He's tall, slim, red-haired, and definitely a man with a mission.
But although he may look like a Viking warrior, Ben Reade yields neither spear nor shield. Instead, he delicately balances a plastic pipette in one hand and a petri dish in the other. The 27-year-old chef from Edinburgh – who started out as a dishwasher at Susie's Diner in the New Town and went on to found the Jamaica Street gastro-pub Iglu – is the grandly titled head of culinary research and development at the renowned Nordic Food Lab (NFL).
The lab is on a barge in Copenhagen harbour, just across the harbour from Noma, the world's top-rated restaurant. By exploring the potential of ancient native grains, berries, mosses, seaweeds and insects to create new flavours and products, the NFL – which was founded in 2008 by Noma's Danish-Macedonian-Bosnian head chef Rene Redzepi and gastronomic entrepreneur Claus Meyer – has taken the food world by storm and put "Nordic terroir" firmly on the culinary map.
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Not bad for a country otherwise known for its bacon. Denmark slaughters 25 million pigs every year, with much of the meat exported.
Apart from reviving Scandinavia's proud food heritage, a powerful motivator for NFL's unique research is food security. Finding inexpensive ways to create flavours that are not indigenous and therefore have to be imported, such as citrus fruit, sugar and salt, means the NFL is poised to produce a valuable blueprint for other countries to follow.
This is one reason all of the research – jointly funded by the Danish Government, independent foundations and private companies – is disseminated to the rest of the world for free. According to Reade, Scotland could be one of the countries to benefit. When we met last month, he was burning with passion about his work and its implications for his home country.
"I'm serious about bugs and plants, and just want to taste everything," he begins, prior to opening a pop-up public session at the Copenhagen Cooking Festival. "There are amazing opportunities in using local flora. We can forget about bringing them in from around the world because we have them right here. Some things would be considered edible while some would be considered inedible. The delineation between them is deliciousness."
I taste two-year-old Dulse seaweed in its raw form, and learn it is good for making ice-cream because its molecules help emulsify it, thereby negating the need for gelatine. It's delicious, especially when served with a deep red, sweet, beetroot-and-woodruff sauce. Dried kelp is crushed to a powder to imitate salt. And when it comes to reproducing acid/citrus flavour, pure carrot juice does just that, as I learn from tasting a sample squirted on to my tongue from a plastic pipette.
So far, so simple. But then things get more challenging. Next up is a fermented fish sauce, or garum, made from grasshoppers, wood larvae and barley. To my surprise, it's absolutely delicious. The frozen bee larvae – which looks like a maggot – wasn't quite so nice, but the range of applications it has in the new Nordic food movement is huge.
Reade's big thing is fermentation and its potential for what he enigmatically calls the "expression of microbial terroir". As a BSc student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, he stayed for three months at the NFL to do research for his thesis, titled Flavour Exploration And Biotechnology In The New Nordic Cuisine. After graduating in March this year, he returned to lead the planning of MAD 2 (Mad means "food" in Danish), the second annual symposium organised by Redzepi to gather scientists, farmers, producers, writers, academics and chefs from around the world to discuss how the seeds of change could take root and flourish into tangible solutions for fixing our broken food system.
One striking example of Reade's specialist subject is his Koji cake. Made from steamed barley that has been inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae and left in warm and humid conditions to produce the requisite enzymes to break down the starches and proteins, this sludge looked distinctly unappetising but, when cut into squares and pan-fried in vegetable oil, tastes sweet, sticky and delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I have three pieces.
I ask him what he thinks are parallels with Scotland, which, like Denmark, has a population of around five million.
"Coming here from Edinburgh is very interesting, as it has made me realise that we have such a Mediterranean food complex and that we should be paying attention to what's happening in Scandinavia," he replies. "In Scotland our wild plants are comparable with Scandinavia's. The Scottish ecology is very similar to the Danish climate.
"I think Scotland could be looking at its edible biogeography in a similarly analytical way, enabling the discovery and rediscovery of new and forgotten ingredients.
"Pride in local foods can increase environmental awareness, increase nutritional health, and give people a positive form of national pride which can help them protect and develop their surroundings." n