31 March 2011

Shakshuka – Recipe

Shakshuka has its origins in the Maghreb – the Arab West. Today it is a popular and delicious breakfast or supper staple across North Africa and the Middle East. The name roughly translates as “mixed up,” and at its core is a dish consisting of tomatoes, onions and eggs. Interestingly, and I'm not sure of the reasons, shakshuka was a dish traditionally prepared by the men of the household.

There are a myriad of shakshuka variations. Some add peppers, others feta cheese. Sometimes the eggs are cooked in the tomato sauce; sometimes they are scrambled, poached or fried separately. There are even some recipes that add meat to the dish (I've heard that in Libya it is not uncommon to have shakshuka with gideed, a type of dried salted lamb). There aren’t really any ‘proper’ versions, so feel free to experiment. This recipe is the one I remember from my childhood and therefore, by definition, it is the best. Of course, I may be a touch biased!

These days I love making shakshuka as part of a lazy weekend brunch. There’s something so comforting about the sweet smell of onions and garlic cooking gently on the stove. If you like, though, you can make the sauce in advance and then reheat and drop in the eggs when you are ready to eat. I like to cook the eggs so they are still soft, allowing the oozing yolk to mingle satisfyingly with the tomato and onion sauce. In my opinion shakshuka should always be served with a stack of warm pita breads and lots of hot, sweet tea.
Ingredients (serves 4)
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 medium onions, roughly chopped
  • 5 fresh plum tomatoes (about 600g worth), chopped (you can of course used tinned tomatoes, but I think fresh ones work better for this dish. I don't bother to peel the tomatoes – life's too short for that).
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 75ml water
  • A handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to season
Method
  1. Pour a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a frying pan. Add the onions and cook over a gentle heat for 7-10 mins until they are soft and golden (you don't want them to brown).
  2. Add the garlic to the onions and continue cook for a further 5 mins until the onions are just starting to caramelise.
  3. Sprinkle over the turmeric and cumin and cook for another minute or so to temper the spices. 
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes, turn up the heat a bit, and simmer for 5-10 mins.
  5. Add the water to loosen mixture a touch (you may need more or less depending on the moisture of the tomatoes, but you're aiming for a consistency like pasta sauce). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  6. Make four little wells in the mixture and break an egg into each one.
  7. Cover the pan and cook for 5 mins, or until the eggs are done to your liking.
  8. Sprinkle with flat leaf parsley and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Serve with lots of warm pita bread and sweet Assam tea.

28 March 2011

Beef Rydberg – Recipe

For dinner recently I decided to take a little excursion to Sweden. Not literally of course, but culinarily. As much as I love cooking, sometimes you need to make something that provides maximum impact with minimal effort, and this is one such dish. Biff Rydberg is a Swedish classic and its name is said to originate from the now defunct, but once opulent, Hotel Rydberg in Stockholm, where it was probably first served.

In this dish, beef, potatoes and onions are cooked simply to remarkable effect. The original dish was also thought to include kidney from lamb, veal or pig, but this seems to have been dropped over the years. I like to add a dash of Worcestershire sauce to the beef to add a pleasing umami kick, while some people prefer to add a dollop of mustard- or horseradish-cream.

The only question left though is where to place that raw egg yolk you see in the picture above. Personally, I love squishing the yolk all over the potatoes, coating them in an unctuously smooth 'sauce.' Alternatively you can also mix everything together into a great big unholy mess. If raw egg yolk is not your thing then you can of course do as my wife, Mrs. Nibbler, does and place a fried egg on top instead. I promise I won't call you a wimp if you do. Honestly (ahem).
If you ever find yourself in Stockholm and have a craving for the real deal, then you'd be hard pressed to find a better example of Beef Rydberg than at Prinsen restaurant, which has been a Stockholm institution for over 100 years.

