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Service with a sigh

by Michael Booth

The Scandinavians have many talents: pioneering green technology solutions, brokering peace in Sri Lanka, handball and so on. But what about the things that count: how are they as hosts? And what can one expect from Scandinavian hospitality?

The New Nordic food movement swept the restaurant world a little over a decade ago and genuinely revolutionised many chefs’ approach to ingredients and seasonality. I’ve seen the restaurant scene in my adopted hometown of Copenhagen blossom like an apple tree in springtime and there is no question that the Danish capital is now one of the best cities in Europe in which to dine out.

But has this culinary revolution been matched by a similar hike in the standards of service and hospitality? Yes and no. Service is definitely better but most Scandinavians still see waiting tables as a stop-gap job to supplement studies. That’s fine and needn’t necessarily mitigate against professionalism. What does, though, is the Scandinavian concept of øjehøjde, which translates as “eye height”. This is the admirable idea that everyone, from every corner of society, should be regarded as equal, as valuable and as worthy of respect as, say, the Queen or Peter Schmeichel.

However, just as a passive-aggressive Parisian maitre’d – or the grouchiness one might endure at somewhere like Katz’s Deli – can taint a meal, this kind of otherwise splendid Scandinavian egalitarianism can also mar your dining experience. There might be thumbs in soup, fingerprints on plate rims or orders forgotten (even if, at the time, you suggested they write them down). Special dietary requests and venturing off-menu are not encouraged. In Denmark, if the food reaches you more or less intact, it is judged a success.

Tipping is still not as common as in most countries. Waiters are paid reasonably well here so they know that any extra effort – which in other countries might elevate a restaurant visit to something memorable and foster loyalty – is unlikely to be rewarded.

That’s the public sphere. So how are Scandinavians at welcoming you into their homes? These are the happy uplands of hygge and €20,000 sofas remember, so a base level of conviviality and design savviness is a given – and, again, the food really has improved dramatically. No longer must you pokerface your way through curried meatballs or fatty pork in lumpy parsley sauce with a side of over-cooked cabbage (not unless you are in Norway at least; not much has changed there). 

No, these days Yotam Ottolenghi is available in translation so pomegranate seeds and sumac abound. The food’s good but one must still beware the formality, especially in Sweden. The etiquette minefield begins before you even arrive: Scandinavians are sticklers for punctuality. Dinner invitations for the infantile hour of 18.00 are quite normal and you are very much expected to turn up at the appointed hour. By 18.10 at the latest; 18.30 will see glances cast in your direction. In Scandinavia, “fashionably late” is akin to “fashionably flatulent”.

Upon arrival one should absolutely remove one’s shoes. Unless you shouldn’t: “Never wear shoes inside another person’s home – unless, of course, others are doing so,” advises one Swedish etiquette guide. Having seen adults arrive at others’ homes bearing their own slippers like five-year-olds for years now, I now consider this practice the height of civilisation.

Universal throughout Scandinavia is the practice of circulating the room upon your arrival in order to shake the hand of every single guest and exchange names. No one ever remembers everyone’s names of course but this too is wonderfully civilised, I think.

At the table you should wait for your hosts to drink before you commence guzzling the Amarone. During toasts be sure to look each of the other diners in the eye as you raise you glass, sip, then raise it again and repeat the meaningful eye contact. Never clink glasses: for all their Viking heritage, this is considered awfully proletarian. And if you are seated beside the hostess, a small speech of gratitude and praise is expected.

As the evening wears on you will notice that the drinking doesn’t really stop. Or even slow down much. Wine glasses are refilled alongside coffee cups as the questions grow more probing: how long did you study? How much do you earn? How much did your house cost? Can you really make a living from writing?

And then, with a flourish, long after the dessert comes the obligatory bowl of sweets. Savour the frightened glances of French guests as the cheapest, most lurid Haribo mix is brought forth; a gigantic indigestible bowl of the stuff. It’s the perfect expression of Scandinavian hospitality.

About the writer: Booth is MONOCLE’s Copenhagen correspondent and author of The Meaning of Rice, which is published by Vintage.


Cookbooks through the ages

by Sonia Zhuravlyova

Every era elicits its own cooking manuals, dishing up clues to the quirks, urges and vices of the age. Beyond the fables (of miraculous weight loss, clearer skin or tighter glutes) that vie for our attention, there exist culinary cul-de-sacs that reveal personal and political appetites too.

Take the Italian Futurists, who caused a stir with their 1932 cookbook. In this prank-cum-culinary treatise, its author – poet and editor Filippo Tommaso Marinetti – scandalously counselled ditching pasta, which “makes people brutish”. And before Andy Warhol was Andy Warhol, he collaborated on Wild Raspberries. It won’t help you prepare supper but it does provide a clue as to how young Andy perfected his Factory. Even then he was orchestrating a team (friends and his own mother) to help cook up the finished product.

