The Accidental Revolutionary | How an Anti-Nuclear Activist Changed the World of Fine Dining
The unlikely story of Roland Rittman, who transformed the way chefs think about food
Photo: Danijel Bogdanic
There’s one story that the forager, Roland Rittman, never tires of telling. The year is 1969, and Swedish Prime Minister Tage Erlander is addressing the students of Lund University - one of Scandinavia’s oldest and most illustrious seats of learning. Erlander, an alumnus of the university, and Sweden’s Prime Minister for the entirety of the post-war period, is speaking glowingly of his plans for a new megalopolis that would join Copenhagen to Malmö across the Øresund strait.
A bearded, shaggy-haired field biologist from the coastal town of Trelleborg is less enthusiastic. He believes the plans will decimate the landscape of Scania, the region of southern Sweden of which Trelleborg, Lund, and Malmö are part. Armed with notes, he lays into Erlander with point after point on the environmental damage his plans risk causing.
Startled, the Prime Minister can only muster a weak defence, bamboozled as he is by the student’s pointed, forensic criticism. For the briefest moment, anarchy: the crowd cheers as the young man from Trelleborg backs the unassailable Prime Minister into a corner with yet more invective.
“I made the evening news and the morning paper,” Rittman tells me. 50 years later, the memory still makes him smile.
Roland Rittman is an immensely important figure in modern Scandinavia, and in modern food. Without Roland Rittman, there is no René Redzepi. Without René Redzepi, there is no Noma. Without Noma, there is no revival of Nordic cuisine. Without that revival, the ideology of New Nordic - described by the food writer Andrea Petrini as “a declaration of independence” from the stultifying norms of French haute cuisine - does not prompt the explosion of creativity that has so comprehensively altered food culture, and food production, across the planet.
Of course, it wasn’t always obvious his impact would be so seismic. Rittman did not bang on the back-doors of Noma with his heart set on transforming Scandinavia into a gastronomic superpower - he just wanted to sell some mushrooms. Not everything is part of a master plan.
Look back through Rittman’s life however, and you’ll see that the ingredients were always there. He is a gifted salesman: persistent, charming, and utterly shameless. He is, as the head chef of The Alchemist, Rasmus Munk, told me, “impossible to say no to”. He does not approach restaurants - even world-famous restaurants - with trepidation or reverence; quite the opposite.
On the first night I arrived in Copenhagen, we went for dinner at Fiskebar in the city’s fashionable meat-packing district. Rittman waited through eight courses and four hours to approach Fiskebar’s head chef, Jamie Lee, with an order sheet, having kept his van’s engine running throughout the meal so that his produce would stay refrigerated.
He is also a profoundly educated man - a testament to the Nordic school system. Throughout his life, he has studied chemistry, sedimentology, biology, quaternary geology, German, French, and English. His spoken English is considered and erudite, delivered slowly with long vowels: the kind of phonemic overlap that shifts his accent from Scania to Sevenoaks and back again. He can tell you the name of any plant in his garden in Swedish, English, or the Latin nomenclature of that other great Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus.
And although he’s now in his seventies, Rittman is tireless - if he feels strongly enough about something, he will stop for nothing and no-one. For years, he had one enemy: the Barsebäck Nuclear Power Plant in Scania, which he dedicated the best part of forty years opposing and organising against. Rittman is still standing; Barsebäck is not.
He applies the same relentless approach to his new calling. Over the course of the three days I spent with Rittman, he was always on: Talking, driving from restaurant to restaurant whilst still trying to sell, sell, sell. It’s the kind of dedication that’s paid off - over the course of the six restaurants we visited, the respect with which Rittman is regarded became increasingly obvious. It’s no accident that when Borderless Co. published their bible of Scandinavian cooking, Nordic by Nature, recently, they handed him, along with Noma’s co-founder, Claus Meyer, the opening chapters of the book.
