Knäckebröd and sour butter

Knäckebröd with sour butter


The term "Nordic" almost always refers in some way to the unifying thread that connects the cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland. Magnus Nilsson claims to have agonized over writing a gastronomical account of the “Nordic” countries:

I might have said at some point something along the lines of: to write a book on Nordic home cooking in general is about as stupid as to write one on European cooking, lumping Estonia, France and Portugal together into one work that will never be deep enough to explain anything. Or to make one on American cooking, taking in everything between Canada and Chile, trying to describe it in one book… I decided to write the book and to make its mission to explain how similar our Nordic cultures really are, but also how they differ, how everything is tied together by our mutual history and our present culture and how it can all be tracked through the food we eat. Food is an undeniable and unavoidable marker of culture and society. People have to eat, and therefore they also have to relate to food as a subject, regardless of whether they want to or not (The nordic cookbook, 11-2).

Nilsson quite succinctly defends his claim that food is an undeniable and unavoidable marker that proves the cohesiveness of the term “Nordic”: the image of bread smeared with butter and topped with a slice of hard cheese.

Such a sandwich is usually made from fresh ingredients that have been preserved for long-term storage, such as bread, leavened, seasoned butter and dry, hard cheese that has been ideally been matured for one or two years. Many northerners eat this sandwich every day; its origins can be traced back for more than a millennium and it exists in hundreds of variants (23).

Taking our cue from Magnus Nilsson’s approach to the gastronomy of the North, let us consider the craft knäckebröd cracker smeared with homemade sour butter as a humble yet vastly pregnant semioticon of Nordic culture. Knäckebröd and sour butter manifests in multiple temporalities: the time of fermenting, a supertemporal structure that reminds us of the seasons and their at once eternal and limited bounty, meal-time, of which the knäckebröd cracker with sour butter is never quite a part of yet always in between, and eating-time, the knife that at once slices open fermenting-time, ending it, but by orientation towards death, imbuing it with meaning. I argue that these three forms of time and their unique interrelationships-- fermenting-time, meal-time, and eating-time-- form the basis of defining a Nordic gastronomy.


Fermenting-time is supertemporal on many fronts. Fermentation by definition precedes historical time. Fermentation is the bedrock of culture, and it undergirds a vast degree of cultural meaning in human societies. When I ferment food, I pay homage to the absolute time of the past, the time of the fathers, the best, the brave and tall, and the firsts. The power and identity of my nation is imbued with fermenting-time. Fermenting-time intersects but is not contained by agricultural time: the time of the seasons, the harvest, fallow-time, war-time, etc. For the Nordic countries, agricultural time is literally impossible without fermenting-time because of the harshness of the winters: with the shift of many Nordic societies from reliance on the herds to grain-based life, preservation of the crop became essential to survival. Thus, knäckebröd is the means by which burgeoning agricultural populations are sustained, along with preserved dairy products (the sour butter), pickled and cured fish, and salted pork.


Nordic culture is a mutual experience because of the shared time in everyday life. Meal-time is common to Nordic people because of the drama of the seasons. Traditionally, agricultural peoples of the Nordic region would eat as many as six meals a day during the work season. In the winters, when the land lay fallow, only two meals were served. In this way, meal-time is a subset of agricultural time. In the summer, Nordic people will have herring and crayfish parties, big fire-cooking events that involve large gatherings of people. It is a time of celebration. In the winter, the solstice is celebrated with a large board of cold foods: pickled fishes, cheese, breads, boiled eggs, and pickled vegetables, along with the slaughtering of an animal. Herring parties, on the one hand, reflect the bounty of summer. Huge nets of herring can be pulled from the water, and life is easy. The Christmas feast, however, is a meal of long and tedious preparation, and is more religious and cosmic in nature.


Eating-time, like meal-time, is a time of the everyday. It is a promiscuous form of time; while meal-time is impossible without it, eating-time is constantly in conflict with the rigidity of ritual involved in meal-time, and finds plenty of expression outside the set rules of meal-time. The knäckebröd cracker topped with sour butter is the tomte of eating-time: liminal and mischievous, it is always subverting the drawn-out and religiously-infused rituals of meal-time. Eating-time represents an affirmation and reaffirmation of fermenting-time; we ferment to eat, we eat to fight wars. Thus fermenting-time is honored by eating-time.

Such a small bite is the heart and soul of the Nordic people: the sour, rich aroma of cultured butter, the tangy, yeasty crunch of a craft knäckebröd cracker-- the relationship between smell and taste of memory, the revolt against optical centricism, the deeply Nordic definition of culture by food-- this delicious little open face sandwich carries the mutuality of a Nordic culture that is woven by the interrelationship between multiple forms of time.

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