Ethan’s first organisational principle was gustatory: ‘Can I eat it?’ was his opening question when he was introduced to something new, aged two or three. At the age of five, he devoured his first oyster, at Chez Fred in La Rochelle, and today his Heston Blumenthal style experiments at the family dining table and his love of reading cookery books and watching Masterchef are a source of much amusement. Like me, he has a preference for bitter, sharp, strong flavours – vinegars, mustards, garlic, spices – over sweet. But his adventurousness now surpasses mine.
'Standouts for Ethan were the blue mussel, which came with a fake bottom shell that you could eat, but most of all the live shrimps, which you plucked from a jar of ice, smeared in a butter sauce and crunched to death in your mouth (quite how I brought myself to do this, I still don’t know).'
I first booked at table at Noma – voted the world’s best restaurant by Restaurant magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 – for my whole family, having long been obsessed by beautiful images of the ‘New Nordic’ food served there, much of which is foraged. Tables at Noma are released months in advance, and I hadn’t had time to do any research into how family-friendly – or otherwise – it might be. Subsequent emails established that you can bring kids of all ages, but those under 10 probably won’t appreciate either the food itself or the length of the meal - around four hours. At £160pp for a 20-course tasting menu with no concessions for kids and no children’s dishes, and drinks extra, it was an expensive risk to bring my white-carb-loving, fidgety eight- and four-year-olds.
I altered our booking to three people and booked flights to Copenhagen. It may seem insane booking a family break around a restaurant reservation, but it’s the only way to ensure a table at Noma if you live abroad – otherwise it’s a question of putting yourself on the waiting list and hoping for a cancellation or last-minute no-show. Felicitously, I discovered that Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens fairground would have just opened for its Christmas spectacular at the time of our visit, so everything fell perfectly into place for a great weekend break for all of us. I found a hotel, the Tivoli, that would organise babysitting for the younger two during our lunch and that also had brilliant family amenities, including a playroom, playground and swimming pool.
I was nervous about Noma – worried that it would be an expensive disappointment, worried that Ethan would hate it and be bored and feel out of place. I needn’t have fretted – although he was the only child in the dining room that lunchtime, he was made to feel extremely welcome by the truly excellent front-of-house stuff, who took pains to talk to him about the food and their work as a whole, and to ask his opinions. At the end of the meal, they even offered us a tour of the kitchens, where we saw the multi-national team of staff and interns at work, from the four-strong crew of herb-sorters to the tattooed hard men slaving over the grills out in the chilly backyard. We even got to see the test kitchen where René Redzepi and his elite squad of chefs experiment to come up with an average of four new dishes a month. Like the wait-staff, those in the kitchens couldn’t have been more pleased to welcome Ethan and us and show us their world.
Indeed, where Noma could be horribly pretentious, everything about it is warm, snug and even homely. A smiling brigade of front-of-house staff welcomed us so genuinely we felt like both friends and honoured guests, and perhaps also conspirators in some hedonistic crime, while the environment – a smallish beamed room in an old warehouse on the island of Christianshavn – was Copenhagen hygge (‘cosy wellbeing’) incarnate. We were escorted to a table surrounded by chairs draped with fluffy animal hides, with a view out across the cobbles to the harbour through low windows in which fat church candles blazed. The place settings and flatware were the essence of no-frills Nordic chic. I wanted to steal everything on the scrubbed, tablecloth-free wooden table. I wanted to live at Noma.
After settling in and being given an explanation of how the meal was to unfurl, we were told by one of the wait-staff that our first tasting dish was already on the table. We looked around in bewilderment and slight panic – what were we going to have to eat exactly? (I prayed it wasn’t the candle). Then the server pushed the table decoration in front of us and told us that what looked like fat twigs, nestled in among the leaves and plants, were in fact malt flatbreads with juniper. Ethan argued it was more of a breadstick than a flatbread – but no matter, the meal had got off to a suitably theatrical start and we were ready for more enchantments.
The first 12 courses, which are more tastings than actual dishes, come at you thick and fast, but there was much that was memorable, including moss and cep, crispy pork skin with a blackcurrant leather, pickled and smoked quail’s egg cooked on a bed of hay, and ‘radish, soil and grass’ served in terracotta plant pots (with the soil being malt and hazelnut and the grass being a yogurt-based dip at the bottom). Standouts for Ethan were the blue mussel, which came with a fake bottom shell that you could eat, but most of all the live shrimps, which you plucked from a jar of ice, smeared in a butter sauce and crunched to death in your mouth (quite how I brought myself to do this, I still don’t know).
Ethan, bless him, tried everything – he liked a lot, questioned some things, and disliked one or two dishes or elements of dishes (the dried carrot with ash and sorrel was declared a non-starter by all three of us). From the eight ‘main courses’ that followed, he particularly enjoyed the Limfjorden oyster with gooseberry and buttermilk, the pike perch and cabbage with verbena and dill, the cauliflower roasted with pine, with horseradish cream, and a kind of savoury donut embedded with tiny fish, while my husband and I especially loved the chestnut and bleak roe. The use of ingredients such as forest ants (in the fresh milk curds and blueberry preserve) and crickets (as paste, with sorrel leaf) intrigued him and opened up his culinary horizons – as well as ours – and he expressed interest in buying the cookbook to try some of the recipes at home. (Sourcing some of the ingredients might be a slight issue).
What was perhaps most telling was that we found that if we persevered with a dish that at first taste was just plain odd, often we ended up seriously enjoying it. This was especially the case with the Gammel Dansk, an ‘ice cream’ served with wood sorrel. This was not a dessert for the sweet-toothed, but once you got over that fact, it was gorgeously refreshing –a blast of Nordic winter on plate.
Noma’s approach to food is both serious and playful, and although at times we wondered if we could physically eat any more, the four hours passed quickly and we had a lot of fun. Partly it was having Ethan to ourselves – in a family of five, things can get pretty hectic. Relaxing over a long meal gave us the chance to really talk in a way we rarely do when Ethan’s younger brothers are around. But mostly it was in sampling cuisine that, while not always to our taste, was often challenging and always interesting. When Ethan talked about bringing his own kids to Noma one day, we knew we’d done good.
Of course Noma’s is not everyday food – you just couldn’t eat like this all the time, nor would you want to. And despite swearing we’d never eat again, at the Tivoli Gardens that evening, amidst a fairytale landscape of twinkling lights and coloured fountains, we enjoyed a traditional fairground late supper of pølser (hot dogs) – as recommended to us by one of the guys at Noma.
Read more about family holidays and breaks in Denmark.