A view from Åland

Interview with Michael Björklund, one of the six creators of the manifesto for the New Nordic Cuisine

Karsten Thurfjell. karsten.thurfjell@sverigesradio.se

The concept of New Nordic Food was really regarded as a new phenomenon in 2004, but to me it seemed quite natural. I had always worked with Nordic products and moved frequently between the Nordic countries. I was just about to move home to Åland, standing with one foot on the Finnish mainland and one in Göteborg.

The discussions in Copenhagen showed slightly different views on the Nordic concept but, having talked it over, we all felt that the manifesto statements were obvious and evident. I guess we were all moulded within the same culinary discipline.

In retrospect, I think we should have continued to meet. It’s important to be able to discuss and get along, even later in a process. In that respect, there wasn´t much happening between us, in terms of forums for meeting. If we intend to go further with the project, it’s important to complete the work. The manifesto is really something you can develop gradually and, to me, it’s very important that we, the chefs at the forefront of it all, see each other regularly.

When the manifesto was published, the world didn´t quite understand what it was all about, but eventually it spread among the people we worked with. It was a hard job to get people other than cooks to take part in the concept, and there is still a long way to go. Today the ideas are starting to feel more mature, with the growing international recognition of Nordic cuisine and our producers. More and more people feel pride in the Nordic, and that makes the concept more vigorous.

Here in Åland we now receive an incredible number of gastro-tourists, wanting to meet producers and new experiences. They are well briefed and tour Scandinavia to examine our products. In this respect, the food journalists are very important, so the public can read and hear about what is happening.

I hope that the next ten years will develop in the same way, and that discussions will follow to spread the important principles of the manifesto. In addition, an evaluation should be carried out, in order to update the manifesto in a similar forum as last time. Of course there are things that could have been done better, and new factors to take into consideration.

From my perspective, Sweden has come a long way in developing food production in general, especially the local products, while Finland is six or seven years behind. Finland is a fairly new culinary nation, and it’s taken a long time to leave its grim 20th century history of war, hardship, and lack of just about everything. For a long time, food was something to fill your stomach. In Sweden agriculture and economy were successful throughout the century, and these differences manifest themselves for a long time afterwards.

Sustainable development is important and, for Åland and the Swedish and Finnish archipelago, the quality of our products created our profile. That’s why I care so much for the producers I work with. They’re doing something unique, why else would you come to Åland? Moreover, they are friendly and welcome visitors! Watching the beets grow, patting the pig and hearing the producer´s tale adds value – and helps food culture develop. This applies in particular to our own population, which needs to realise this. It’s easy to be blind to flaws at home.

When I came back to Åland after working in Göteborg, I realised that I couldn´t call my supplier anymore and say “the parsley is bad, you’d better change it”… because it was the only parsley on the island. Instead I began to look up my old friends’ parents who were farmers, and today we have 40 small suppliers producing for us during the season. The strange thing is that, without a middle man, it’s cheaper and better for both parties. They get twice as much money from me, and I pay half the price.

Making the big food industry players keep up with this takes a lot of time. The turnover is so large, and a different way of thinking will only be important for them if it means cash flow. In addition, Finland´s largest companies are very capable of influencing government bills restricting purchase directly from producers. The political apparatus is still waiting to be updated on this.

What´s happened instead is that some smaller companies have moved into retail, emphasising storytelling and local ties. But it will take time. A major problem is that the producers, those who really work with the actual improvement in quality, are the ones who receive the least money in the chain, even though they account for the entire cost of product, energy and packaging. The Finnish greenhouse tomatoes grown in Närpes can be a good example, even if they are not particularly Nordic. The producer receives 40 cents per kilo, and achieving profitability requires an enormous facility – while the tomatoes are sold for 4 euros a kilo in the stores. Something is obviously wrong here. Maybe we need a fair trade mark for domestic production, so you´ll know the producer gets the most. Then the consumer would be able to make their own decisions: if you want to benefit the producer, buy this product. Obviously, this is a difficult process, because money controls all processes.

Things will develop faster in Sweden. There you already have the conscious consumers you require. People know what’s good food and why it costs a little more. Merchants do listen to the consumers, and the power is actually in the consumer´s hands… although it is sometimes hard to believe.