The guy who makes this won’t tell me how he does it,’ says the man in chef’s whites unscrewing the lid of the jar and passing it over for me to sniff. ‘But I’ll tell you one thing, he’s very interesting. He was the first to get permission to marry according to the rites of the Aesir, the Norse gods. He’s got four wives.’
I inhale deeply – it contains dark brown crystals and smells like a forest fire. It’s smoked salt, and I’m being gifted a jar by someone I met just an hour ago but haven’t stopped talking to since: Jesper Lynge.
Jesper, who is caterer-in-residence at the extraordinary Lindholm Hoje, the Iron Age and Viking graveyard just north of Aalborg, in Denmark (more on that tomorrow), describes himself as ‘a storyteller with food’. He’s told me quite a few stories since I walked into his cafe to escape the rain and asked for ‘something Viking’.
We start off, naturally, discussing Vikings, as Jesper serves me a plate of meat, a warm roll baked from spelt and ‘relict’ grain emmer with a slap of homemade butter, washed down with a golden pilsner infused with birch-sap. Then we move onto the role of the Vikings as informal spice merchants as well as mercenaries in the Byzantine Emperor’s elite Varangian Guard.
‘These guys, they’re 30cms taller than everyone else,’ says Jesper, who is himself short and round with a spectacular salt-and-ginger beard. ‘They’ve got big weapons. I think if you’re a merchant and they’re in the market, you’re going to be giving them a good price for your spices, yes?’
Then to demonstrate how good those spices taste, Jesper brings out some biscuits baked by his wife – he has only one, unlike his Aesir-worshipping, salt-smoking friend – to an unfinished recipe by Hildegard of Bingen. (Who knew that among Hilegard’s many theological, musical, mystical and literary accomplishments, not to mention sainthood, she was also a mean baker of cookies?) They are loaded with cinnamon, star anise, ginger and what I am sure is the grace-note, black pepper, as well as a dash of muscat – and they taste, well, divine.
Jesper started out catering parties to pay his way through his studies in business and technical college. Pretty soon, he realised he’d found his vocation. For several years he ran a mobile medieval feast – every recipe historically correct to the last detail, using a field kitchen to serve a 5-course sit down meal to up to 250 people in a banqueting tent, all of it travelling with him. ‘It was brilliant,’ he says, ‘but I was driving round a rig of 20 tonnes, you know? It got a bit much. So I came here.’
He’s now on his third season at Lindholm Hoje, the most evocative of all Denmark’s many Viking sites – it’s a burial ground where for four centuries the dead were interred in a succession of mortuary styles: triangular graves, inhumations, circular graves and stone boats. Jesper is on a mission to spread the word about Lindholm, and Viking food and culture more widely – he’s working up a TV proposal for a series showcasing Denmark’s historical cuisine. ‘Jamie Oliver is so great, and I’m a huge fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall,’ he enthuses. ‘They’re so passionate and authentic.’ So picture ‘River Cottage Goes Viking’, and you’ll get an idea of what Danish viewers might have in store.
When not succouring visitors to Lindholm Hoje and plotting TV domination, Jesper pursues what strikes me as the heart of his philosophy: storytelling through food. ‘Why just use our eyes and ears to take in a story?’ he says. ‘Why not all our senses: taste, smell, even the sixth sense?’ So he does just that, creating meals that don’t just accompany, but actually arestories.
His piece de resistance? ‘A seven-course banquet telling the story of the creation of the world according to the Norse legends.’
Now who wouldn’t have the stomach for that?
Jesper’s website is at www.lindholmhoeje-cafe.dk and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/lindholmhoejecafe