Ingredients (serves 4)
  • 600g beef fillet, cut into ¾ inch cubes
  • 800g potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes
  • 2 onions, roughly chopped
  • 4 egg yolks served in the shell (you can trim the edges of the shell with scissors to make it neater)
  • 50g butter (and some oil) for frying
  • A handful of chopped parsley
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt and pepper to season
Method
  1. Parboil the potatoes for 5 mins
  2. Melt 25g of butter in a frying pan and fry the potatoes over a low/medium heat for 15-20 mins. Season with salt. Don't move the potatoes around too much, you want a nice crisp crust to form. You may want to add a touch of oil too to stop the butter burning.
  3. While the potatoes are cooking, gently fry the onions with the remaining butter in another pan over a low/medium heat for 15 mins and season with a touch of salt. The onions should be soft and golden and just starting to caramelise.
  4. After the onions have been cooking for 7 mins, drizzle the beef with a touch of oil, season with salt and pepper and sear in (yet another) hot pan for 3-4 mins until cooked medium-rare. Let the beef rest for 5 mins on a warm plate.
  5. To serve, place separate mounds of beef, onions and potatoes on a warmed plate. Sprinkle with chopped parsley (don't leave this out, it adds a crisp freshness to the dish), and place an egg yolk in the middle. I also like to add a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce over the beef. Serve with an ice cold beer or a glass of Pinot Noir.

25 March 2011

Ottolenghi Apple & Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing – Recipe

One of the many things I miss about living in London is wandering up to Islington's Upper Street for a lazy weekend lunch at Ottolenghi. I went there for the friendly communal atmosphere and the beautifully vibrant and fresh food that would be laid out in abundant piles. To this day I've yet to have a broccoli dish as exciting as their chargrilled version with garlic and chilli. Oh, and the cakes. Definitely the cakes.
Naturally, as a fan of Ottolenghi's food, I went out and bought the cookbook when it came out a few years ago. Unfortunately it became one of those that sat untouched on my bookshelf, for I was never quite able (unsurprisingly) to replicate the magic in my own kitchen. It remained untouched until, that is, the other day when I was struck by an insatiable urge for cake. I dug out the book, and found this interesting recipe for apple cake that uses olive oil. I'll admit to being a tad sceptical, but the olive oil really works. I used regular olive oil, but I subsequently found out that you're meant to use extra virgin olive oil, which I imagine gives it even more depth of flavour. Next time, I suppose. I'd also be tempted to substitute the water the sultanas are soaked in for some sort of booze such as dark rum or sherry.

Anyway, it's a fairly straightforward recipe and the end result is decadently moreish. The cake benefits from a day or two in the fridge to allow the flavours to mature (just make sure you wrap it well in clingfilm and take it out of the fridge a couple of hours before icing and serving).

Ottolenghi Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing
(taken from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)

Ingredients (serves 6-8)
80g sultanas
4 tbsp water
280g plain flour
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
½ a teaspoon baking powder
1¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
120ml extra virgin olive oil
160g caster sugar
½ vanilla pod
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 Bramley/Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1cm dice (should be approx 360g)
Grated zest of 1 lemon
2 egg whites

For the Maple icing:
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
100g light muscovado sugar
85ml maple syrup
220g cream cheese, at room temperature

Method
  1. Grease a 20-24cm springform non-stick cake tin. Place the sultanas and water (or booze) in a saucepan and simmer over a low heat until all of the water has been absorbed. Leave to cool.
  2. Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, salt, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda and set aside.
  3. Put the oil and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or use an electric whisk). Slit the vanilla pod lengthwise and scrape the seeds out into the bowl. Beat the oil, sugar and vanilla together, then gradually add the eggs. Mix until smooth and thick. Add the diced apples, sultanas and lemon zest, then lightly fold in the dry ingredients.
  4. Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until they form soft peaks. Carefully fold them into the batter in 2 batches, trying to lose as little air as possible.
  5. Pour the batter into the cake tin, level it with a palette knife. Bake for 1½ hours, or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let it cool in the tin.
  6. Once cold, remove the cake from the tin and cut the cake horizontally in half using a serrated knife.
  7. To make the icing, beat together the butter, muscovado sugar and maple syrup in an electric mixer until light and airy. Add the cream cheese and continue to beat until the icing is totally smooth.
  8. Using a palette knife spread a 1cm-thick layer of icing over the bottom half of the cake. Carefully place the top half on it. Spread the rest of the icing on top.