The romanticised image of the ‘wild man in his element’ is out in the fields, couched in kneepads and thermals, talking with the wind and the trees. The reality, nine times out of ten, is the van, and an endless labyrinth of suburban streets and back roads. Rittman’s van - which was always referred to as his “new car”, despite it being purchased in 2008 - is a white Volkswagen Transporter. In the decade in which he has operated from it, he has clocked up 300,000 kilometers on the road. In layman’s terms: seven and a half times around the world, or most of the way to the moon.
Rittman has been a cog in the fast-moving machinery of the restaurant industry for coming up to 15 years, and his reputation now precedes him. “He can get away with things that other people can’t,” one of his former colleagues told me. “Especially when it comes to dealing with top chefs. If anyone else but Roland burst through a restaurant’s backdoor five minutes before service, they’d be banned from the premises for good”.
I witnessed this phenomenon for myself while speaking to Søren Selin, head chef of the sumptuous, two Michelin-starred restaurant AOC, in the basement of Denmark’s Royal Palace. As we finished talking, and he prepared his brigade for service, Rittman - who had been asleep in his van, and therefore late in meeting us at the restaurant - swept straight into the kitchen area with his hair in a mess and his bright orange shirt one button lower than usual. Rather than shooing him away, Selin began chatting with him, and, before he knew it, was stood in the palace courtyard with Rittman, inspecting ramsons and rhubarb and sea arrowgrass.
This is how Rittman has established himself so firmly in the minds of his admiring clients: he brings with him an education. A walk out over to his van with him, chatting about seasons or supplies, will yield a hundred more ideas beyond what you can make with his produce. René Redzepi, in his latest book, The Noma Guide to Fermentation, credits a chat with Rittman for prompting the fascination which ultimately transformed his entire approach to cooking. It began, apparently, with a seemingly innocuous chat about salted ramson berries.
You could quite justifiably describe Rittman’s travails as “accidental success”, just as Redzepi describes his first forays into fermenting. After all, he has not spent his life battling for recognition amongst chefs and foodies. And while he’s not exactly dismissive of the adulation he now receives, he’s not particularly keen to capitalise on it.
This is not to say that he’s any kind of shrinking violet; he has graced the pages of many a newspaper since his initial clash with Tage Erlander, as he showed me with pride in his picturesque cabin in Anderslöv, on the Swedish side of the strait. But these appearances were nothing to do with convincing the public of the joys of eating wood sorrel - Rittman was trying to save the world.
Having developed a passion for the natural world at school, Rittman arrived at university with an interest in ecology and photography. In another happy accident, it was 1968, a year when seismic social changes were sweeping old certainties aside. The looming spectre of the hydrogen bomb hung over everything, and young people everywhere were asserting their voices in new, revolutionary ways.
Although he never subscribed to any particular party or ideology, Rittman told me he’d been inspired by Mao Zedong and the student leaders of the Cultural Revolution. “I saw how they didn’t wait for someone to hand them what they wanted,” he said. “They just went and took it - they made the change themselves.” Rittman’s targets - his “headquarters to attack”, to use Mao’s language - were Prime Minister Tage Erlander’s Ørestad plan: the forced megalopolisation of Scania and Zealand (the Danish island which houses Copenhagen); and more pressingly, the Barsebäck Nuclear Power Plant.
He took to every platform he could find in order to campaign against these twin evils; leading marches, staging protests, drawing press coverage, and co-ordinating agitation. He squared up for yet another showdown with a Prime Minister, taking on Erlander’s anointed successor Olaf Palme in 1971, and decrying him as a “vandal”.
“I started working as a labour journalist for the local paper,” he told me, “and interviewed every revolutionary who spoke at the university: from Rudi Dutschke to Stokely Carmichael.” He even took on a very Dutschke-style nickname - Kommunguerrilla - and had a spy in Lund’s kommunhus [town hall] reporting the municipal government’s activities back to him.
Sweden’s nuclear question came to a head in a referendum in 1980. The public were given a choice between closer control over nuclear power, or scrapping it completely. The option of controlling nuclear power won on a narrow plurality.
