spent the summer foraging, like an early hominid with clothes. It didn’t matter that the first thing I learned about that daunting pastime of hunter-gatherers and visionary chefs was that nature’s bounty is a thorny gift. Thorny, or, if you prefer, spiny, prickly, buggy, sticky, slimy, muddy, and, occasionally, so toxic that one of the books I consulted for my summer forays carried a disclaimer absolving the publisher of responsibility should I happen to end up in the hospital or, worse, in the ground, moldering next to the Amanita phalloides that I’d mistaken for a porcini. I was not deterred. I had foraged as a child, although it has to be said that children don’t think “forage” when they are out stripping raspberry bushes and blackberry brambles; they think about getting away before the ogre whose land they’re plundering catches them and turns them into toads. I could even claim to have foraged as an adult, if you count a mild interest in plucking berries from the caper bushes that cling to the walls of an old hill town near the farmhouse in Umbria where my husband and I go, in the summertime, to write. Caper berries are like blackberries; they amount to forage only in that they are not your berries.
I wasn’t the first throwback on the block. The pursuit of wild food has become so fashionable a subject in the past few years that one eater.com blogger called this the era of the “I Foraged with René Redzepi Piece.” Redzepi is the chef of Noma, in Copenhagen (otherwise known as the best restaurant in the world). More to the point, he is the acknowledged master scavenger of the Nordic coast. I’ll admit it. I wanted to forage with Redzepi, too.
I began working my way toward Denmark as soon as I arrived in Italy. I unpacked a carton of books with titles like “Nature’s Garden” and “The Wild Table.” I bought new mud boots—six euros at my local hardware store—and enlisted a mentor in the person of John Paterson, an exuberant Cumbria-to-Umbria transplant of forty-seven, who looked at my boots and said, “What’s wrong with sneakers?” Paterson is a countryman, or, as he says, “not a reader.” He is the kind of spontaneous forager who carries knives and old shopping bags and plastic buckets in the trunk of his car. (I carry epinephrine and bug repellent.) Being lanky and very tall, he can also leap over scraggly brush, which I, being small, cannot. Cumbrians are passionate about foraging—perhaps because, like their Scottish neighbors, they have learned to plumb the surface of a northern landscape not normally known for its largesse. What’s more, they share their enthusiasm and their secret places, something the old farmers in my neighborhood, most of them crafty foragers, rarely do. The peasants of Southern Europe do not easily admit to foraging—at least not to strangers. For centuries, foraged food was a sign of poverty, and they called it “famine food,” or “animal food.” The exception was truffles and porcini, which today command enough money for a good forager to be able to wait in line at the supermarket, buying stale food with the bourgeoisie. Some of my neighbors have truffle hounds penned in front of their chicken coops, ostensibly keeping foxes at bay. But they never ask to truffle in the woods by my pond when I’m around and, by local etiquette, they would have to offer some of the precious tubers they unearth to me. They wait until September, when I’m back in New York, and keep all my truffles for themselves.
Paterson got his start foraging—“Well, not actually foraging, more like scrumping”—as a schoolboy, combing the farms near his uncle’s Cockermouth sawmill for the giant rutabagas, or swedes, as the English call them, that children in Northern Europe carve into jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween. He worked in his first kitchen at the age of twelve (“I washed the plates,” he says. “I was too shy to wait on tables”) and twenty-five years later arrived in Umbria, a chef. Today, he has a Romanian wife, two children, and a thriving restaurant of his own—the Antica Osteria della Valle—in Todi, a town where people used to reserve their accolades for the meals that Grandmother made and, until they tasted his, had already driven away two “foreign” chefs, a Neapolitan and a Sicilian. In early June, I was finishing a plate of Paterson’s excellent tagliarini with porcini when he emerged from the kitchen, pulled up a chair, and started talking about the mushrooms he had discovered, foraging as a boy, in a patch of woods near a bridge over the River Cocker. “All those beautiful mushrooms!” he kept saying. He told me about green, orange, and red parrot mushrooms and parasol mushrooms and big cèpes called penny buns and bright, polka-dotted fly agarics “so huge they could fill a room” and mushrooms “like white fennels that grow from the shape of saucers into gilled cups.” He ate judiciously, but admired them all. In Italy, he started foraging for porcini to cook at home. At the Osteria, where he has to use farmed porcini, he roasts the mushrooms in pigeon juice, fills them with spinach, and wraps them in pancetta. He said that foraging had inspired his “bacon-and-eggs philosophy of little things that work together.”