What a good Soviet citizen should eat did not escape the notice of leader Joseph Stalin. The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food has sold more than eight million copies since it first came out in 1939. But its elaborate recipes and lush imagery were a ruse: putting forward the fantasy of prosperity when, in reality, much of that period was characterised by shortages. Decidedly aspirational, it can still be seen on many Russians’ shelves. Its take on the US burger (no bun) remains a staple.

Not long after this unlikely hit, gourmand Alice B Toklas published her eponymous cookbook in 1954. She included what is possibly the first printed English-language recipe for hash brownies. She calls it a snack that “might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club”.

The even more curious can sup much like Richard II, whose chef has bequeathed us the 600-year-old The Forme of Cury. Some recipes might present a stumbling block, call as they do for whales, porpoises and cranes. For a taste of antiquity, Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today offers modern interpretations of 64 ancient dishes. Most popular ingredient? Fermented fish sauce.

What will those seeking clues about our own times make of current eating habits? Unenthused by Jamie Oliver and Elizabeth David, they might be drawn to recent tracts on foraging and fermenting. Or perhaps to one on cooking with roadkill. Hedgehog carbonara, anyone?

About the writer: Zhuravlyova is a sub editor for MONOCLE. Of Russian extraction, she enjoys digging through her family’s Soviet-era cookbooks.


Changing the rules

by Tim Hayward

They say that moving house is marginally less stressful than divorce. As someone who’s done both too often, I can’t agree. When you get divorced you lose half the stuff in your kitchen cupboard; when you move it just follows you about.

There’s all sorts of stuff to be fitted into the new cupboards. It’s not the pots and pans, most of which are regularly sorted and culled, it’s the stuff for dinner parties. The gadgets which, when you bought them, seemed impressive but now lurk, catching dust and emitting silent rebuke. When did I ever think a jamón carving stand would be useful?

Part of the problem is how the rules of entertaining have changed. You used to be able to rely on a time-tested routine of starter, soup, fish etc, and the gear for consuming it was the same sort of thing that your grandparents used. In fact, if you came from a decent family, it actually was the stuff your grandparents had used. But these days all that has changed.

Today a dinner guest will be as adept with chopsticks as with the Hanoverian pattern flatware; she may point out that half the population of the world don’t use cutlery anyway. At a recent Ethiopian dinner to which I was invited, dozens of dishes were served on a single enormous flatbread the size of the table. It’s called an injera. By the end of the meal we had consumed the tablecloth.

On one hand this is enormously positive; this informal eclectic diversity, this joyous release from the tedious mores of western bourgeois convention. Yet when we encounter an entire generation who eat chips with their fingers and refuse to believe anyone has used a fork since Downton Abbey, what are the items we should fight to keep? And which are we happy to lose?

Perhaps the biggest advance in dinner-party service since the demise of domestic servants was the most prosaic: The Really Big Pot. Of course, we’ve had big pots for cooking since the discovery of fire but it’s hard to express the sheer outrage of having the pot brought to the table. That’s a postwar development. Until then the vessel the food was cooked in could never pass the green-baize door in a polite household. So, it’s no wonder that the Le Creuset pot, designed to be placed in the middle of the dining table and served from, became the symbol of a new bohemian generation.

Sure, you can slave for hours grilling a whole turbot over vine clippings but, as long as you have one big pot, you can ensure a convivial gathering around it at the shortest notice and with the simplest of ingredients. While I’ve dabbled with a Timo Sarpaneva cast-iron pot, I have settled on a vintage enamelled Dansk Kobenstyle in a fetching bright yellow as the object I cannot let pass into obsolescence.

On the other hand I’m happy to see the demise of most wineglasses. For years there’s been too much glass on the table: a different shape for your cocktail, your sherry and your white wine, another for hock and two sizes for the red. It confuses everybody. Then the Big Red Glass arrived: an ostentatious bowl on a slender stem, designed to show off a tiny serving of some noble old claret to your yuppie chums.

It was originally deemed vulgar but now I firmly believe it is the saviour of the dinner party. Guests don’t have to fill it if they don’t want to but, if they feel like it, they can booze with spectacular abandon. This is a true triumph of modern design and a boon to mankind – and if you think you can’t drink a martini out of a huge wine bowl, you’re just not going to the right sort of parties.

About the writer: Hayward is a writer and broadcaster, and restaurant critic for the Financial Times. He is also an unrepentant food geek.

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