Beyond the Valley of Lefse

Kaffe Stuga

Radisson Hotel South

7800 Normandale Blvd.; 893-8473

Blackey's

639 22nd Ave. N.E.; 789-5326

Taste of Scandinavia

North Oaks; 482-8876

Downtown St. Paul; 222-1100

St. Anthony Park, St. Paul; 645-9181

My great-great-great grandparents all seem to have come from the endlessly war-torn areas of the Polish-Russian border, and I can't imagine what they possibly ate. Potatoes? Butter? As much vodka as they could get their hands on? Whatever it was they were eating is what I should base my current diet on--at least according to one chapter in Prevention magazine's new book The Complete Book of Alternative Nutrition.

The book quotes nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, who says, "Our ancestors didn't all eat the same way. They adapted to the types of foods that were available to them and passed this genetic coding on to us. Eating a diet that's really balanced to your chemistry and genetic requirements gives you the best insurance for long-term health." Gittleman goes on to explain that people from herding cultures can drink milk for their whole lives, while people from vegetarian cultures are often lactose intolerant. Which makes sense. Then she goes on to say that everyone with type O blood should eat only game and vegetables; people with type A blood should eat a lot of fish and some grains; and type B or AB people should eat whatever they want--which is where Ms. Gittleman begins to seem faddish and unsubstantiated, and we part company.

I got to wondering what you, you readers, would eat if you harkened back to your ancestral heritage, and I concluded that a good number of you would end up at the smorgasbord offered every night at Kaffe Stuga. For $9.50 you're presented with every one of the key all-you-can-eat ingredients to a traditional Scandinavian meal: three kinds of herring, sliced cheeses, sliced ham, lefse, flatbread, rye and pumpernickel bread, yellow pea soup, pickled beets, potatoes, baked cod, and a changing variety of entrees that might include something traditional, like a pork loin served with a cherry sauce, or something more nouvelle (in a hotel buffet sort of way), like black-bean chicken breasts. (On Saturdays, prime rib is part of the buffet and the cost is $14.95. Kids 5 and under eat free.)

It's a fun buffet if you're eating on the Scandinavian side of it--the pea soup is absolutely delicious, thick and robust with chunks of ham and carrots. The trio of herrings--in tomato sauce, cream sauce, and pickled--are all very good, and it's nice to be able to eat them with the appropriate breads and cheeses. The pork loin and cod were both homey and substantial; the pork loin tart with cherries, the cod tender--but they both were slightly rubbery from sitting over a steam pan for a long time. The cheeses--Jarlsberg, cheddar, and Havarti when I visited--were all fresh. Homemade desserts like the wonderfully creamy rice pudding topped with lingonberries ($2.50) or the homemade apple pie ($2.75) in a nut-brown, flaky, milk-brushed crust were super too. When you order coffee the waiters sociably bring you big thermos pots and leave them at the table. While there's no Aquavit, this absolutely hidden restaurant in the belly of the Bloomington Radisson South does a swell job of letting you feel like you're eating in Helsinki--though the hotel-standard decor and Muzak might make it feel more like the Helsinki Radisson South.

Blackey's bakery is also hidden, in the most nondescript brick box of a building you've ever seen in a residential area of Nordeast Minneapolis sort of near Jax. But it's well worth the hunt. Svea Ernst moved here six years ago from Denmark, where she ran a bakery, because she and her husband "wanted to do something crazy." They bought Blackey's, which had been a Polish bakery for 80-odd years, and introduced a selection of Danish treats that are absolutely astonishing. The rugbrod, a traditional Danish pumpernickel, is a mountain of a bread. It's big, weighing in at over three pounds a loaf; it's as dark as strong coffee in the sunlight, it's sharp from the rye sour that leavens it, it comes either studded with wheat seeds and sunflower seeds or plain, and it's simply excellent in every way. This bread is, by the way, the all-important base for those famous Danish open-faced sandwiches. Svea told me that people drive in from Wisconsin and buy 20 loaves at a time to freeze, and that she has customers all over the country getting bread by mail order. It's easy to see why--one slice of this rugbrod and you feel so energized and healthy you could take down a reindeer.

As for the sweeter stuff, Svea imports her almond paste and pastry margarine from Denmark. Her kransekage (almond-paste cookies) are cake-soft and delicious, and her kringle--a 27-layer pastry stuffed with custard and coated with almonds--is delectable in a way that makes you almost feel sorry for the Danish customers she left behind. Almost.

Pastry lovers in Finland became equally unlucky when Soile Anderson immigrated here from Svaonlina to head the Deco restaurant in the Minnesota Museum of Art. When museum remodeling forced the restaurant out, Soile opened Taste of Scandinavia, which has now expanded into three locations around St. Paul. Fresh-baked pulla sit happily in the cases like fat little birds; these light Finnish sweetbreads are scented with cardamon, scattered with raisins, perfect for a fancy brunch or an afternoon coffee, and simply delicious. Her Swedish limpa bread is an airy sweetbread flavored with orange zest, and her Norwegian milk-bread is, in my book, just about the perfect loaf of sandwich bread--it's tender, slightly elastic, and tastes plain and whole and good. Soile also bakes a repertoire of fancy Scandinavian cookies, traditional whipped-cream cakes, and lavish tarts and tortes, some filled with imported Swedish cloudberries or lingonberries. The Taste of Scandinavia stores are a miracle of butter, almonds, and care, all based, Soile says, on the idea "that people really like to have coffee. We drink lots of coffee back home, and we have to have something really good to go with that cup of coffee." Which seems fair enough.

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