A week later, we set out for some of his favorite foraging spots. We stopped at the best roadside for gathering the tiny leaves of wild mint known in Italy as mentuccia (“Fantastic with lamb”) and passed the supermarket at the edge of town, where only the day before he’d been cutting wild asparagus from a jumble of weeds and bushes behind the parking lot (“Great in risotto, but it looks like I took it all”). Then we headed for the country. We tried the field where he usually gets his wild fennel (“The flowers are lovely with ham and pork”) and found so much of that delicious weed that the fronds, rippling across the field in a warm breeze, looked like nature’s copy of Christo’s “Running Fence.” I was hoping to find strioli, too. Strioli is a spicy wild herb that looks like long leaves of tarragon. It grows in fields and pastures in late spring and early summer and makes a delicious spaghetti sauce—you take a few big handfuls of the herb, toss it into a sauté pan with olive oil, garlic, and peperoncini, and in a minute it’s ready. But there was none in sight, so we turned onto a quiet road that wound through fields of alfalfa and wheat and soon-to-be-blooming sunflowers, and parked next to a shuttered and, by all evidence, long-abandoned farmhouse that I had passed so often over the years that I thought of it as my house and dreamed of rescuing it.
Foraging places are like houses. Some speak to you, others you ignore. I wasn’t surprised that the land around that tumbledown house spoke to Paterson. He jumped out of the car, peered over a thicket of roadside bush and sloe trees, and disappeared down a steep, very wet slope before I had even unbuckled my seat belt—after which he emerged, upright and waving, in an overgrown copse enclosed by a circle of trees. Cleared, the copse would have provided a shady garden for a farmer’s family. To a forager, it was perfect: a natural rain trap, sheltered against the harsh sun, and virtually hidden from the road. Everywhere we turned, there were plants to gather. Even the wild asparagus, which usually hides from the sun in a profusion of other plants’ leaves and stalks, was so plentiful that you couldn’t miss it. We filled a shopping bag.
Wild asparagus has a tart, ravishing taste—what foragers call a wilderness taste—and a season so short as to be practically nonexistent. It’s as different from farmed asparagus as a morel is from the boxed mushrooms at your corner store. I was ready to head back and start planning my risotto, but Paterson had spotted a patch of leafy scrub and pulled me toward it. He called it crespina. I had never heard of crespina, nor, after months of searching, have I found it in any Italian dictionary. It’s the local word for spiny sow thistle—a peppery wild vegetable whose leaves taste a little like spinach and a lot like sorrel and, as I soon discovered, come with a spiky center rib sharp enough to etch a fine line down the palm of your hand if you’ve never handled them before. (I regard the small scar that I got that day as a forager’s mark of initiation.) We added a respectable bunch of leaves to the shopping bag, and carried the overflow up to the car in our arms. An hour later, we were separating and trimming the morning’s spoils in the tiny restaurant kitchen where, six days a week, Paterson cooks alone for fifty people (“Where would I put a sous-chef?” he said, stepping on my foot) and comparing recipes for wild-asparagus risotto. Here is his “most beautiful way” to make it: Snap off the fibrous ends of the asparagus spears and crush them with the blade of a knife. Simmer them in water or a mild stock until the stock takes flavor. Strain the stock. Pour a cupful of white wine into rice that’s been turned for a minute or two in hot olive oil and some minced onion. As soon as the wine boils down, start ladling in the stock. Keep ladling and stirring until the rice is practically al dente and the last ladle of stock is in the pan. Now fold in the asparagus heads. In no time, all you will need to do is grate the Parmesan and serve.
I made Paterson’s risotto for dinner that night, along with a roast chicken and the crespina leaves, sautéed for a minute, like baby spinach, in olive oil and a sprinkling of red-pepper flakes; the spines wilted into a tasty crunch. The next night, I chopped my fronds of wild fennel and used them to stuff a pork roast. When I called Paterson to say how good everything was, he told me, “Free food! There’s nothing like it. It always tastes better.”
I went to Oxford to give a talk, and got to forage in Pinsley Wood, an ancient forest near a village called Church Hanborough. You can find the original wood in the Domesday Book—the “unalterable” tax survey of English and Welsh land holdings compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086—and, indeed, the only altered thing about that venerable preserve is that now it’s a lot smaller, and everyone can enjoy it. In spring, when the ground is covered with bluebells, foragers complain about having to contend with lovers, nestled in sheets of sweet-smelling flowers, watching the clouds go by. By July, the bluebells are gone and there are no distractions.
