Valentine Warner has spent five hours being tossed about in the fjords of northern Norway. It’s mid-July but you wouldn’t know it: a cool wind whips around the islands of Lofoten and mist caresses the jagged granite mountains.
The cameraman staggers ashore looking decidedly green around the gills. Warner, on the other hand, is bright-eyed and beaming. “I’ve had a great morning! I like it raw. I caught the biggest haddock I’ve ever caught today.”
Like many Brits, Valentine Warner was a devotee of The Killing and caught up in the Scandi-mania surrounding the Danish crime drama. Arriving in Copenhagen for his latest series about the food of Scandinavia, he was bemused to discover his wasn’t the only appetite whetted: in the first episode he’s a guest at a “guerrilla dinner” inspired by the show. Diners eat with a latex glove and scour the menu for clues about the killer (the hypodermic needle used to inject truffle oil gives the game away).
The chef’s interest was also piqued by Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that serves tiny plates of foraged fare and has been voted the best restaurant in the world three times. It’s clear that there’s more to Scandinavian cuisine than Ikea meatballs.
“Everyone in the food world thought, ‘Woah, what’s that?’ and then suddenly a lot of Danish and Swedish chefs started turning up in London,” says Warner. “Noma made people turn round and ask, ‘What’s happening over there?’” He was sceptical – he’s not a fan of finicky food – but was won over when he visited Noma’s “laboratory”. “For all my reservations about it, I tasted some really incredible things there. I ate this semi-fermented salted herring, which was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
Salty liquorice comes a close second: supposedly the one thing that Danes, Swedes and Norwegians agree upon. “It’s like licking a car battery,” he enthuses. “I love it.” And smorgasbord turned out to be way more appetising than a buffet of half-made butties or “open sandwiches”: in Denmark it takes four and a half years to train as a sandwich-maker, as the toppings are subject to strict rules.
But it’s northern Scandinavia – hundreds of miles from the cosmopolitan capitals of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo – that he really relished: fishing in fjords, foraging for wild berries, hunting moose. He even enjoyed lying on his belly for hours on end ice-fishing, growing his first beard as insulation.
“It was minus 45 on one day so the beard was prudent. I’ve never had the guts to punch one through before for fear of looking ridiculous. But it’s not about fashion; it’s about survival.”
Warner has always had an appetite for the outdoors. “One of my earliest memories is being in Lyme Regis as a little boy, putting my crab line down between the big rocks and catching gobies. Dad would say, ‘Now you’ve killed them you’ve got to eat them.’ So we’d fry these little things up in butter.”
To this day he’d rather catch his own dinner. “I would rather have meat I’ve hunted myself than meat I’ve taken off the supermarket shelf, which I know nothing about.”
He’s clearly wary of the ethical minefield pro-hunters must navigate in this country, so Scandinavia proved a refreshing change. “It’s a very different attitude – certainly the further north you go. Hunting puts meat on the table. It’s not a hobby; it’s an inheritance, a necessity.
“There are no cows or sheep in the north – they can’t survive – but there are a lot of moose and reindeer. So you hunt. It’s that simple. ‘How could you eat one of Father Christmas’s reindeer?’ people in the UK would say. It’s a bit patronising; it’s their pork, their beef, their lamb.”
Yet it’s the rhythms and routines of rural Scandinavia that Warner truly envies. “In the summer people pick berries as a family. People know their mushrooms. Stuff that we’ve forgotten because we rely on others to produce or make our food for us.
“The Scandinavians have a relaxed, healthy attitude to life. They’re not as worried about everything as we are at home and I think it’s because a lot of their time is spent enjoying nature. It’s good for the soul.”
Valentine Warner Eats Scandinavia starts tonight at 8pm on Good Food.