“They lied to the people”, says Rittman and in his eyes, “they did so to preserve their profits.” He had channelled all of his energies into mobilising support against Barsebäck and all other reactors for almost the entirety of the preceding decade; the defeat stubbed out his spirit, and left him without a path to proceed.
In a bid to bury his disillusionment, Rittman threw himself into education. He learned, in his words, “the history of nature from five million years ago, to the present day”. He gained a complex understanding of why everything was as it was, how long it had stood, and precisely why it needed defending.
He also started foraging for fun, putting his botanical skills to the test and surveying the region’s forests and coasts for the world of untouched produce hidden within them. If he found a mushroom, he knew to clean and test it before taking the risk of trying it. If he found a herb or weed, he knew that if he fried it in some butter, it would probably come out okay.
His deeper understanding of Scania’s unique ecology, forged over millions of years but now at the mercy of one reactor malfunction, re-emphasised what was at stake to Rittman. The scale of such a disaster would go beyond being a tragedy of the present - it would unwind the hands of time itself.
It’s incredibly difficult to separate what’s real, and what’s just in-the-moment, when eating in Scandinavia. The buzz around Nordic food is so aggressive as to be deafening. How much of it is hype? How much of it is holiday romance? After all, New Nordic is a contradiction in terms: there’s nothing new about the bounty of the natural world.
I tried to keep this in mind as Rittman walked me through his garden - a garden which, much like his house, seemed to be in one patch of an infinite field that stretched out as far as the eye could see. The fact that it was ‘his’ garden seemed more a formality than anything else; where your land ends, and others’ begins, didn’t really seem to matter in Anderslöv.
Before we even ventured five yards from his front door, Rittman had me picking and eating the wild thyme sprouting between his paving stones. He cautioned that even though it is “real thyme - thymus, in Latin”, it would taste of lavender. Step by step, we moved outwards, snacking on ribwort plantain, wild chervil, nettles, ground-elder, ‘poor-man’s-pepper’, sweet cicely: each find would be accompanied by a calm relaying of the plant’s origins, genus, and flavour. It was mundanity that felt like magic; an eden of limitless edibility.
Of course, to call it magic is somewhat missing the point. The entire purpose of the foraging movement is to demystify the common plants and weeds that surround all of us, and to demonstrate that Mother Nature’s bounty is everywhere, if you know where to look.
This is the cornerstone of New Nordic cuisine - whether chefs agree with it or not, or use foraged produce or not. It was a reaction to the archaic, binding ‘rules’ about what constituted fine dining. But the idea of returning to the land, and developing a culinary identity that has its roots in the natural order of life itself, was what really set this particular revolution apart.
At its core, this kind of cooking is a celebration of life: taking delight in the multivarious mushrooms and berries and herbs underneath your feet; the fish in your lakes; the ants on your trees; even the wild yeasts and bacteria in your air. Your land is alive, says the New Nordic doctrine, and so are you; and when you are no longer alive, the land will still live, as it always has. It is an ideology more than anything else - not merely a slice of radish and a pine needle on a plate - and it welcomes all converts with zeal. As the Australian Josh Finzel, of Borderless Co., told me, “you don’t need to be Nordic to be Nordic by nature.”
It is no coincidence that this mindset has blossomed alongside concern for the climate. After all what good is it feeling more connected to your land, and its millions of years of history, if you will watch it wither in your lifetime? Nuclear power, which terrified Rittman into radical action in the 1960s, has been long since overtaken by the fear of irreversible climate change.
We are approaching a moment of no return, something understood by the leaders of the New Nordic movement - Rittman included - since its inception. Their ambition is not to convince us all to regress to self-sufficiency (if it was, their message would not have resonated so profoundly) but they do want to shake you until you wake up, because if not now, then when?
Seen through this mindset, it is obvious that Rittman’s ‘retreat’ from environmental activism after the 1980 nuclear referendum was only ever tactical. Foraging and learning about the land merely fuelled his anger further, and the more he learned, the more of a thorn he became in Barsebäck’s side. While the cooks he would later supply - his fellow New Nordic Maquisards - were in chef school, Rittman was fighting the system.