For the Love of Bread
My friends Paul Levy and Elisabeth Luard—writers, foragers, and distinguished foodies (a word that, for better or for worse, Levy is said to have coined)—walked me through Pinsley Wood, armed with bags and baskets. Our plan was to make a big lunch with everything edible we found. Levy, a polymath whose books range from a biography of G. E. Moore during his Cambridge Apostle years to a whirlwind sampler of culinary erudition called “Out to Lunch,” has been the food and wine editor of the Observer, an arts correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, and, for the past eight years, the co-chair of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Luard, who began foraging as a botanical illustrator and traveller and whose many cookbooks include the estimable “European Peasant Cookery”—a virtual travelogue of foraged and home-grown food—is the symposium’s executive director.
My husband and I were staying with Levy and his wife (and self-described “arts wallah”), Penelope Marcus, at their Oxfordshire farmhouse, a rambling place, almost as old as Pinsley Wood, with a kitchen garden so vast and various in its offerings that I was tempted to ditch my mud boots, which had turned out to be plastic-coated cardboard (six euros do not a Welly make), and do my foraging there, in flip-flops, with a pair of gardening shears and a glass of iced tea waiting on the kitchen table. In fact, we began our foraging at the Levys’ barn wall, in a small overgrown patch of wild plants where fresh stinging nettles were sprouting like weeds (which is what they are) among the blackberry brambles and the dandelion greens and the malva, a purple flower often used in melokhia, a delectable Egyptian soup that I once ate in London but, alas, have never been able to replicate. We were going to use the nettles for an English broad-bean-and-vegetable soup that afternoon.
We drove to the wood in Luard’s old Mazda—past a village allotment with wild oats growing outside the fence and, inside, what looked to be a bumper crop of opium poppies—and listened to Luard and Levy talk about forest plants. Don’t bother with “dead nettles”— stingless flowering perennials that had no relation to our nettles and, to Luard’s mind, were not worth eating. Don’t overdo the elderberry unless you need a laxative. Beware of plants with pretty berries or pretty names, and, especially, of plants with both—which in the Hanboroughs means to remember that the flowering plant called lords and ladies, with its juicy scarlet berries and sultry, folded hood, was more accurately known to generations of poisoners as the deadly Arum “kill your neighbor.” “A stinky plant,” Levy said. I wrote it all down.
Levy considers himself a “basic local forager,” which is to say that he doesn’t drive three or four hours to the sea for his samphire and sea aster; he buys them at Waitrose. He loves wild garlic, and knows that sheets of bluebells in Pinsley Wood mean that wild garlic is growing near them. He “scrabbles” for the food he likes at home. “I can identify Jack-by-the-hedge for salad,” he told me. “And I can do sloes, brambles, elderberries. Anyone who lives in the countryside here can. Elisabeth is the more advanced forager, but I do know a little about truffles and wild mushrooms. Three of us once identified more than twenty mushroom species near here in Blenheim Park, and I’m quite good at chanterelles and porcini.” Levy thinks of Pinsley Wood as his neighborhood mushroom habitat. It has an old canopy of oak and ash, but it also has birch trees (chanterelles grow in their shade), and most of the interior is beech (porcini and truffles). Summer truffles are pretty much what you find in England. They are black outside and pale, grayish brown inside, and you have to dig twice as many as you think you’ll need to match anything like the deep flavor of France’s black winter truffles in a sauce périgueux.
Levy and my husband, who had been planning to spend a quiet day at the Ashmolean but was shamed out of it, immediately started following a network of burrowed tunnels—a “sett”—that led them into the wood near clusters of beech trees with small, circular swells of dark, moist earth beneath them. Swells like those are a sign of truffles, pushing up the ground. Setts mean that badgers probably got to the truffles first. A good truffle dog, like a hungry badger, can sniff its way to a truffle by following the scent of the spores left in its own feces from as long as a year before. The difference between a truffle dog and a badger—or, for that matter, the boar that trample my sage and rosemary bushes in their rush to my pond to root and drink—is that your dog doesn’t go truffling without you, and when it digs a truffle, as many Italian truffle dogs are trained to do, it mouths it gently and gives it to you intact. Or relatively intact. A few weeks later, when Paterson and I went truffling with an obliging local carabiniere named Bruno Craba and his two truffle terrier mutts, one of the dogs surrendered so helplessly to the intoxicating smell of semen that the tubers emit—known to foodies as the truffle umami—that she swallowed half a truffle the size of a tennis ball before presenting the rest of it to her master.
