What’s the USP? The subtitle for Ekstedt is ‘The Nordic art of analogue cooking’, which makes the book sound like one of those lifestyle books that seek to teach us all the true meaning of a nation’s idealised characteristic by expanding on a single word with complex meaning, be that ‘hygge’, ‘ikigai’ or ‘nunchi’.
‘Ekstedt’ is not a Swedish word for analogue cooking, but rather the surname of the Michelin-starred chef who has become almost synonymous with the practice. This massive coffee-table cookbook seeks to reconcile home chefs with the revived Nordic traditions of cooking over an open flame. That’s what ‘analogue cooking’ means – cooking without the use of gas or fire. So don’t expect any dishes that can be reheated in the microwave later.
Who wrote it? Niklas Ekstedt is something of an icon in the Nordic food world. Over the last twenty years or so, Ekstedt has run four fine-dining restaurants across Sweden, and has grown increasingly interested in traditional Nordic cooking techniques. His latest eponymous restaurant cooks entirely over open flames – and it’s this approach to food that he espouses in his second book. Actually, it’s also the same approach he took to his first book. But this one’s out now, ready for Christmas, looking all monolithic and filled with worthy prose and grounded, earthy photographs of fishermen and very beautiful (but very small) dishes.
Is it good bedtime reading? There’s certainly reading, though how good it is will depend on how much you like fantasy writing. That is, the fantasy that you’ll ever actually cook anything from this book.
There’s an introduction in which Ekstedt speaks of the self-evaluation he had to do when his third fine-dining restaurant didn’t do quite as well as his first two. There’s a chapter on the techniques you’ll use throughout the book, from using your wood oven (you have a wood oven, right?) to cooking over embers, or ‘hay-flaming’ a dish. That’s where you get your hay (you have hay, right?), bosh it into a pan, set it on fire, and chuck some scallops or something on top. Actually, that’s not fair. It’s more complicated than that. Which is exactly what you were hoping for, isn’t it? Oh, and don’t forget flambadou, where you baste a dish with burning fat that you’ve melted in your red-hot cast-iron cone on a stick (you have a red-hot cast-iron cone on a stick, right?)
Elsewhere, there’s well-meaning Radio 4 documentaries essays on reindeer herding with the Sami and fishing off of Lofoten, Instagram’s favourite Norwegian archipelago. Ekstedt also offers short introductions to each of his recipes – though these frequently amount to little more than a sentence.
Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? HA! Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Ahahahaha. Haha. Ha.
No, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Why would you even ask that? It’s not like the first recipe in the book is for smoked moose heart. Oh, can’t get your hands on a moose heart? Ekstedt doesn’t actually offer any advice for substituting it for another ingredient, but later on does offer a completely different heart recipe: this time it needs a reindeer’s.
Other fun ingredients to ask the guy restocking the shelves in Sainsbury’s about: ättika vinegar, cloudberries, meadowsweet, birch wood, reindeer blood, chickweed, nasturtium leaves, redfish collars, ‘a branch of juniper, fresh and green’, dried reindeer, vendace roe, and bladderwrack seaweed.
I guess you could try B&Q for the birch wood, and maybe you can juice that reindeer heart from earlier to get the 250ml of blood you’ll need. When you see the words ‘veal sweetbreads’ and consider them one of the more accessible ingredients you’ve seen recently, you know you’re in trouble.
My favourite, for what it’s worth, is the casual request for 400ml of fresh bovine colostrum, which the glossary at the back of the book helpfully defines as ‘the milk a cow produces during the first days after calving’. Expect a rush on your local dairy farm come spring, then.
What’s the faff factor? Do you even need to ask? Look, one of the joys I have when I sit down with a new cookbook is this: I take some little multi-coloured index stickers and mark out all of the recipes I’m keen to try. On most cookbooks, I manage to find at least eight to ten really tempting dishes that I can’t wait to get to work on. In a really great cookbook, like Claire Thomson’s recent Home Cookery Year, I find myself marking off every other page. In reading through Ekstedt, I didn’t reach for my bookmarks even once.
This isn’t to say that the book isn’t filled with things I’d love to eat. In fact, I’d be more than happy to stick a fork into almost every recipe in here. Maybe not the butternut squash, fermented salsify and vegetable foam – but even then that’s only because I’m not sure what the best utensil is when reckoning with foam. It’s got to be a spoon, right?
The problem is just that everything in here is so damned impractical. If – and it really is a huge, wobbly ‘if’ – you manage to source all the ingredients for a given dish, you’ve still got to cook the bastard. And that’s not easy in a book that champions ‘analogue cooking’. Ekstedt has made no noticeable concessions for the home chef, except that he lets you flambadou your beef fat in a pan. A typical recipe might ask you to ‘hot smoke the parsley root for 10 hours every day for 1-2 weeks until it is dried out’. Who does he think I am? I think Niklas Ekstedt has mistaken me for his sous chef.
As a final kicker, the end result of all your hard work will be an authentic Michelin-star level dish. Which sounds fantastic, until you remember how big a dish is in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The semi-raw hay-flamed sea bass, sorrel & Swedish ponzu takes longer to announce than it does to eat. Three slices of the sea bass per person, with three (three!) sorrel leaves as accompaniment. Ekstedt says his recipe serves 4 as a middle course, but he doesn’t tell us how many middle courses he’s expecting us to have in what is now apparently a tasting menu that we’re expected to put together from this self-indulgent collection of impossible wonders.
How often will I cook from the book? Never. You will never cook from this book. It will sit on your shelves, untouched and forgotten except for the occasions when you reach for something adjacent to it – something useful, with primary ingredients like chicken, or pork – and pick it out for a moment, open it to a random page – let’s say ‘Langoustine, charcoal cream and cold-smoked parsnip’, allow yourself a few good minutes to stop laughing at the idea you would ever find it within your energy limits to ‘place the langoustines on an untreated wood plank and sear each tail for 8-10 seconds with burning beef fat from the flambadou’, and then place it straight back onto the shelf until the next time you need decent laugh.
Should I buy it? Only if Niklas Ekstedt is coming round your house for tea, and you want to make him like you by shelling out forty(!) pounds(!) on pretty pictures of things you will never eat.
Suitable for: Professional chefs with access to Scandinavian deer hearts
Cookbook Review Rating: One star
Buy this book
Ekstedt: The Nordic Art of Analogue Cooking
Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Brighton-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas.