Saturday, March 3, 2012

Once Upon A Time.......

Nothing can prepare you for eating at Noma. Having fallen asleep in the departures lounge and nearly missed the flight, we had flown into Copenhagen for what we thought was going to be lunch but turned out to be a mind boggling journey into a culinary fairytale. The aptly named Redzepi is the triumphant product of Hansel and Gretels' wild coupling on the forest floor. It is said he worked in el Bulli and in the French Laundry but I believe this was just part of his fevered imaginings there in the woods with elves and pixies as his guides and mentors. His early years were spent picking the fruits of the forest and preparing them in fantastical new ways until he walked out of woods fully formed – a nature boy, naked to the world and ready to set up a kind of cooking unshackled by any precepts or preordained code of cuisine.
The menu too, which they do not allow you to choose from nor even see until the end (and only then if you are slightly insistent) unfolds like a long slow meander through a fable. You begin by eating a twig that has been sitting right in front of you, hiding in plain view in a plant pot. But the twig is not a twig, it is a malt flat bread with juniper – crispy, crunchy, with a dark musty flavour. Next you are looking at the forest floor. On a plate. Grasses, twigs, leaves, moss. "Eat the moss" urges the waiter. It is white and fragile, dusted with desiccated cep. In the mouth the moss collapses and dissolves leaving you feeling as though are actually in the forest. It is unthinkable. Incredible. The story continues over a bridge of pork skin and blackcurrant leather and onward through the rest of the 12…......amuse bouche…..? I hesitate to use terminology already recognised in the world of food. It is too mundane.

The waiter has explained at the beginning that the ethos is to steer away from the rather slow and solemn serving of amuse bouche in some of the more stuffy restaurants and that these glimpses of another kind of food will come thick and fast, and they do. One after another after another. On the way through passes a mussel on an edible shell. The rich creamy goo that is the filling of this strange sandwich is reminiscent of the Phat Duck’s crab risotto and crab ice cream in its richness, intensity and depth of flavour. But it was a fleeting glimpse of a remembered world and then it was gone. Back to entirely new textures and flavours, back to the likes of radishes in hazelnut soil. Back to what looked like a cutting from Rapunzel's plait gone fluorescent orange. It was in fact a desiccated carrot on a bed of ash. On and on they went. The room was filled with a handful seated dinners, a regiment of waiters and a brigade of chefs explaining each dish as they served it. The joy and pride in being involved in such an sylvan adventure was palpable in each and every one of the staff. It is a rare atmosphere for a restaurant of this calibre.
By now I was concerned that after so many dishes the story would be over too soon so asked the waiter what percentage of the meal we had consumed so far. 15% he informed me. I wept with joy. We had been eating solidly for an hour.
The beautiful plates were removed (beneath them I noticed felt discs cushioning the table) and we were asked what we would like to drink with the rest of the food. Until now we had been drinking champagne and water - champagne and water that seemed to never run dry. We went for wine pairing and juice pairing, 2 of each. And so began the next part of the journey. Wines that ranged from a grower with only one hectare, to a grower who had only started 3 years previously, to a wine that had been in production for over a thousand years. The juices were deep sorrel greens, pale apple greens, blood dark reds, pale elderflower whites. Refreshing, pungent, light, heavy. All all. Sourdough arrived with sour butter and pork dripping. (The bread came in felt baskets - so, they even had Rumpelstiltskin out the back).
The starters and mains, eight in all, were neither thing; just a seamless parade of textures and flavours, combining and contrasting in a merry dance across our table, up into our mouths and down our gullets. Douglas fir, beech nuts, unripe sloe berries, pine, pike perch, verbena, beech and malt. Not your average nouns on a menu. One dish, simply described as 'pickled vegetables' was the prettiest thing I have ever seen on a plate, multicoloured tubes of vegetables ribbons holding 16 different types of herbs. Beside these magical stepping stones lay three lozenges of bone marrow. The contrast was startling but so……right.

This chapter also now drew to a close and I began weeping again, though this time in sadness. I knew now that our waiter had lied and his 15% was closer to 30%. We waved the plates farewell and were now into the last quarter. The woe was short-lived though as a pear dessert was brought before us. There were a few delicate peary things on the plate and an enormous piece of light green sponge. Aha! I thought, gotcha – this was something that looked liked it belonged to someone else. Ferran Adria’s brother Albert to be precise. How wrong could I be? This piece of sponge was not sponge at all but a parfait that had been vacuum sealed, sucking the contents into a matrix of peary strands. It was then frozen. As I bit into it, it dissolved on my tongue. Quite simply sublime.

Finally came 14 discs of varying red sat upright in a syrup of sloe berries. The second most beautiful dish I had ever seen. The dish was apparently brown cheese (“sort of like your marmite,” my Nordic godmother said, “you either love it or you hate it”). I loved it – soft and creamy with an underlying dark strength. The other frozen discs were once berries and again melted away until they were no more than faintly remembered dreams.
But this now was the end. We were politely asked to leave our table and take our coffee in the bar. It was 4 o’clock and they needed to get ready for evening service. As we sat with our coffee (wrong) and herbal infusions (right) they brought us a little something in case we were still hungry. Bone marrow. Only this time it wasn’t marrow but salt caramel thickened not with butter as is usual but with the marrow itself. Chewy, gooey, naughty, delicious.

Then lastly, and it really was the last thing this time, came what I can best describe as a walnut whip. But what a walnut whip. The finest milk chocolate swirled up into a cone filled with some sort of creamy, airy fondant and sitting on a nutty biscuit. I bit the bottom off it, turned it upside down, nibbled away the point of the cone and begun sucking out the cream. As I did this I could swear I saw out of the corner of my eye three girls skipping off towards the woodlands on the outskirts of town. The girls were strangely familiar even from behind – one with unfeasibly long hair trailing behind her, one wearing a red hood and one with two golden plaits, holding the paw of a baby bear. No, I must have imagined it, it can’t have been. As I came back to the here and now I felt my shoulder being shaken vigorously and I snapped awake to the tannoy calling “Final call for Mr. Van Winkle. Mr. Rip Van Winkle, your gate is closing……….”