Being without benefit of a truffle dog, let alone a small spade or even a soup spoon for loosening the soil, Luard and I abandoned the men, who by then were up to their wrists in dirt, hoping to find a truffle that the badgers had missed. They didn’t. With lunch on our minds, we went in search of more accessible food. “Pea plants—plants of the Leguminosae family—are mostly what you get here,” Luard told me. You have to look for seed-bearing pods and single flowers with four “free” petals (which “The New Oxford Book of Food Plants” describes as “a large upper standard, 2 lateral wings, and a boat-shaped keel”). I left the identifying to her. Luard, who has foraged in twenty countries, has been called a walking encyclopedia of wild food. She was.
While we gathered pea plants, I learned that British countrywomen thicken their jellies with rose hips, crab apples, and the red fruit clusters of rowan bushes, which people in Wales, where Luard lives, plant by their doors to keep witches away. (There’s a recipe for “hedgerow jelly” in her new book, “A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse.”) Passing what looked to be the remains of a wild ground orchid, I was instructed in the virtues of “saloop,” a drink made from the powder of crushed orchid roots which, for centuries, was the pick-me-up of London’s chimney sweeps—“The Ovaltine and Horlicks of its time, with more protein than a filet de boeuf,” Luard said. (You can read about saloop in Charles Lamb, who hated it.) We walked past silverweed plants (“Edible but not tasty”) and meadowsweet (“The underscent of vanilla in the flowers makes a nice tea”) and the leaf shoots of young, wild carrots (“Skinny as can be means good in soup”) and teasel (“Not for eating; for combing wool”) and butterwort, which, like fig-tree sap in Italy, is a vegetable rennet, “good for making cheese.” Along the way, I discovered that farm children in southern Spain, where Luard lived with her family in the seventies, ate wild-fennel fronds and “sucked on the lemony stalks” of wood sorrel on their way to school, by way of a second breakfast. “Children are a huge source of information about wild food,” she told me. “In Spain, I would ask the village women to tell me what they foraged and how they cooked it, and they wouldn’t answer—they were embarrassed by foraging, like your Italian neighbors—but their children knew. My children would walk to school with them, eating the leaves and berries that their friends plucked from the roadside verges. They learned from their friends, and I learned from them. I’ve lived in a lot of places, and I’ve discovered that a basic knowledge of food runs all the way through Europe. The people I lived with cooked, of necessity, what they grew, and the wild food they added—the changing taste of leaves and nuts, for instance—was what gave interest to those few things. It taught me that when you grow enough to eat you begin to make it taste good. That’s not a frippery, it’s a need.”
Luard, as senior forager, was in charge of lunch. Levy was in charge of fetching claret from the cellar and coaxing heat from an unpredictable Aga. Marcus was in charge of setting the garden table, while my husband, who had volunteered for the washing up, wandered around, keeping up the conversation. And I was stationed at the sink, sorting and cleaning a good deal of Pinsley Wood. It was an unfortunate assignment, since I tend to daydream at kitchen sinks, and the better the dream the slower my pace. Sorting our forage took me half an hour. Cleaning it took twice as long, given the number of bugs clinging to every leaf and flower, not to mention Luard’s instructions, among them separating the yarrow leaves we’d collected from any lingering trace of petals, and scraping the hairy calyxes from the bottom of borage flowers. We sat down to lunch at four-thirty. The soup was a vegetarian feast of flageolets with (among other good, wild things) nettles, yarrow leaves, and dandelions, and the salad a spicy mix of wild sorrel, dandelions, onion flowers, and borage flowers. But my favorite dish was the scrambled eggs that Luard made with an unseemly amount of farm butter and double cream and a mountain of fresh sorrel. The sorrel for that came from the Levys’ kitchen garden, a few feet from the back door.
I wasn’t really ready for René Redzepi. I had tried to prepare. I downloaded the stories that appeared last spring, when a jury of chefs and food writers, convened by the British magazine Restaurant, named Noma the world’s best restaurant for the second year. I studied the photographs in Redzepi’s cookbook, memorized the names in his glossary of plants and seaweeds, and even tried to improvise on some of his simpler recipes with my local produce—impossible in a part of Italy where the collective culinary imagination is so literally “local” that broccoli is considered a foreign food and oregano is dismissed as “something the Tuscans eat.” But I flew to Denmark anyway, planning to make a trial foraging run in western Zealand with my Danish friend (and fellow-journalist) Merete Baird, who spends her summers in a farmhouse overlooking Nexelo Bay—a trove of wilderness food—and likes to eat at Lammerfjordens Spisehus, a restaurant run by one of Redzepi’s disciples. My foraging trial ended before it began, in a freezing downpour, and, as for the restaurant, the storm had left me so hungry that, at dinner that night, I passed up the young chef’s lovely deconstructed tomato-and-wild-herb soup and his leafy Noma-inspired offerings and ordered two fat Danish sausages and a bowl of warm potato salad.
