Juliet Shield

Restaurant Consultant

Nordic Triangle

Scandanavian Kitchen/Nordic Bakery/Fabrique

In the late 1960s my mother inherited an interior design business in Manchester. This was not quite the glamorous occupation it has now become. Much of her time was spent lugging colour cards and swatches of fabric across muddy building sites to fit out show houses for new estates which were then mushrooming around the country.

One treat to look forward to, when I accompanied her on these expeditions, was lunch at the Danish Centre in the centre of Manchester. There was something a bit racy then about the idea of open sandwiches, the predominant theme of the menu. Sandwiches at that time were considered to be entirely functional: some kind of spread, inferior ham, grated cheese or egg, binding two pieces of bread (usually white and flaccid) together.

At the Danish Centre, the fillings were exposed in all their glory, arranged on neatly cut slices of dark rye bread – perhaps herrings in pickled sweet sauces, smoked salmon, pink salami or chopped eggs gently mixed with chopped onion and gherkins. It was a revelation. There was no perching on stools at a counter either; this was a proper sit down knife and fork operation.

All these memories flooded back as I walked to the Scandanavian Kitchen in Fitrovia to talk to one of the owners, Brontë Blomhøj. In 2006 Danish-born Brontë and her Swedish husband Jonas decided they wanted to open a business and have a family, which would allow for sharing the responsibilities of both, Scandanavian style. Somewhere in the discussions, the idea of a café came up, with a shop attached where homesick Scandis could buy things from home that they missed. And so in 2007, their café and shop opened in Great Titchfield Street on the same day as their first baby was born. A busy day!

I asked the vivacious Bronte what had made them choose this location. It was not possible to find a site in Soho with the money they had, but Great Titchfield Street was affordable five years ago, and still in central London. I remark that the spot was perfect for the burgeoning media businesses all around, and ask about the competition from the many trendy coffee bars and lunch places which have opened over the last few years. “I don’t like the word competition. It’s so negative. We all have our place, and really the more of us that are here the better. When we moved here the only cafes were of the greasy spoon variety, and now the standard is generally much higher.”

The service system at the Scandanavian Kitchen is straightforward. Mini open sandwiches on rye bread, a bit like large canapés, are sold for £2.25 each. Three portions cost £5.95 to take away, or £6.50 to eat in. Five pieces cost £8.95 or £9.95 respectively. Toppings include: Swedish meatballs with beetroot and apple salad, gravad lax with dill and mustard sauce, and egg mayonnaise salad with tomato and onion . They are all carefully made and delicious, with the flavours of dill, pickled sweet onion, mustard and sour cream predominating. Having 50% less bread, this is a healthy way of eating sandwiches – a step away from a salad selection, also on the menu. I tried a particularly good new salad creation consisting of spelt, sweet potato, spring onion, feta and tarragon.

Less healthy are the tempting cakes, particularly during the cold months of January to March when a wicked looking traditional Semlor bun, flavoured with cardamom and filled with an almond paste and whipped cream is on the menu. Other regulars include carrot and pine nuts and an apple, cinnamon and custard cake.

Throughout the process of researching this piece I was learning more and more about Nordic food. Not the stuff of Noma in Copenhagen, many times voted the best restaurant in the world, and where experimentation with foraging reaches ever new heights annually, but the everyday kind of food. Brontë was quite definite about this. “The kind of food we serve in the Scandanavian Kitchen is what people eat in their homes, not what people are experimenting with in restaurants. It’s called husmankost – famers’ food – simple and honest – what you find on the land around you.”

This down to earth approach is what has enabled the two owners to build an exceptionally happy band of staff. From her previous existence as head of HR at Innocent, Brontë has clearly learnt how to make her employees happy and run the business with a big dose of humour. Mottoes such as “Happiness is a warm bun” or “In the land of the midnight herring the one-eyed moose is king” are emblazoned on the back of the staff t-shirts.

I wondered how much of the business was shop and how much café. “It depends on the day of the week,” Bronte told me. “From Monday to Friday the trade is around 85% local and 15% Scandi. At the weekend it is reversed, about 80% are Scandinavians who travel to come here, and buy more groceries while having coffee or lunch.” This is a model that clearly works well for them. The crispbreads, pickled herrings, Scandanavian cheese, jams and cordials provide shelf decoration during the week, and translate into proper sales at the weekend.

The terms Scandinavian and Nordic seem almost interchangeable these days, but when I visited the Nordic Bakery, the founder Jali Wahlsten, was quite specific about the difference. “Scandanavian refers to the geographic peninsula of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. So technically Finland and Iceland are not Scandinavian.” Jali is Finnish and started the Nordic Bakery in Golden Square London in 2007, and there are now three branches, the other two in Marylebone.

Décor is clearly very important to Jali. In contrast to the cheerful red theme with national flags which dominate the Scandinavian Kitchen, the Nordic Bakery is austere by comparison. The décor in the two branches I visited: Golden Square and New Cavendish Street, dark blues, greys and white create a north light broodiness, in keeping with the detective stories of Nordic literature.

Jali is emphatic that his concept was not created for the Nordic expats, like at Scandanavian Kitchen, although the products are distinctly Nordic with the dense round rye bread flat rolls imported from Finland. I asked Jali what the best selling fillings were. “At the beginning it was salmon, but now it’s becoming the egg and pickled herring, and the gravad lax.” It seems that customers are wanting to buy into the whole Nordic product when they visit. The Bakery is famous for its cinnamon buns. These are hefty pastries, bulging with apple and cinnamon filling, which would keep you going for many hours walking across the snow. The whole shop smells of cinnamon and coffee which is very attractive.

My Nordic journey finished with a visit to the newly opened Fabrique, a branch of a fast growing Swedish bakery company with 10 branches in Stockhlom. The owners Charlotta and David Zetterström have chosen to open this in a railway arch next to the station in trendy Hoxton, East London. I have to admit to a soft spot for bakeries. I admire the discipline of the night shift, and the physical process itself, particularly when an authentic sourdough is allowed to rise very slowly, and is then transformed into a crusty loaf still springy and alive after baking.

I talked to the head baker Frida at Fabrique about the baking process. She told me that all the bread was actually better the following day after baking, particularly the Danish Rye which needed to rest. A bit like a roast joint of meat we agreed. I tried one of the cinnamon buns beautifully knotted into a twist, which had been baked that morning and was heavenly. Most of the bread is a kind of wheat or sour rye levain. It was all a revelation to me, and is taking artisan bread to a whole new level. The prices however, are to match: £2.50 for any bun, croissant or pain au chocolat.

There are no compromises either on the wheat and rye filled baguettes. Smoked salmon with a dressed fennel salad, Serrano ham and roast vegetables and pepper pastrami with potato salad in mustard vinaigrette were some of the ingredients generously filling the mini baguettes with pointed ends at a brave £6.

In my consultancy work, I am constantly looking out for small businesses producing food of exceptional quality and integrity (and there are many of these currently in the UK) for my large and smaller clients. The holy grail for a hotel, for example, would be to provide a croissant which would last well into the early hours of the following morning, to provide breakfast for the early rising/jet-setting guests.

I decided to test out Frida’s claim. Resisting the temptation to take nibbles of it during the rest of the day, the croissant remained intact till breakfast the following morning, and was absolutely delicious. Slow rise is definitely best, and well worth the price, judging by the way this stylish outfit has been received.

Scandanavian Kitchen
61 Great Titchfield Street
London W1W 7PP

Nordic Bakery
14a Golden Square
London W1F 9JG

Arch 385, Geffrye Street
Shoreditch , London E2 9HZ

First published in International Sandwich and Snack News