22 March 2011

Fiskeriet, Oslo - Restaurant Review


Erling Moe was once an Oslo institution. This venerable fishmonger was located at the foot of Norway's first 'skyscraper' – the imposing Folketeater building – and it sold some of Norway's finest seafood for over 70 years. Sadly, like many of the small speciality food stores in Oslo, the inevitable march of modernisation forced the shop to close in 2009. For a city that once boasted over 75 fishmongers it was the end of an era, and only a tiny handful of independent fish shops survive today.

Rather fortuitously, though, out of these ashes rose a new style of fish shop. The building's current owners tasked the then 26-year-old fishmonger, Eivind Hermansen, with opening up a new generation of fish shop on the same premises. In the summer of 2010 Fiskeriet opened to much fanfare. Fishing forms an integral part of Norway's identity and history, and is one of the country's biggest exports (it sure tastes a lot better than crude oil). And such is fishing's importance that none other than the Fisheries Minister herself cut the ribbon to officially open Fiskeriet.

On entering the shop you're immediately confronted with a dazzling array of Norway's finest seafood. Huge slabs of cod, sparkling mackerel, halibut steaks, king crab, and more lay glistening on crushed ice. But I wasn't here just for raw fish; I wanted someone to cook it for me too. One end of the shop has been expanded to include a 'matbaren' – a small bar-style seating area – from which you can select from half a dozen or so lunchtime dishes such as fish stew, steamed mussels, and Norwegian fish cakes. The place is licensed too, so you can wash it all down with a glass of cool, buttery white Burgundy.
I had initially ordered a comforting bowl of fish stew, but on seeing two huge plates of fish & chips come out of the kitchen I suffered a major case of food envy and changed my order. And I'm mightily glad I did. Served on a faux-newspaper page printed with titbits of information on Erling Moe and Fiskeriet was a dish of fish & chips that would fit right in with Britain's finest. At NKr. 119 (€15 / $21) it's not bad value either.

Impeccably fresh haddock was encased in a light and crisp batter. Chunks of pearl white flesh flaking satisfyingly under knife and fork. Alongside this were some decent tartare sauce and a pickled onion. Proper Sarson's malt vinegar added that authentic acidity and brought a broad smile to my face. The only let down was the chips, which seemed to be of the generic and bland pre-frozen type that you find in every motorway café in Norway. I was hoping for something a bit more interesting, but then I suppose this place is predominantly a fishmonger. Anyway, the chips were much improved by a liberal dollop of rather excellent Stokes tomato ketchup.

Fiskeriet is a great place for a quickish lunch in Oslo. The lunch bar gives you the perfect vantage point from which to observe the fishmongers at work. I happily watched as they cleaned, filleted and skinned fish, and chatted pleasantly with customers, all the while enjoying some decent seafood and wine. Yes there may now be fewer fishmongers in Oslo, but what the city has lost in terms of quantity it certainly seems to be making up for it in quality.


Food:         7 / 10
Service:      8 / 10
Ambiance:  7 / 10

Fiskeriet Youngstorget
Youngstorget 2b
0181 Oslo
Norway
Tel: +47 22 42 45 40

There is another branch of Fiskeriet located at Willy Greinersvei 22 in Sandvika, but this is just a pure fishmonger and does not have a restaurant.