I met Redzepi at Noma early the following afternoon. He arrived on an old bike, chained it outside the restaurant—a converted warehouse on a quay where trading ships once unloaded fish and skins from Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands—and tried to ignore the tourists who were milling about, their cameras ready, hoping for a shot of arguably the most famous Dane since Hamlet. In fact, most of them barely glanced at the small young man with floppy brown hair, in jeans, battered sneakers, and an untucked wrinkled shirt, locking up his bike. Redzepi is thirty-three, with a wife and two small children, but he can look like a student who slept in his clothes and is now running late for an exam. The most flamboyant thing about him may be the short beard he frequently grows—and just as frequently sheds. It is hard to imagine him in a white toque or a bloody apron or, à la Mario Batali, in baggy Bermudas and orange crocs. When I left for my hotel that day, one of the tourists stopped me: “That kid you were with earlier? His bike’s still here.”
Redzepi opened Noma in 2003, at the age of twenty-five, backed by the gastronomical entrepreneur of a successful catering service and bakery chain (whose bread he doesn’t serve) and a “new Danish” furniture designer (whose advice he routinely rejects). He was nine years out of culinary school, during which time he had apprenticed at one of Copenhagen’s best restaurants, endured a long stage in the unhappy kitchen of a testy three-star Montpelier chef, and made molecular magic in Catalonia with Ferran Adrià. “I ate a meal at elBulli,” as he tells the story, “and as soon as I finished I went up to Adrià and asked for a job. He said, ‘Write me a letter.’ So I did. A few weeks later, I found a job offer, complete with contract, in the mail.” He stayed at elBulli for a season, and, in the course of it, landed his next job—at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, in Napa Valley, where he was much taken with the emphasis on local food. He was back in Copenhagen, cooking “Scandinavian French” at the restaurant Kong Hans Kælder, when the call came asking if he’d like a restaurant of his own.
“We had the idea: let’s use local products here,” he told me the next morning. We were at a diner, making a caffeine stop on the way to a beach at Dragør—a town on the Øresund Sea, about twenty minutes from the outskirts of Copenhagen—where he likes to forage. “But I was very unhappy at first. Why? Because we were taking recipes from other cultures, serving essentially the same ‘Scandinavian French’ food, and just because you’re using local produce to make that food doesn’t mean you’re making a food of your own culture. I started asking myself, What is a region? What is the sum of the people we are, the culture we are? What does it taste like? What does it look like on a plate? It was a very complex thing for us—the idea of finding a new flavor that was ‘ours.’ ”
Five years later, having raised the money for a research foundation called the Nordic Food Lab, he hired an American chef named Lars Williams—who arrived with a degree in English literature, a passion for food chemistry, and fifteen lines of the first book of “Paradise Lost” tattooed on his right arm—to preside over a test kitchen on a houseboat across the quay from Noma and begin to “release the umami of Nordic cuisine.” At the moment, they were looking for some in a liquid concentrate of dried peas, which I had sampled on the houseboat the day before. (It was quite good, with the rich bite of a soy concentrate and, at the same time, a kind of pea-plant sweetness.) And they planned to look for more in a brew of buckwheat and fatty fish, starting with herring or mackerel. They were also “looking into” Nordic insects, Redzepi said. (On a trip to Australia last year, he had eaten white larvae that he swore tasted “exactly like fresh almonds.”) “The question for us is how to keep that free-sprouting spirit here,” he told me. “In gastronomical terms, we’re not at the finish line, but we know what it could be.”
A Nordic cuisine, for Redzepi, begins with harvesting the vast resources of a particular north—running west from Finland through Scandinavia and across the North Atlantic to the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland—and using them to evoke and, in the end, re-imagine and refine a common culture of rye grains, fish, fermentation, salt, and smoke, inherited from farmers and fishermen with hardscrabble lives and a dour Protestant certainty that those lives wouldn’t be getting easier. Redzepi’s mother, who worked as a cleaner in Copenhagen and loves to eat at Noma, comes from that Protestant Danish stock. But the cook in the family was his father, a mosque-going Muslim from Macedonia who drove a taxi. “When I was growing up, we’d leave the city for long periods in the summer and stay in the village where my father was born,” Redzepi told me. “It was a two-car village, and cooking, for him, was kill the chicken, milk the cow. When he eats at Noma, he says, ‘Well, it’s not exactly up my alley.’ His alley is homey stews, homey peasant flavors, and lots of beans.” When I told Redzepi about a blog I’d read, calling him a Nordic supremacist, he laughed and said, “Look at my family. My father’s a Muslim immigrant. My wife, Nadine, is Jewish. She was born in Portugal and has family in France and England. She studied languages. If the supremacists took over, we’d be out of here.”