He organised annual marches and cross-country cycles, more determined than ever to take down the plan that threatened the landscape he loved. In 1997, after years of persistence, he won, and the plant was decommissioned - the immediate threat to Scania, and the risk of total irradiation, was over.
If that victory was deliberate, the result of years of hard work, then the next stage of Rittman’s career was not. He simply came home one day with too many pied bleu mushrooms, and his wife, Karin, told him they were out of freezer space, and that he’d have to go and sell them somewhere.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past where - to everyone’s surprise, never mind his own - the name ‘Roland Rittman’ was a veritable brand in Scandinavia. Chefs would clamour to feature Roland Rittman chanterelles, Roland Rittman chickweed; a Roland Rittman starter, main, and dessert.
Diners would sit down, trepidatious with excitement, at some of the world’s most exclusive tables, after months spent waiting for seats to open up, booking hotels & flights, taking time off work, researching, saving spare change, picking out outfits - dreaming about dinner. In characteristically sparse language, their menu for the evening would read something like ‘Beef, tarragon, wood sorrel. Herbs from Roland Rittman Jordnära Natur & Kultur’, and they would consider, for a moment, why their restaurant felt the need to tell them. By the end of the meal, they’d leave feeling like they had the answer.
To maintain the illusion of these spontaneous bounties happening upon plates in exactly the right quantity each time, Rittman’s operation needed to grow beyond the casual selling of surplus mushrooms and yard nettles. He began employing a few trusted sidekicks: an English farmer who’d spent 25 years in Wales; an eager young nephew who spent his summers in between school helping out; a disaffected industrial agriculturist who had dreamt of getting in touch with the wild again. Working in a way that sounds almost unbelievably idyllic, they scoured Scania patch by patch, armed with little more than an order sheet, a Thermos full of coffee, and a sandwich.
Their schedule moved with the seasons; summers meant longer days, winters meant only earlier starts and more layers of clothing. Rittman would be the ‘face’: in charge of driving from restaurant to restaurant with their ordered produce, and a bit more from the previous haul - in case the chef might be interested in an extra kilo of mulberries, or a tray full of woodruff.
Things are much different nowadays. Foraging has become such an integral part of practice in some restaurants that chef’s brigades, such as Jamie Lee’s at Fiskebar, are sent out themselves to go find herbs for an evening’s service. Other restaurants, like Christian Puglisi’s Relæ, hold themselves to an organic certification, which - improbably - means that Rittman’s foraged produce would need to be found in a designated organic area.
Rittman was the first professional forager on the scene, but as happens with any originator, did not stay as the only one for very long: other producers, like Thomas Laursen, who is also featured in Nordic By Nature, offered not only foraged staples, but also unique ingredients like live ants, which have become popular in the modern Nordic kitchen. So how does Rittman, now a one-man and one-van band, remain such a constant, when the initial scene has splintered out into different methods, approaches, and styles?
In short, he persists. “I have struggled my whole life for things that I believe in”, he told me, “but there are more sides to me than just a fighter.” The world-class chefs who welcome him with open arms would surely agree; to them, he is a teacher. He spells out the secrets of nature, he provides answers, but he also sparks inspiration. He isn’t stopping quite simply because nobody wants him to, least of all himself.
By happy accident, this eco-revolutionary has found himself at the vanguard of a culinary movement that glorifies the natural world. As such, he’s found himself with a larger platform than ever for the cause that’s always been closest to his heart - the protection, in perpetuity, of the wild beauty of Scania. It might not have been part of a master plan, but Roland Rittman is now closer than ever to realising that ambition.
Kieran Morris is Junior Editor of Amuse. Keep up with him on Twitter.
Danijel Bogdanic is a freelance photographer, based in Copenhagen. Keep up with him on Instagram.
‘Nordic by Nature: Nordic Cuisines and Culinary Excursions’, where Rittman, Laursen, Petrini, Munk, Lee, Puglisi, and Selin are featured, was compiled by Borderless Co., and published by Gestalten. It is available to buy through their respective sites. Keep up with Borderless Co. on Instagram.