15 March 2011

Japan – How to Help

This post is a little off-topic, but sometimes stuff happens that makes you stop and put things in perspective. The tragic events in Japan are one of those such things, and the recent news and pictures following the aftermath of the devastating earthquake have been heartbreaking to say the least. It makes scribbling on a food blog such as this seem somewhat frivolous.

The photo at the top is of a piece called "Upside Down Hinomaru" by Japanese artist Teruya Yuken. He describes the work as such:
I used to have the Japanese flag in my studio and one day I decided to move the flag. And as I began to move the flag upside down, I was feeling a gravitational pull moving along with me. I hung on to this power until I had completed a 180° turn. It was at this time that the power left me and I was looking back at the flag. To all it would appear as right side up but it was only to me that it looked upside down. It was then I felt a true personal relationship with the Japanese flag for the first time. I want to share my experience with the flag and also would like everyone to see what happens when something standardized gets turned upside down.
Japan is a truly remarkable and wonderful place and it will always hold a very special place in my heart. The country has (literally in some cases) been turned upside down. My thoughts go out to everyone affected and I hope it’s not too long until Japan is able to 'right itself' and be back on its feet again.

I wanted to leave you with a few photos from happier times that I took last year from the wonderful city of Tokyo, and include some possible ways of donating to the relief effort.

Save the Children – Japan Emergency Appeal

Norwegian Red Cross

American Red Cross

Wooden Ema (wishes) hanging at Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine

Temizuya for ceremonial purification at Meiji Jingu

View of Tokyo Tower from the top of Roppongi Hills
Shibuya crossing at dusk

6 March 2011

Fastelavnsboller (Shrovetide Buns) – Recipe

It's Fastelavn today! In Christianity this festival (known as Shrovetide in English) marks the three days running up to Lent, which was historically a period of fasting and abstinence. However, I'm more excited by the fact that it means Easter – and therefore the end of the interminable Norwegian winter – can't be too far away. True to form, the weather in Oslo these days appears to be behaving itself and the thermometer outside has been tentatively poking its head above freezing point.

Fastelavn also traditionally marks the beginning of a period of feasting before the austere Lent period. It is said that one tradition at this time in Norway was to eat nine meals in each corner of the house. Old Pagan rituals also form a traditional part of Fastelavn in Norway, and one such tradition is the 'Fastelavsnris,' where birch twigs are placed in a vase and decorated with garishly coloured feathers. Apparently birch was viewed as a symbol of fertility.

Another tradition at this time of year in Norway is to make Fastelavnsboller – sweet buns that are filled with whipped cream. I suppose they once would have been the perfect way of fattening yourself up before Lent; now, instead, they are a deliciously decadent treat.

Norwegians have baking in their blood, and Mrs. Nibbler is no exception. Therefore, as I've mentioned before, she does most of the baking in our household and today I was treated to these beauties. To make Fastelavnsboller, she used the same dough recipe as for her skolebrød buns. Traditionally these buns are filled with whipped cream, but you could also add jam too. Another nice touch I think is to use crème pâtissière instead of the whipped cream.


Ingredients (makes around 20 buns)
  • 800g plain white flour
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 150g butter
  • 50g fresh yeast (preferably) or one 7g packet of dried yeast
  • 525ml whole milk
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 300 ml whipping cream
  • Icing sugar
  • 1 egg
 Method
  1. Melt the butter
  2. Mix the flour, sugar and cardamom in a bowl (and dried yeast if using that)
  3. If using fresh yeast, mix this with some of the milk in a cup
  4. Mix the rest of the milk with the warm melted butter
  5. Add the milk, butter and yeast mix (if applicable) to the flour/sugar, and mix well (with an electric mixer preferably)
  6. Leave the dough to rise so that it doubles in size (takes approximately 1 hour if you put the bowl in a sink with hot water)
  7. Cut the dough into 3 equal pieces, and roll each piece into a long sausage. Cut each sausage into smaller pieces, and make each piece into a round ball about the size of a mandarin orange to make buns. Put each bun on a baking sheet.
  8. Leave the buns to rise further for approx 15 mins
  9. Brush the buns lightly with some beaten egg
  10. Cook the buns in the oven for approx 8-10 minutes on 230°C (sometimes longer, depending on the size of the buns). When the buns have a light brown ring underneath them and a light brown colour on top, they should be cooked.
  11. Remove the buns from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack
  12. Meanwhile, whip the cream, adding some caster sugar to taste
  13. Once cool, slice the buns in half and fill with whipped cream
  14. Dust the buns with icing sugar and serve!