“Thanksgiving is politically incorrect, turkey is politically incorrect, yams with marshmallow fluff are politically incorrect—and disgusting.”
Redzepi remembers foraging for berries as a boy in Macedonia. He loves berries. Gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, lingonberries—any berries in season, at hand, and edible. He carries a bowl of berries around Noma’s kitchens, popping them into his mouth while he checks a prep station or talks to a chef or even stands at the front stove, finishing a sauce. He also loves mushrooms. There are some two hundred edible varieties in Denmark’s woods, and he is working his way through them all. But, at the moment, the food he cherishes is cabbage—from the big, pale cabbages that he slices and steams, at home, in a knob of butter and a half inch of his wife’s leftover tea, to the tiny, vividly green-leaved wild cabbages that sit in pots, basking in ultraviolet light, on a steel counter in the middle of one of Noma’s upstairs kitchens, waiting for the day they’re ready to be wrapped with their stems around a sliver of pike perch and served to customers on a beautiful stoneware plate, between a green verbena sauce and a butter-and-fish-bone foam. One of the first things he told me, the day we met, was that, for him, the great surprise of foraging in Nordic Europe was to see cabbages sprouting from rotting seaweed on a beach, and to realize how much food value the sea, the sand, and the nutrients released in the rotting process could produce.
It’s an experience that he wants the people on his staff to share before they so much as plate a salad or get near a stove. Seventy people work at Noma. They come from as many as sixteen countries—English is their lingua franca—and it’s safe to say that every one of them has made a foraging trip to the sea or the woods (or both) with Redzepi. “There’s a new guy from the Bronx working here,” he told me, when he was introducing the kitchen staff. “I want to take him to the forest. I want to see the first time he gets down on his knees and tastes something. The transformation begins there.”
The beach near Dragør was bleak, but it was bursting with plants I had never dreamed of eating, and I was ready for transformation. “Foraging is treasure hunting,” Redzepi said; you’ll find the treasure if you believe it’s there. It’s also homework. When he began foraging in Denmark, he stayed up nights reading. He bought botany books and field guides—the most useful being an old Swedish Army survival book that had taught soldiers how to live for a year in the wilderness on the food they found. At first, he foraged with the Army manual in his pocket. Then he began consulting other foragers. Now he forages with his iPhone. “I know a great professional forager in Sweden,” he told me. “If I see something I can’t identify, I call her up, point my iPhone, send her a picture of what I’m seeing, and ask her what it is. At the beginning, I had a little problem with beach thistles—my throat started to close from those weird flowers—but that was the worst time. I got connected to the sea and soil, and now they’re an integral part of me. I experience the world through food.”
We started out in a thicket of rose-hip bushes at the edge of the beach, where wild grass was just beginning to give way to sand and seaweed. The berries looked like tiny cherry tomatoes, and there were so many of them that, after a few minutes, we left Redzepi’s “scavenger sous-chef,” who had driven us out that morning—Redzepi hates driving—with the job of locating a couple of large garbage bags and filling them. (I ate some of the berries that night, at dinner, in a warm salad of lovage, zucchini, wild herbs, and an egg fried at the table in a hot skillet.) Redzepi pickles his rose-hip flowers in apple vinegar, and preserves the berries as a thick purée, for winter dishes. The picking season is short in Denmark, and he has to start gathering in mid-spring in order to dry, smoke, pickle, or otherwise preserve—and, in the process, concentrate the flavor of—a lot of the vegetables and fruits that his customers will be eating in December. He told me about beach dandelions with nippy little bouquets of flowers and tiny roots that taste “like a mix of fresh hazelnuts and roasted almonds,” and about the vanilla taste of wild parsnip flowers, and about pink beach-pea flowers that taste like mushrooms. By the time we got to the water, we were sampling most of what we found. We ate a handful of short beach grass that tasted like oysters, and a cluster of spicy lilac beach-mustard flowers that made the mustard in jars seem tame. We snacked on enormous leaves of sea lettuce that came floating by. They tasted, to me, like mild, salty cabbage that had just been scooped out of a pot-au-feu. Redzepi serves a lot of sea lettuce at Noma. He breaks it down in a saporoso of white-wine vinegar (to make it “easier to eat,” he says, and also to bring out its “ocean flavor”) and wraps it around cod roe or oysters, or folds it into a poached-egg-and-radish stew.
