Magnus Nilsson is one of the most respected chefs in the world. While overseeing the kitchen and menu at his restaurant Fäviken, somehow he also managed to travel to every corner of every Nordic country and write/photograph not one, but two books documenting recipes for every single food in every cuisine he found. His latest book, The Nordic Baking Book, isn’t just a cookbook for bakers; it's a dive into what the breads of a region say about the history, climate, and economics of a place. Our contributor Shauna Sever talked with him about what he found out. Magnus gave us a few of his bread recipes, including a Sweden recipe for a fun Camping Bread/Twist Bread that is baked on sticks - you will need this recipe for your next campfire - plus Icelandic Rye Bread and Soft Wheat and Rye Cakes (Hönö Cakes).
Our digital producer Chip Walton also sat down with Magnus Nilsson for a series of video interviews to talk more topics including the Swedish tradition of fika and his photography work for the books. Watch the video series here.
Shauna Sever: When you first open this beautifully massive book, you’re greeted with a map that shows you just how vast the geographical area is that we’re talking about here. And it’s much more inclusive than, say, a Scandinavian cookbook might be. Scandinavia is more of a cultural term, right? What’s the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic?
Magnus Nilsson: Scandinavia is actually the three kingdoms: Norway, Denmark and Sweden. And nothing else. Whilst the Nordic region is Scandinavia plus Finland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland.
SS: It’s huge!
MN: It is.
SS: I think that distinction is important because that must’ve informed you on how to approach the recipes. This book feels almost like a textbook; it’s factual and well-researched. You have this huge area you’re covering, and it has so much history and so many recipes. How do you even know where to begin?
MN: This book project has spanned over about six years. Halfway through it we produced The Nordic Cookbook. And now to finish it, we produced The Nordic Baking Book. As you said it’s completely documentary. It’s meant to be a snapshot of what people actually bake and eat in their homes today. Meaning that most of the research was done out in the field, meeting people, looking into their homes, reading their recipe books, and so on.
SS: You have so many wonderful recipes in the book with such a wide variety of things like pastries, cakes, and cookies. But I think the breads really shine in this book. Bread seems to be a very important part of Nordic living and certainly an important part of the menu at Fäviken. Can you give us some examples of the versatility of bread and how it’s eaten in different parts of the region?
MN: I think it has to do with the fact that most of the Nordic region is of a marginal climate, and various dishes of grains used to be a staple – and still is for most people. It used to be where most of your caloric intake came from. Because of this there is also a huge variety in what kinds of breads we make. I think that’s reflected in the book as well. People today don’t have to eat the traditional bread of their region to survive anymore, but we still choose to because we like them.
Magnus Nilsson is the author and photographer of The Nordic Baking Book. Photo: Erik Olsson
SS: Can you give us some specific examples? It seems in some areas bread is consider the main part of the meal, while in others it may be more of a side dish like how we traditionally think of bread.
MN: It’s almost always present as a side dish; you know, like hardtack or any of the crispbreads. But it definitely be the main part of the meal. Look at Denmark, for example, with open face sandwiches for lunch, where if it weren’t for rye bread there would be no sandwich.
SS: You set the stage for the book in a way that’s very clever. The first section is called “The Four Grains of the Nordic Region.” What are those four grains and why are they the foundation of Nordic baking?
MN: They are wheat, barley, oats and rye. What makes the Nordic region interesting and culturally diverse when it comes to baking is that it’s such a vast area that there’s a large variation in climates. Meaning that one of these grains has always been important in every part of the region. Compare that to a more homogeneous climate, a place like France where they grow wheat throughout the entire country, meaning that wheat is the predominate grain in French breads and pastries.
But wheat doesn’t grow in the whole Nordic region; it only grows in a small part of the Nordic region. And you have another part, let’s say Finland for example, where rye is the predominate grain simply because it grows well. Or up north where I come from, barley was the choice in historical times. Things like that influenced what people could bake in the past and what we choose to bake today. One great example is that the further north you get in the Nordics, the flatter the bread because the less wheat you would have access to.