1 March 2011

Maaemo, Oslo - Restaurant Review

(For more recent reviews of Maaemo, see my blog posts hereherehere and here)
Since I moved to Oslo from London almost three years ago I have been struck by an odd paradox. In Norway I have tasted some of the best examples of homegrown produce anywhere. We know that Norway has superb seafood, but its beef, lamb, game, root vegetables, and berries are also truly world-class. However, it seems that much of the population is almost oblivious to this local bounty, and if you visit Norway you'd be forgiven in believing that the national dish was hot dogs or frozen pizza. So in terms of eating out, with a couple of notable exceptions aside (here and here), I was resigned to my fate of getting my culinary thrills on trips outside of the country.

And then, in the summer of 2010 came news of Maaemo, an Oslo restaurant that would serve only 100% organic produce originating mainly from Norway. Could this be true? Would it be all hype and no substance? I couldn't remember the last time I was this excited about a new restaurant and, without spoiling the rest of the review, I can honestly say I enjoyed one of the most wonderful meals of my life at Maaemo – a meal so stunning in its beauty and flavour that I was at times left slack-jawed, eyes agog, taste buds singing to the heavens.

Maaemo – an old Finnish word meaning "Mother Earth" – is the creation of three men: Pontus Dahlström, a Finn and former sommelier of Oslo's then double Michelin-starred Bagatelle restaurant; Esben Holmboe Bang, a Danish chef with experience from Copenhagen's Noma and Oslo's Feinschmecker, Le Canard, and Oro; and Jon-Frede Engdahl, Managing Director of Kolonihagen, a café and supplier of organic produce in Oslo.

Their brief couldn't have been tougher – create a gourmet restaurant serving only organic food sourced mainly in Norway, a country where on average only 1.2% of food products bought by consumers is organic. In December 2010 their dream finally became reality and Maaemo opened its doors to the paying public for the first time. That the project got off the ground to begin with is amazing enough. Turned down for financing by the country's mainstream banks, the founders eventually managed to secure help and funding from varied allies including the Norwegian Agricultural Authority.

The restaurant is located in the new 'Z-building' in Oslo's Bjørvika neighbourhood, a stretch of no man's land near the Oslo Central Station and the National Opera House. Bjørvika used to be a gritty container port, but at the moment it is the centre of the biggest urban regeneration project Norway has ever seen. The plans for it are hugely ambitious, and eventually it will become a major cultural and economic centre for Oslo. Eventually. Today it is a building site, and Mrs. Nibbler and I found ourselves gingerly making our way past cranes and construction hoardings on our way to the restaurant. I thought this quite fitting though – a restaurant's location is so often a statement of intent, and while Maaemo could have played it safe and opened in the west of Oslo, they chose this new fresh location from which to launch their new Norwegian culinary revolution.

The interior of the restaurant is an exercise in clean minimalist Scandinavian design. It has a surprisingly office-like feel inside, but the hint of "conference room 3B" is avoided by softer touches such as thick tablecloths and cosy candles. The kitchen is housed in a large glass box construction that appears to float over the dining room and is accessed by a narrow spiral staircase (massive respect to the waiters for navigating these without dropping anything). The dining room has just eight tables serving 38 diners, each of whom gets to sit on beautiful 'Elbow' chairs by Danish designer Hans J. Wegner, and as such it never feels anything less than spacious. The floor covering is made from recycled plastic bottles, the towels in the toilets are 100% organic, and even the uniforms are made by companies prohibiting the use of child labour. I was starting to feel a bit guilty for arriving by taxi.