The weather in Denmark begins to turn in August. It was too late in the summer for sea goosefoot, or for the bladder wrack that bobs near the shore like bloated peas and, according to Redzepi, is just as sweet. The scurvy grass we discovered was too old to eat. But the beach horseradish that day was perfect. It had the “big hint of wasabi taste” that Redzepi likes so much that he serves the leaves folded over sea urchin. By late morning, with the wind cutting through our sweaters, we were still roaming the beach and tasting. “It’s amazing, all these foods in the sand,” Redzepi said. “One of my most important moments foraging—important in the history of Noma—was on a windblown beach like this one. I saw this blade of grass, this chive-looking thing, growing out of some rotting seaweed. I put it in my mouth. It had a nice snap, with the saltiness of samphire. And a familiar taste. A taste from somewhere else. I thought, Wait a minute, it’s cilantro! This isn’t Mexico, it’s Denmark, and I’ve found cilantro in the sand.” That night, his customers ate beach cilantro, which turned out to be sea arrow grass. “We put it in everything that was savory.”
There are never fewer than five or six foraged foods on Noma’s menu, and usually many more. By now, Redzepi depends on professional foragers to supply most of them, but he and his staff still provide the rest. Earlier this year, they gathered two hundred and twenty pounds of wild roses for pickling, and a hundred and fifty pounds of wild ramps. By November, there were thirty-three hundred pounds of foraged fruits and vegetables stored at Noma, ready for winter. Redzepi told me that ninety per cent of everything he serves is farmed, fished, raised, or foraged within sixty miles of the restaurant, and while most chefs with serious reputations to maintain will occasionally cheat on “local,” even the Jacobins of the sustainable-food world acknowledge that Redzepi never does. Early this fall, a food critic from the Guardian noted that the millionaires flying their private jets to eat at restaurants like Noma leave a carbon footprint far more damaging than the one Redzepi is trying to erase at home. Redzepi thinks about that, too, but not much. He says that the point of Noma isn’t to feed the rich—that in his best-possible-world Noma would be free, because “there is nothing worse than charging people for conviviality.” The point is to demonstrate how good cooking with regional food, anywhere in the world, can be. His mission is to spread the word.
On an average Saturday night, Noma’s waiting list runs to a thousand people. The restaurant seats forty-four, and Redzepi has no real desire to expand. His partners keep asking, “When will the money begin to flow?” He ignores them. For now, at least, whatever profit Noma makes (last year, three per cent) goes right back into the business of sourcing and preparing the kinds of food that people who do get reservations come to the restaurant to eat. Most of the cultivated crops he uses (including his favorite carrots, which are left in the ground for a year after they mature, and develop a dense texture and an almost meaty taste) are grown for him on a polycultural farm, an hour away in northwest Zealand, that he helped transform. His butter and milk (including the buttermilk with which he turns a warm, seaweed-oil vegetable salad dressing into an instantly addictive sauce) come from a nearby Zealand biodynamic farm. Everything else he serves is “Nordic” by anyone’s definition. His sea urchin comes from a transplanted Scot who dives for it off the Norwegian coast. The buckwheat in Noma’s bread comes from a small island off the coast of Sweden; I downed a loaf of it, watching Redzepi cook lunch. The red seaweed I ate that night at dinner—in a mysteriously satisfying dish involving dried scallops, toasted grains, watercress purée, beech nuts, mussel juice, and squid ink—came from a forager in Iceland. The langoustine that was served on a black rock (next to three tiny but eminently edible “rocks” made from an emulsion of oysters and kelp, dusted with crisped rye and seaweed crumbs) came from a fisherman in the Faroe Islands. Even Redzepi’s wine list, which used to be largely French, now includes wines from a vineyard that Noma owns on Lilleø, a small island off Denmark’s North Sea coast. I tried an unfiltered, moss-colored white from the vineyard that night. It looked murky in the glass, but I wish I had ordered more.
