Oslo restaurant Maaemo has fundamentally altered the culinary landscape of Norway in just three years. Head chef Esben Holmboe Bang sends his guests on a voyage of discovery through regional cuisine.
Maaemo set itself a challenge from the outset: In keeping with its name, the old Finnish word for "Mother Earth", a gourmet restaurant was to be created that would exclusively serve organic produce, products from biodynamic farming or wild grown products from Norway. In a country in which a mere 1.2 percent of the foodstuffs sold are organic, this at times seemed like an impossible task. "People were initially rather sceptical about our concept, because they essentially had to leave their comfort zone on entering our restaurant", explains the 31-year old head chef and co-owner Esben Holmboe Bang. But the risk paid off, with Maaemo being awarded two Michelin stars just 15 months after opening.
The restaurant is located in the trendy Oslo district of Bjørvika – the perfect backdrop for the "new Norwegian" cuisine. There are just eight tables in the modern, minimalist dining area. And one menu. However this one menu comprises more than 25 courses that Finnish sommelier and co-owner Pontus Dahlström pairs with just the right beverages. The menu is a breath-taking culinary journey through Norway that transports the guests from the temperate climate of the Hvaler Islands in the south to the unspoiled nature of the cold waters on the west coast to the expanses of the Røros wilderness. The "travellers" cross mountain plateaus, witness crystal clear fjords and discover the magic of autumn in the misty depths of the forest. Holmboe Bang knows how to bring the landscape images, aromas and taste variety of Norway to life with his culinary art.
In the mornings, the chefs head outdoors into nature, since they collect some of the ingredients themselves. "It is very important for a chef to try out the ingredients in their natural environment", says Esben Holmboe Bang.
The chefs are greatly inspired by nature at Maaemo. For them it's all about remaining true to the natural taste and the natural quality of the raw materials. "We were trying to find the right way to capture the allure of Norwegian nature on the plate", enthuses Holmboe Bang. Lobster tails sautéed in pine butter rest on a hot stone. The magnificent lobster swims in a sea of pine emulsion and dry ice, from which wafts a subtle scent of pine. Then there's a dish of pickled mushrooms and fresh chanterelles, served with an ambrosial mushroom broth. Topped with fresh herbs and flowers from the local forest, this is an ode to autumn; rich, heady and utterly soothing.
Believe it or not, 95 percent of the ingredients used in Maaemo come from Norway, with some 80 percent originating in a radius of less than 100 kilometres around Oslo. It cannot get much more local.
Esben Holmboe Bang is determined to find a new way for Norwegian cuisine in what is a never-ending search. "Creativity doesn't just happen – it has to be planned", he explains. Even the careful arrangement of the dishes on the table leave no doubt that nature lies very close to the hearts of the owners of Maaemo. The desire to treat nature with utmost respect is the overriding theme. Each individual ingredient in a dish has earned its place on the plate. The taste is pure, fresh and unique. "It's about having the opportunity to taste things like they should taste and then trying to bring this unadulterated taste to the dishes", explains Holmboe Bang.
"What we do here is very personal and much of our personality is reflected in our dishes. That is why Maaemo is so special", explains Esben Holmboe Bang.
While the idea of creating a Norwegian terroir cuisine may once have perhaps been ridiculed, the notion has won increasing numbers of proponents thanks to restaurants like Maaemo.
Text: Bandar Abdul-Jauwad