There is only one menu choice at Maaemo – a 9-course tasting menu priced at NKr. 1,050 (€135/$186) with the option of a matching wine menu at NKr. 950 (€122/$168). Expensive, but in line with other high-end Oslo restaurants. The menu is seasonal and the plan is for it to change four times a year, although there will always be variations according to product availability. Also, a nice little touch is that you are given a menu holder made out of offcuts of the same marble used on the roof of the nearby National Opera House to keep your menu in and refer back to while you are eating.
Looking back on my meal I would add that the wine pairings played a huge role and, if you can, I would really recommend choosing it. Immense care and attention has been given to selecting the matching wines and in some cases the wine forms an integral part of the dish, bringing out hidden flavours of the food and vice versa. Of course, it is also possible to order wines à la carte and for this you are given perhaps the coolest wine list I have seen. Housed in a custom-made wooden frame is an iPad with a map of Europe. You simply click on a country and then drill down by region to find a suitable bottle. I could have spent hours playing with this. OK, it's maybe a touch gimmicky, and I've heard of other restaurants jumping on this bandwagon, but then it doesn't take much to make my inner geek happy.

With some glasses of Blanc de Blancs to ease us into the evening, the first of three amuse bouches was served. Thin strands of lush green fennel from Korsvold Gård, a farm located on an island 120km south of Oslo, came served with a small pot of sour cream and liquorice. I liked the way the liquorice intensified the aniseed taste of the fennel, but the texture was all a bit too woody for me; the jury was still out with this one.





However, on tasting the next amuse bouche I knew everything was going to be just fine. A diver scallop had been barely cooked and was served warm with lightly pickled leeks, tarragon, and a few drops of rapeseed oil. The soft sweet flesh of the scallop was achingly fresh, its taste instantly transporting me to the cold clear waters of Western Norway. Surely Norwegian scallops have to be among the best in the world? It seems incredible to think that until relatively recently scallops were not widely eaten in Norway, and for centuries they were considered only good for bait.

For the final amuse bouche, oyster emulsion, cucumber jelly, horseradish, and dill sat presented in a hollow glass bowl filled with seaweed and shells. Its taste was truly inspiring, full of the fresh ozone flavours of the sea, with the zingy horseradish making your mouth water. An object of utter beauty on the plate, I could have just sat there looking at it for the entire meal.

The first course proper was Jordskokk fra Korsvold Gård – steamed Jerusalem artichokes (again from Korsvold Farm), Jerusalem artichoke purée, and purslane leaves. Beautifully presented on a warm stone, the artichokes were soft and moist with a slight al dente bite. Their flavour was intensely earthy and nutty with a comforting warmth and natural sweetness. Never have I tasted Jerusalem artichokes this good. The creamy purée provided a nice textural contrast, while the purslane leaves seemed to pop with bursts of freshness in the mouth. This was a masterclass in how to elevate the humble tuber into food fit for a king.

Hvete med Hvede (Wheat with Wheat) – a playful take on the Norwegian and Danish spellings of 'wheat' – was next. The 'hvete' consisted of warm rolls made from wheat and spelt flours from Holli Mill in Norway's Østfold region. These sat atop a heavy piece of stone that was once used for grinding flour. Alongside this was some whipped salted butter from Røros. The bread was just divine – malty and nutty with a crisp crust and a soft open-textured interior.

The other half of this course – the 'hvede' – was a glass of the most extraordinary Danish wheat beer from the Bøgedal microbrewery. This tiny brewery is run by a husband and wife team who limit each production run to just 500 litres. The bottle said this was batch number 208 and I was told Maaemo had managed to secure the entire 60 bottles that were allocated to Norway. The beer had glorious subtle aromas of orange and coriander, and was very fresh with a touch of spice in the finish. It complemented the bread beautifully.