“Redzepi was fifteen, and finishing the ninth grade, when his homeroom teacher pronounced him “ineligible” for secondary school and said that he would be streamed out of the academic system and into trade school and an apprenticeship. He chose a culinary school only because a classmate named Michael Skotbo was going there. Their first assignment was to find a recipe, cook it, and make it look appetizing on a plate. “You were supposed to dig into your memories of food, of taste, and my most vivid was from Macedonia,” Redzepi told me. “It was my father’s barnyard chicken—the drippings over the rice, the spices, the cashew sauce. I think that my first adult moment was cooking that spicy chicken. My second was when we found a wonderful cup and put the rice in it—with the chicken, sliced, next to it on the plate. I had an idea. I said to Michael, ‘No, don’t put the sauce on the meat. Put the sauce between the chicken and the rice. We came in second in flavor and first in presentation.” I asked him who won first in flavor. “A butcher,” he said. “He made ham salad. It was terrific.”
The boy who couldn’t get into high school now speaks four or five languages, publishes in the Guardian and the New York Times, speaks at Yale, and last year disarmed an audience of literati at the New York Public Library with a philosophical riff on the beauty of aged-in-the-ground carrots, not to mention a biochemical acumen that many scientists, and most other chefs, would envy. To call Redzepi an autodidact is beside the point. His friends say he was born bored. “Wherever I go, I read, I look, I taste, I discover, I learn,” he told me. “I’m cooking with mosses now. They were a whole new discovery for me. I tasted them for the first time foraging in Iceland. Some mosses are hideous, but those were so lush and green I had to try them. I took some back to Reykjavík, where a guy I’d met ground it for me and put it into cookies. Then I went to Greenland. For years, in Greenland, it looked like the reindeer were eating snow. Now we know they were eating moss. We call it reindeer moss. The moss on trees and bushes has a mushroomy taste—we deep-fry it, like potato chips—but the ones growing from the ground, up near caves, they have the taste and texture of noodles.”
I ate reindeer moss at Noma, deep- fried, spiced with cèpes, and deliciously crisp. It was the third of twenty-three appetizers and tasting dishes I ate that night, the first being a hay parfait—a long infusion of cream and toasted hay, into which yarrow, nasturtium, camomile jelly, egg, and sorrel and camomile juice were then blended. The second arrived in a flower pot, filled with malted, roasted rye crumbs and holding shoots of raw wild vegetables, a tiny poached mousse of snail nestling in a flower, and a flatbread “branch” that was spiced with powdered oak shoots, birch, and juniper. I wish I could describe the taste of those eloquent, complex combinations, but the truth is that, like most of the dishes I tried at Noma, they tasted like everything in them and, at the same time, like nothing I had ever eaten. Four hours later, I had filled a notebook with the names of wild foods. Redzepi collected me at my table, and we sat for a while outside, on a bench near the houseboat, looking at the water and talking. I didn’t tell him that I’d passed on the little live shrimp, wriggling alone on a bed of crushed ice in a Mason jar, that had been presented to me between the rose-hip berries and the caramelized sweetbreads, plated with chanterelles and a grilled salad purée composed of spinach, wild herbs (pre-wilted in butter and herb tea), Swiss chard, celery, ground elder, Spanish chervil, chickweed, and goosefoot, and served with a morel-and-juniper-wood broth. I told him that it was the best meal I had ever eaten, and it was.
I came home to New York, checked my mail, and discovered that I had missed the Vassar Club’s “foraging tour” of Central Park. It was quite a relief. I ordered a steak from Citarella (by phone, for delivery), walked to the Friday greenmarket on Ninety-seventh Street for corn and tomatoes, and was home in fifteen minutes. I spun some salad from my corner store, unpacked my suitcase, plugged in my laptop, uncorked the wine, and cooked dinner. It seemed too easy. Surveying my kitchen, I wondered where I would put a Thermomix or a foam siphon with backup cartridges or a Pacojet or a vacuum-pack machine or even a No. 40 ice-cream scoop—all of which I would need just to produce the carrot sorbet and buttermilk-foam dessert that I’d been eying in Redzepi’s cookbook. Where would Redzepi put them in his own kitchen? Then I remembered the sliced cabbage, steamed with a knob of butter in a half inch of leftover tea.
Noma isn’t about home cooking or even foraging. The restaurant is a showcase, a virtuoso reminder that only a small fraction of the planet’s bounty gets to anyone’s dinner table, and that most of it is just as good as what does get there—even better, if it’s cooked with patience, imagination, and a little hot-cold chemistry. It seems to me now that if you take John Paterson’s enthusiasm for little wild things that work together and Elisabeth Luard’s conviction that those things express the timeless “taste-good” ingenuity of peasant cooking, the message is not so different from Redzepi’s. Most of us eat only what we know. It’s time to put on our boots (or our sneakers) and look around. ♦