Inventing new things and discovering new places. Those were my two greatest passions when I was little. I have always been intrigued by the thought that there is undiscovered treasure to be found around every corner buried behind a stone or squirreled away inside an old, hollow tree. As a child I could spend days on end in our back garden, which was mostly covered with asphalt and which I knew every centimetre of intimately. Here I went on countless treasure hunts looking for long hidden small hideaways or stones that I could use in some new invention.
The undiscovered is something that has always attracted me and I have never lost my curiosity for all things new. Today, it is that same inquisitive nature and the pleasure I get from creating that motivates me. It is fortunate that in my profession as a chef I have the opportunity to continuously challenge my inventiveness discovering new tastes and textures along the way.
Over the years I have worked with a great many culinary cultures which have all, in one way or another, enriched my life and given me a greater understanding of other people’s lives and cultures. As I see it, food is a great friend maker and the reason is simple. Each individual culture has its own specific gastronomical style which tells the story of its people and the country in which they live. It also brings up questions: What do folk traditionally eat and why? What natural resources and ingredients are available and how are these used? What are the most important, celebrated days of the year and how does a normal day look like? Food can tell us so much about each other if we just pay enough attention. And if we do, we can learn a lot about others simply by sharing a meal together. For me, food and gastronomy is the key to understanding life and people and this, I believe, is a true source of happiness and togetherness.
Thinking back, I loved going with my mother and grandmother out into the countryside to pick elderflowers which we then took home and made refreshing drinks out of. Or the times when we picked mushrooms that we first cleaned then threaded onto a string and hung above the kitchen sink to dry. I learned how to make juice out of newly picked berries, prepare marmalade and bake apple pies and sponge cakes. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before I began making my own variations of my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. Thankfully I was enthusiastically cheered on for my efforts to create new dishes and continued making what I saw as culinary masterpieces which sometimes turned out perfect and other times turned out to be totally inedible. Through the patience and encouragement of the people around me, cooking became my greatest passion in life and before I even realised, it the foundations for my future profession as a chef were laid.
Having worked primarily with French, Italian, Japanese and Spanish cooking (and a slew of combinations of these along the way) I unknowingly began my journey back in time. I wanted to rediscover the aromas and flavours of my youth. Elderflowers, freshly picked cherries and apples, nettles and lilac flowers. Before I realised it, this journey was taking me to other places than just my childhood. In fact, it was even catapulting me forwards as I discovered new flavours, new sensations and new textures which are to this day driving my inventiveness.
As I see it, our greatest resource is nature – the world that surrounds us and the enormous wealth of riches that time and time again surpass our expectations. But nature requires a sensitive touch, a certain balance if it is to survive and it should be given the care and attention it deserves. Unfortunately, we don’t always treat it properly and this fragile source of life is constantly under threat.
Today a large part of my culinary philosophy centres upon using the things that nature provides us with at any given moment. However, utilising what each individual season has to offer – be they fresh ingredients or preserved – means that cooking becomes not only inspirational, but also a challenge.
Take for example, when the first warm rays of the spring sun shine down and the forest offers its earliest treasures to the table – fern shoots, nettles and spruce buds. Or when that first perch of the season is caught and prepared by the waterside together with nettles and wild garlic that have been gathered from the forest. Then comes summer with its abundant offerings of fresh strawberries, elderberries and rhubarb. Come the autumn, which can overwhelm us with more raw ingredients to our homespun menu than we can possibly eat, we have a glutton of food that if taken care of properly will get us through the harsh winter ahead. And in winter we are forced to survive on the produce that we were able to preserve in times of plenty, produce that keeps us going through the cold months when pickings are few and nature sleeps. I love how the different seasons affect the food we eat – its flavour, its texture, the way it looks, the way it provides nourishment and inner warmth.
Living in harmony with the seasons is, culinarily speaking, a real challenge. You have to be inventive as it goes beyond merely being limited by the choice of ingredients that are available. What it does do is to take advantage of the opportunities that offer themselves at any given moment. And they are many. Here you have to challenge yourself as the changing seasons mean that our diet transforms and evolves in a way that it otherwise would not have if we instead chose to ignore them. In our modern world it is possible to eat the same kinds of food every day, all year round. All you need do is visit your local supermarket. But is that really the way it should be?
The wild larder
If I was to choose something that inspires me more than anything else it would have to be our wild, edible fauna – weeds to some, natural herbs to me. The mere fact that they grow so close to us and are available to everyone at any time of the year completely free makes them a shining star in our Nordic gastronomy.
With a little patience and curiosity anyone can learn about which of the wild plants, wherever you may happen to live, are edible and just as importantly, which are not. And if you, like me, take an extra interest in what grows at our feet then you’ll find that the walk with your dog you do twice a day can become a journey of discovery into new flavours that are just waiting to be found. Wild herbs, mushrooms, flowers, berries and roots – they are all out there and they are available to us all. They are not just for a chosen few, but are there for everyone to enjoy if we only take the time to uncover them.
To some this might seem slightly utopic, but I firmly believe that by learning about the things that grow around us we have the unique opportunity to pass on this knowledge to our children and grandchildren. In this way we are able to ensure that we don’t lose the understanding of nature that our forefathers once took for granted.
Personally, I try to teach my daughter everything I can about nature’s larder and the edible delights that grow there unnoticed. And every time we find something new and exciting that we can use when cooking together her face lights up. She then tells her friends about our discoveries who then tell their friends and families. So however insignificant that little weed may seem, it has a greater meaning for me than merely livening up the evening meal. More importantly, it tells a story and adds that special twist that only local, own-picked ingredients can make possible.
In my TV series, Tareq Taylor’s Nordic Cookery, I have not just visited numerous incredibly talented producers of cheese, wines, beer and ice cream, I have also gone into the wilderness to forage for these wild and naturally occurring herbs, berries, mushrooms and spices allowing me to truly understand how each individual region coexists with the countryside it is made up of and to find out just how the final result actually tastes.
I am truly privileged to be able to travel around the Nordic countries discovering the wonderful flavours that abound while drinking in the scenery and experiencing the many and varied cultures that provide the backdrop for this naturally occurring larder.
I wish that everyone could have the chance to experience the pristine Nordic nature. But until then, you can retrace my path through my books and TV shows, and along the way try making some of the dishes described in them. I hope you will enjoy the journey!