I think the fact that Maaemo is able to serve bread and butter as a separate course on the menu and pull it off with such skill speaks volumes about their confidence. This dish was just stunning in its simplicity and depth of flavour.


The next course, Selleri og Balsamisk Epleeddik (Celery and Balsamic Apple Vinegar), turns out to be a beautiful fillet of snow white skrei (spawning Arctic cod) from Norway's Lofoten islands. It was served with thick discs of roasted celeriac and thin slices of blanched celeriac that sat on top of mounds of celeriac purée. Drizzled over the fish was a light balsamic and apple vinegar reduction. The fish was beautifully cooked, and came apart in thick translucent flakes that tasted sparklingly fresh. The wine pairing for this course was a match made in heaven, and the apple vinegar reduction really helped bring out the best of the green and herbal Grüner Veltliner from the Nigl winery.

Then came Rødbete og Nýr (Beetroot with Nýr). Beetroot had been baked in salt and was served alongside blackcurrants, thin discs of raw beetroot, watercress, and camomile powder. A transparent cylinder of camomile jelly was filled with a mysterious substance called nýr. It turns out that nýr is a new type of tart cream cheese made by Hans Arild on his Grøndalen Farm in Nes, 30 minutes from Oslo. It was voted Oslo & Akershus product of the year in 2010. This dish came with some more theatrics in the form of a camomile infusion that was poured over dry ice, enveloping the table in wisps of soft camomile-scented clouds. The effect was electric. Sweet beetroot, sour cream, tart berries, crisp cress, and the mild honey-like scent of camomile proved to be an intoxicating combination. Delicious!


Next was Løk med Persille (Onion with Parsley). In another twist this was actually beef from Horgen Farm, 50km north east of Oslo, where farmer Trond Qvale raises grass-fed Angus cattle with minimal intervention. His cattle are left outside to graze grass pastures that are intermingled with wild herbs, giving the meat an amazingly fragrant minerally taste. The meat was tender, but not so much that your teeth didn't get a pleasant workout. It tasted like the animal had actually worked for its living. Accompanying this were onions prepared four different ways: a smooth purée, a dark and sweet caramelised onion 'soil,' pungent grilled onions, and mild pickled onions. Topping the whole thing were leaves of spinach and parsley. This was yet another sensational course, perfect in conception and execution.

On to the cheese course with Ost fra Eggen Gårdsysteri (Cheese from Eggen Dairy). Eggen Dairy is located in Vingelen, some 350km north of Oslo, and has been going since the 18th century. Here their soft Fjellblå blue cheese was served with birch leaves, birch wine reduction, Swedish maple syrup, sea buckthorn berries, and oats. The combination of tastes was revelatory, a little explosion of flavours on the palate. Pungent but creamy blue cheese was tempered by the sweetness of the maple syrup and tart juiciness of the sea buckthorn berries. The pairing of a light Poiré de Poiriers pear cider from Eric Bordelet was inspired. Low in alcohol but packed with concentrated fruit aromas, it complemented the cheese perfectly.

The arrival of dessert was heralded by the simply titled Malt. Malt mousse on a layer of malt crumble and carrot purée sat in a bowl echoing the restaurant's origami-style fold-out menus. What can I say? I was in heaven. Truly stunning! Sweet malty mousse, a little crunch from the crumble and bags of natural sweetness from the carrots. It was all I could do not to do a little dance right there and then.

Another dessert followed, this time Smør fra Røros (Butter from Røros). The sound of a whirring Pacojet machine emanating from the kitchen gave us a clue as to what this course might be. But even with this inkling, neither of us was quite prepared for how earth-shatteringly good this dessert would be. Impossibly smooth Røros butter ice cream came served with butter crumble and a sweet butter sauce. A little dollop of molasses perfumed with a hint of coffee broke the butter hegemony. The waiter called this their "crowd pleaser," and I can see why – butter, sugar, cream, what's not to like. I had to stop myself licking the plate clean. This dish was paired with a sweet raisiny 1995 Vin Santo from the Tuscan wine producer Monsanto.

