“Come on, try it!” Roberto smiled as he extended the glass to me. My hesitation was not due to an aversion to alcoholic beverages in the mid-afternoon. If I hesitate to drink what he is offering, it is because it comes from a large jar, on the bottom of which are a dozen or so wasps of the species Mandarinia Japonica – i.e., some of the most poisonous insects in the world, able to kill with a single sting. It is a tradition in some mountain communities in Japan to eat them, and the adults are placed in alcohol while still alive and left to macerate, producing a straw-yellow liquor with a unique fragrance.
Roberto Flore’s last trip in fact was to those villages; he went in search of the Mandarinia, its story and its uses in gastronomy. This has been standard practice for him ever since he became head chef of Nordic Food Lab.
Nordic Food Lab is a non-profit organisation started in 2008 by René Redzepi, chef of Noma, and the food-and-wine entrepreneur Claus Meyer. This led the public to think of it as “Noma’s laboratory”, whereas one of the things they want to make clear is that they are completely open-source (all information is shared on their blog). Some months back, they also moved: from a barge located a few metres from Noma to the sensory sciences department of Copenhagen University.
At first glance, Nordic Food Lab looks like a perfectly standard kitchen, with a small office off to the side. If we look more closely, however, we start to notice somewhat incongruous details. Like an earthenware jar holding fermenting herrings, containers with controlled temperature where their precious garums are created: inspired by the production of traditional Garum in Cetara, Italy, they combine it with an Asian soy-sauce technique. They show me various beakers containing garum made using fish, hare, or pheasant, as well as bee larvae, crickets or grasshoppers, and they make me taste everything: aside from the strong umami flavour they all have, each one has a different tone and flavour.
NFL was established based on the idea of “combining the scientific approach and the humanistic approach with culinary techniques from all over the world to explore the edible potential of the North”. The unique idea of a research team involving chefs, anthropologists and chemists creating in-depth information that can be used in the kitchen by chefs was funded by the Danish government and the Nordea Group. Now its director, Michael Bom Frost, an instructor in sensory science, handles the fundraising among foundations, universities, corporations and government agencies: he, together with Roberto, head researcher Josh Evans and product development manager Jonas Astrup Pedersen, form the “heart” of NFL. From time to time, they bring in researchers and trainees from all over the world. This internationalism is one of the lab’s strengths. In the lab right now is Santiago Lastra, a Mexican chef: because of him, they have started working on a taco concept, made using Nordic cereals instead of maize.
The use and control of fermentation, and in general the study of the processes involved in transforming food, have always been the Lab’s signature, together with the study of entomophagy: “We are looking for the ultimate expression of insects in gastronomy”, Roberto explains. Going beyond the frontiers of taste, crossing over cultural and mental boundaries in approaching food: what they are doing here is not simple entertainment, nor even work useful only to chefs and restaurants. Consider the planet’s overall food situation: what implications might there be in expanding the range of food edibility?
Standing in this little lab run by kids who are just barely (or not even) in their thirties, you get the feeling that the future of food passes through here. And perhaps it’s worthwhile giving that wasp liquor a taste.