SS: Let’s talk a bit more about rye, which I think of as being such a classic ingredient and flavor in Nordic baking. You don’t find it all over the place, but you do here. When and where did rye start to take hold in the story of Nordic cuisine?
MN: That’s something that’s actually not been proven, but it’s one of the grains that have been there essentially since prehistoric times. You can look though today and see where it’s been popular for the last 300-400 years, in areas like Finland and also Denmark to a large extent. And for different reasons. In Denmark, which has the best farming climate in all of the Nordics, people grew wheat on their best soil; wheat is still a highly prized trade commodity – it was sold to continental Europe. And then they grew rye on their poorer soil and kept it for themselves. This is reflected in the breads you will find. In Denmark, you’ll find pure wheat breads and pure rye breads, and you’ll also have breads that are a mix of wheat and rye. Whilst in Finland, they can pretty much only grow rye and not so much wheat because of the climate with short and dry summers to the south and too much cold in the north for wheat. You’ll have almost only pure rye breads.
SS: This must really affect the types of breads that you see because rye has much less gluten than wheat. How does this affect the breads and their shape, flavor, and texture?
MN: The face that the bread gets flatter the further north you go is very interesting. The fluffy wheat loaf you would traditionally only have found in the south where you also incidentally have the highest density in population, which meant there were also bakeries there.
The further north, or the more marginal the climate, the less wheat people would have access to. Meaning with other grains, like where I came from it would be barley with less gluten, you would get flatter breads. The further north you come there comes a point where the breads are all various flatbreads – dried crisp flatbreads or soft flatbreads.
Photos and captions from The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson (clockwise from left): My mum and aunt making flatbread, Sweden, winter 2013 | Thermally active area, south of Lake Mývatn, Iceland, May 2013; the site is considered a communal area and each family in the neighboring village has their ow hole in the ground in which they bake Iceland Rye Bread | Ripe wheat, Skåne, Sweden 2017 Photos: Magnus Nilsson
SS: I think I counted seventeen rye breads in the book, which is insane and fascinating. One more thing I wanted to ask you about because, in terms of bread baking, slow fermentation and sourdoughs have become very popular. Can you tell us about the relationship between regions that use a lot of rye in their baking and their use of these kinds of methods? There seems to be a connection there.
MN: There is a connection. First of all, one thing we have to think about is that before industrial yeast production all fermentations were slow fermentations and sourdoughs. In a historic perspective, recipes we have today with fast fermentations are fairly new; they are very reliant on the industrial bits. If you look at the repertoire of recipes in the Nordic region, where you’ll find most quick fermentations will also be in those same areas that I said before where you had the most wheat – southern Sweden, Denmark, maybe a little bit of southern Norway and southern Finland. If you baked for generations and generations doing your slow ferments, and then all of a sudden someone introduces you to yeast. Now instead of three days it takes 45 minutes to leaven a loaf, you can easily see why that was very appealing and therefor also popular. And then you can go to Finland where almost all of the baking is based on rye. Rye has a different composition of the starch content than wheat and it ferments in a different way. It doesn’t really fluff up because it doesn’t produce as much gluten. If you do a quick fermentation of rye it just doesn’t taste particularly good either; it really needs that slow fermentation to break down some of the complex carbohydrates and produce a bit of acidity. For them, the result was much less immediately appealing.
In relationship to that, if you also take into consideration that industrial yeast need to have industries to produce it, if the popular isn’t motivated to use your yeast you’re not going to start a factory there either. That still shows today. Finland has many more slow fermentations than we have in Central Scandinavia.
SS: Thanks for being here and thanks for making such a beautiful book that shows us a part of the world we don’t get to see often enough.
MN: Thank you.
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Shauna Sever is the author of the cookbooks, Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet. Her next book, Midwest Made, is now available for online pre-order (Release date: October 22, 2019). She is also the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on The Today Show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.