We finished our meal with the cryptically titled Over Tregrensen (Above the Tree Line). Shavings of Valrhona chocolate, dollops of chocolate mousse, crowberries, white chocolate, and thick milk snow were artfully arranged on a jagged slab of stone. I'm not a huge fan of chocolate desserts, and although this dessert was excellent, it didn't quite reach the stratospheric heights of the previous two. Interestingly, it was the only dessert not to feature local ingredients as its main component. It was as though Holmboe Bang lost his nerve at the last minute and decided to serve something he knew would be universally popular and safe for the final course. I would loved to have seen another homegrown masterpiece instead, or I could have just had the butter ice cream again.

We finished our meal with some silver tip white tea that came with petit fours served on chalkstones from the Swedish island of Gotland. Sitting on these stones were chocolate shells filled with egg cream and apple syrup, chocolates filled with blackcurrant cream, and chocolate fudge sprinkled with salt from Oslo Fjord.

Finally, as a parting gift, we were handed a goodie bag containing the menu, some more of the blackcurrant filled chocolates and some heather honey drops.

Dinner at Maaemo simply took my breath away. It showed me exactly what is possible to achieve with good Norwegian ingredients. Chef Esben Holmboe Bang's light touch with the food is a key theme, allowing the sheer quality of the produce to shine through. His is certainly a name to watch and, at just 28 years of age, I've no doubt he will achieve even greater things going forward. Service throughout was impeccable too – efficient and warm waiters brimming with enthusiasm were knowledgeable about every aspect of the menu. Having been hooked on the BBC's excellent TV series "Service," I have a new sense of appreciation for how difficult it is to have a front-of-house operating at this level.

There is a notion I keep reading about in many articles that good Scandinavian food did not exist until Noma came along. That is simply not true. Scandinavia has a rich culinary heritage. However, certainly in Norway, it seems that Norwegian produce has been neglected and increasingly overlooked, often in favour of more 'exotic' imported fare. So it's out with the cod and potatoes (as delicious as they may be) and in with the sushi bars and Tex-Mex restaurants. Strawberries in January? Great! Green beans from Kenya? What a sign of progress! In all honesty, though, I don't really have a problem with this per se – increased consumer choice should generally be applauded – but what makes my blood pressure rise is when this 'progress' comes at the expense of good quality local food producers.

Fortunately, the tide is turning, and it is places like Maaemo and Kolonihagen and the Norwegian Farmers' Market Association that will be the saviour of artisanal food producers in Norway. The idea of a 'Norwegian Terroir' might have been laughable until very recently. Slowly but steadily, though, this idea is gaining credence mainly thanks, ironically, to the 'Noma phenomenon,' and the renewed global interest in Scandinavian food. Restaurants like Maaemo, Noma, Geranium, Relæ, F12, Fäviken, and Oscarsgate are at the vanguard of this rediscovery and reinterpretation of Nordic produce – the 'New Nordic Cuisine' movement – and it is unbelievably exciting to be in the midst of this culinary revolution. So go to Maaemo and revel in the beautiful cooking and purity of flavours – your perception of Norwegian cuisine will never be the same again.

(Postscript: I have been back to Maaemo a few times since. The experience just seems to get better and better – you can read those reviews herehere, here and here).


Update (14.03.2012): In the 2012 Michelin Guide, Maaemo was awarded not one, but two Michelin stars; an incredible achievement after being open for just over a year and testament to just how good this place is.


Maaemo
Schweigaardsgate 15
0191 Oslo
Norway
Tel: +47 91 99 48 05

Food:           10 / 10
Service:        10 / 10
Ambiance:      9 / 10