England, but the literary evidence is clear on one point: there was a lot of it! At least, two twelfth-century historians thought so. William of Malmesbury, writing in the 1120s about a period some seventy years before, claims that "since the time of the Danes meals in England were served in the most elaborate fashion",* and Henry of Huntingdon agrees; he says of Harthacnut, son of Cnut and his wife Emma, and king of England between 1040-2:

It is said that his generosity was so great that he ordered royal meals to be served four times a day to all his court, preferring rather that they should be invited and leave scraps of what was set before them, than that they should not be invited and beg for scraps to be given to them, since in our time it is the custom for princes, either from avarice or, as they themselves say, from fastidiousness, to serve food to their men only once a day.
(Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana Greenway (Oxford, 1996), p.371).

There's no saying whether this is true or not (or whether any particularly Danish foods were served at these lavish feasts!) but it is true that Harthacnut himself actually died at a feast, suffering a fit while standing up to drink at a wedding celebration in Lambeth, in 1042. The wedding was uniting the families of two powerful Danish noblemen who lived and held land in England: the bridegroom was Tovi the Proud, patron of Waltham Abbey and its stubborn cross, and the father of the bride was Osgod Clapa (who owned a substantial amount of land in East Anglia, and may have given his name to Clapham). I don't know what food they served, but I bet it was cool.

A little linguistic point: that article talks a fair bit about fish, but it was the last picture of the Othello cake which really made my mouth water. And this leads me to observe that the English word cake comes ultimately from Old Norse, as does the crucial ingredient the egg; and indeed the word for the action which turns one into the other - whisk. Bakers can be especially grateful to the Danes ;)

* William also claims that in the time of King Edgar, the English 'learnt drinking from the Danes'. This is pretty hard to believe; somehow I think the Anglo-Saxons already knew quite a lot about drinking long before the tenth century...

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